Saturday, June 27, 2015

Theodore Sturgeon (author)

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Theodore SturgeonI’ve been watching Sense8 on Netflix and have been following the commentary on it.  Some have compared it to Philip K. Dick, but the clearest precedent is one of the great writers of the genre:  Theodore Sturgeon.

Sturgeon was born as Edward Hamilton Waldo but changed his name at age 11 when his mother remarried.,  He started publishing in 1937 – mainstream stuff, it seems – but switched to science fiction,  where his first genre story, “Ether Breather,” appeared in Astounding in 1939.

Sturgeon was a prolific short story writer, and he quickly became noted as one of the top names in the genre.  His first truly original story – and most influential -- was “It,” in 1941.  “It” established the concept of a vegetation-based monster like Swamp Thing, The Heap, and Man-Thing.  It’s also a masterpiece of horror, with a scare in it that has rarely been duplicated.  Sturgeon’s monster is scary because it’s not evil, which means its actions cannot be predicted.

“Shottle Bop” from the next year is one of the first in the mysterious shop subgenre of fiction and “Microcosmic God” – about a man who creates a whole civilization of people – is still considered one of the greatest sf short stories of all time.  Some of my other favorites include

  • “Two Percent Inspiration,” a slight story, but one Sturgeon loved for pulling off three plot twists at the end.
  • “Killdozer!” about a sentient killer machine; it’s been dramatized a couple of time.
  • Baby is Three,”  the introduction of the concept used in Sense8.
  • “Mr. Costello, Hero,” a devastating attack on Joseph McCarthy and the modern culture of surveillance.*
  • “The World Well Lost” – Aliens have (for the time) a terrible secret.  Maybe the first sympathetic treatment of homosexuality in the genre.
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea
  • “When You Care, When You Love” – mostly the story of a loving relationship, with a twist at the end.
  • “If All Men Are Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”  Not only a great title, but probably the most dangerous of the Dangerous Visions.
  • “It Was Nothing, Really” – a lighter piece about force fields and toilet paper.
  • “Slow Sculpture” where a woman and a scientist heal each other by their presence.
  • “Not an Affair” about a seduction and a disease that has surprising consequences for the human race.

There are many more.

Sturgeon’s best known influence is from two TV scripts her wrote for the original Star Trek: “Shore Leave” and “Amok Time.”  In the latter, he created the concept of pon farr, wrote the line “Live Long and Prosper,” and suggested the Vulcan salute.**  And, of course, he’s known most widely for Sturgeon’s Law:  “90% of everything is crap.”***  He’s also known in science fiction for his credo, “Ask the next question.”

He only had a handful of novels published.  Sturgeon both preferred the short story and also seemed to go through periods of writers block, which may have caused him to stay away from longer work.  One of his best novels overall wasn’t even under his own name:  The Player on the Other Side was an Ellery Queen novel that Sturgeon wrote with advice from Queen.

It was a cliché of the time that Sturgeon wrote about love.  It’s basically true, but his stories were not just simple romances.  They explored the possibilities of relationships of all types.

Sturgeon was anthologized all over the place during his lifetime; anyone who read SF anthologies would come across his name.  He also had several collections published.****  And, like most short story writers of his era, he’s slowly fading away.  His complete short works are available for completists, and anything republishing stories from his time frame will include something of his.  But reprint anthologies are more for the long-time fan than anyone new.

But he deserves to be listed as one of the true greats of the field.

*It was made into a radio play and I was surprised to learn the name of the characters was pronounced COS-tuh-lo.

**Though Nimoy determined what exactly it would be.

***This was in reply to someone saying that 90% of science fiction was crap.  Note that there are various other words used instead of “crap.”

****One was probably the cleverest title ever given to an anthology:  Caviar.  Think about it.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Spot on. Totally influenced by the "bleshing" in "More Than Human."