[The Introductory Post Bibble-Babble: Hi! People have been expressing an interest in getting thursdaytales up and running again, and that is definitely (hopefully) happening! Entirely separately and coincidentally, Gaudy Mouse and I (mostly Gaudy) were playing around on Twitter with the idea of a series of posts spotlighting genre writers and works that aren’t as well-known today as they should be. This is the first of those. (I should note that anyone with an idea and the inclination is free to do their own, too!) If it sounds a bit like older, grumpier fans trying to foist some learnin’ on the younger generations... well, yeah, it’s that, too! We’re greying, we’re crotchety, we’re the SPACE FOGEYS! End Bibble-Babble, Consarn It!]
You’ve probably heard of Sturgeon’s Law: Ninety percent of everything is crap. (The actual quote was more along the lines of, “Sure, ninety percent of science fiction is crud. Ninety percent of everything is crud.”) You may be aware he wrote the scripts for two of the best-loved episodes of the original Star Trek series, “Shore Leave” and “Amok Time” (the latter giving us our first view of the planet Vulcan, its inhabitants’ seven-year mating cycle and the state of plak tow, and the first use of the greeting, “Live long and prosper.”). You may even know Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout character was rather heavily based on him.
But have you ever actually read any of Theodore Sturgeon’s work? Because I am here to tell you, brethren and sistren: if you haven’t, you are missing out on one of the major talents of classic science fiction and fantasy. His stories influenced practically everyone in the “New Wave” SF movement of the 1970s and ‘80s, from Harlan Ellison to Joanna Russ. He was one of the first “soft” SF writers, exploring ideas from areas like biology, sociology and psychology. He wrote in a clear, bright, at times almost playful style, doing much to humanize the “scientifiction” genre, constantly coming back to the themes of loss, loneliness and, perhaps most importantly, love.
He was damn good, is what I’m saying. Sturgeon didn’t win that many awards during his career, probably because there simply weren’t that many genre awards during his heydey (though he has one named after him now). He was never the most prolific writer - less than a dozen novels and around 200 short stories, and his output fell off in the decade or so before his death in 1985. But the best of his works are gems that stand right up there with Heinlein or Bradbury or Asimov or Clarke or anyone else you’d care to name.
I’m going to continue with some capsule tastes of my favorite Sturgeon stories, avoiding spoilers whenever possible:
More Than Human is the work Sturgeon is most widely known for. Expanding on his novella “Baby Is Three”, it follows a group of marginalized people (some with severe physical and mental disabilities but all possessing extra-normal gifts) who come together over time to become the first example of Homo gestalt, the next phase in human evolution. “X-Men before X-Men” would give you a general (albeit slightly misleading) idea of its flavor. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn it was an influence for Straczynski and the Wachowskis on Sense8.
The Dreaming Jewels is a neat little Bradburian tale of dark science fantasy. An abused boy runs away to join the circus, and gets caught up in the sinister machinations of its owner. Oh, and there’s a beat-up Jack-in-the-Box named “Junky” you will remember forever.
I’ve only ever read The Cosmic Rape in its edited (probably not by Sturgeon himself) form, To Marry Medusa. But the original was highly praised, and I suspect the editing was done mainly to get rid of his usual sneakily subversive takes on social mores and sexuality. This is world-conquering hive-minds done right, kids.
Venus Plus X is sexxy as hell for something written in the 1960s. A modern man is flung into the far future, where male/female dimorphism no longer exists and he’s seen as an awful throwback to the bad old days. Or is that what’s really going on? I ain’t sayin’. One of the first, if not the first, SF novels to tackle what we’d today call LGBTQ issues in a thoughtful manner.
I haven’t read Sturgeon’s other two genre novels. Godbody, his last and published posthumously, seems to be considered “a good first draft” (even he was reportedly unhappy with it). But I’d definitely like to read Some Of Your Blood, a modern tale of vampirism with some interesting little twists.
The Short Stories
“It” (no, not the Stephen King novel or movie, this was decades earlier) is a surprisingly moving tale of horror. It just about had to have been an influence on certain DC and Marvel characters who tend to hang around in swamps. I’ll say no more, except to note that there’s a monster, an isolated rural family, and a lonely little girl. Oh, and without giving too much away, the last line will haunt me forever:
“Rule Of Three” has a premise that sounds very cheesy in capsule: three aliens discover that Earth is infected with a “psychic virus”, and that’s why we’re all such awful sumbitches. Do they wipe us out before it spreads to other worlds, or try to cure us? But Sturgeon handles it deftly, sneaking in his trademark commentary on mores and the relative sanity of same.
“Bright Segment” will give you all the feels. I can’t even really discuss it without giving too much away. A severely challenged man finds a woman at death’s door and nurses her back to health. The ending will both shock you and break your heart.
“Occam’s Scalpel” is “Alien Autopsy” for grown-ups. Ever wonder why the super-rich seem to want to mess up the environment? Ends with a double twist.
“If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” was Sturgeon’s contribution to Ellison’s first Dangerous Visions anthology. It’s about exactly what you think it’s about.
...and if I go on about my favorite Sturgeon shorts we’ll be here all day.
“Good News, Everyone!”
Happily, most of Sturgeon’s fiction is still in print. There’s even a 13-volume set of his collected works, though that would probably be going a bit overboard for most people. But his novels and short story collections are available at reasonable prices in both physical and electronic formats. I’m including a link at the end here to his Amazon author’s page, for anyone interested.
Check him out, why don’t you? You won’t be sorry.