Theodore Sturgeon: From Pulp to Sculpture

This review is racing against mortality.

One of the most ambitious, valuable, entertaining, doggedly exhaustive and artistically triumphant projects in the whole realm of the American short story is near to culmination, its landmark finale just a year away.  Conclusive assessments of the worth and impact of this project might well wait until then, you would imagine.

But the guiding light behind the endeavor, Paul Williams, is ailing.  Indeed, as he continues to suffer progressively from early-onset Alzheimer’s triggered by a severe brain injury, Williams—for decades a legendarily creative force in the worlds of music and science fiction—might already be beyond the point where any kudos can reliably reach him.  (You can read about his history and status here.) Nonetheless, with the publication of the penultimate volume in this series, it feels morally imperative to pay Williams and his subject, the writer Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985), full tribute while Williams is still with us, in body if not in unmaimed spirit.

Our saga begins, in the public’s eye at least, in 1994, with the appearance of The Ultimate Egoist:  Volume I:  The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon.  Lauded by the congnoscenti as perhaps the finest stylist ever to grace the fantastical genres—at least until the advent of certain newer writers such as Gene Wolfe and John Crowley—and as one of the most humanely empathetic, psychologically complex, boldly controversial and wildly imaginative storytellers in the English language, Sturgeon had labored, Kilgore-Trout-style (he was indeed Vonnegut’s inspiration for unsung, self-sabotaging genius Trout), in pulp markets and paperback-original formats for his whole career.  This new hardcover enshrinement of his work would rescue it from obscurity and make it available to scholars and general readers in a comprehensive and affordable fashion.

Introductions to every volume from notable writers who felt indebted to Sturgeon’s work would cement the case for his genius.  Moreover, copious biographical and story notes would give the stories context in both Sturgeon’s sometime tumultuous life and in the history of the field.  Finally, not only would the canonical stories be presented in chronological order, but obscure and unpublished work would be discovered and mortared into proper place.

Such was Paul Williams’s far-reaching, far-seeing program of heavy literary lifting (he had previously assembled the five volumes of Philip K. Dick’s short fiction), and the initial Sturgeon volume carried out the editor’s dream to perfection.  Introductions from Ray Bradbury, Gene Wolfe and Arthur C. Clarke.  The revelation of heretofore undiscovered manuscripts.  Insights into the young Sturgeon’s motives and circumstances, hopes and fears, triumphs and setbacks.  All splendidly arrayed.

Abiding by the strict chronological presentation scheme meant that this first volume contained mostly journeyman work—not necessarily the surest way to hook newbie readers.  But The Ultimate Egoist features at least two genuinely masterful hits:  “Bianca’s Hands,” and the unforgettable horror story “It,”  — written in a ten-hour burst during Sturgeon’s honeymoon!  Surely enough to entice readers to stay.  And by following Sturgeon’s publication history so faithfully, the series as a whole embodies a thrilling narrative arc, as we get to watch a startling talent gain confidence, mature, and reach for the stars.

Upon publication, I reviewed The Ultimate Egoist with high praise, just as I have reviewed all the subsequent ten volumes over the course of the following fifteen years, and just as I will now review the twelfth, Slow Sculpture, the first not to feature notes by Paul Williams.  (Sturgeon progeny Noël capably takes over.)  It is tempting for me to embark on a capsule summary of the highlights of each book:  so many fine stories to relish that one feels almost embarrassed by Sturgeon’s fecund generosity.  I could play the game of trying to pick a favorite volume, or the volume that best represents the peak of Sturgeon’s talent.  Certainly Volumes VI through IX inclusive (covering the years 1950-57)  represent a highwater mark, and offer perhaps the core of Sturgeon’s accomplishments.

But there is hardly enough time or space here to delve deeply into the first eleven books—not if we hope to examine book twelve comprehensively, and to convey some of what made Sturgeon great.  (Why Dolphins Don’t Bite, the final assemblage, is slated for October, 2010.)  Suffice it to say that each entry in the collection replicates the loving care lavished from the start, and offers the unique pleasures of its temporally dictated table of contents.

Containing stories from the period 1970-72, Slow Sculpture nonetheless opens with an out-of-sequence story deemed too large to fit in its proper place earlier.  “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff” hails from that core period I identified above, the year 1955.  It does nearly everything Sturgeon was renowned for, and can stand as a primer for newcomers to his work.  

The premise of the novella is simple:  aliens secretly resident on Earth are conducting a survey of our species, seeking to identify whether mankind possesses a certain crucial feature of mind.  Their laboratory is a boarding house filled with a motley assortment of lost souls, each damaged in some intriguing psychological manner.  As the aliens—disguised as the homely old man and wife who run the residence—poke and prod at the humans, the people interact in dramatic fashion, until a final crisis brings out the best in all of them.

This synopsis conveys, I hope, Sturgeon’s essential methodology: while his science fiction premise is pivotal, his main focus is on the human element.  Drama—even melodrama—is rife, but rich portraiture of minds, characters and subconscious mechanisms is the author’s real passion.  Everyone turns out to be a mix of hero and villain.  There are no easy answers to life’s problems, only better and worse adaptations.  Hope wins out over despair, but at a cost.

As for Sturgeon’s prose, consider this:  “At last she let her eyes open to see again, and although they saw nothing but the open door, it was as if some of Sam’s comfort slipped in with vision.  She turned around, and around again, taking in the whole room and reaping comfort and more comfort from the walls, as if Sam had hung it for her to gather like ripe berries.  She put it all in the new empty place within her, not to fill, but at least to be there and to live with until she could get more.”

The concretization of an emotion as ripe fruit strikes me as brilliant.  But I know that for some, Sturgeon’s attempts to embody emotional states in metaphors approaches the twee and fey.  Your mileage may vary.  Yet such passages are always complemented by poetic renderings of hard-edged physical realities, as Sturgeon depicts the human soul banging up against the irrefutable parameters of the universe, spirit trapped in meat, yet often glorying in the paradoxical carnality.  In this same story, the conflagration that consumes the boarding house and tests to destruction the bodies of the characters is rendered with meticulous camera work, so to speak, and propulsive narrative energy.

Nor did Sturgeon portray only shy and vulnerable and saintly types.  He could inhabit the psyches of some real stinkers.  The primary example in this volume is the narrator of “The Girl Who Knew What They Meant,” an utter cad and rotter who lets a woman sacrifice herself for him, then abandons his posthumous duties to her.

“The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff” reveals Sturgeon as an heir to and contemporary of such romantic ashcan realists as William Saroyan, James M. Cain, Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets and Eugene O’Neill.  His social conscience ensured that while he could write convincingly about those in power, his sympathies would always lie with the common man and underdog.

The rest of the stories in Slow Sculpture offer a wide array of situations, characters and themes, ranging from hardcore futuristic SF (“The Patterns of Dorne” and “Crate”) to contemporary mimesis (“It’s You!” and “Suicide”) to mixed hybrid forms (“Uncle Fremmis,” “The Verity File,” and “Occam’s Scalpel”).  The title story, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, riffs ingeniously on the cliché of lone genius inventor, linking talent and beauty with the twisted growth of a stressed being, via the symbol of a bonsai tree.  The topic of world-saving, of rescuing humanity from its own worst impulses, so central to the early Seventies and startlingly relevant once more  forty years later, was much on Sturgeon’s mind here.  And finally, Sturgeon delighted in poking at hidebound morality and conventional wisdom, always seeking to overturn what “everyone” believed to be true.  This volume offers the rudest and most simplistic iteration of that impulse with “Pruzy’s Pot,” the off-color conceit of a living toilet.

If one central theme emerges from this particular volume of Sturgeon’s work, is it that of the necessity of change and growth, for individual humans and whole societies.  Time and again, Sturgeon illustrates that comfortable stasis and the seeking of “stability” is a soul-killing, culture-killing trap.  “Societies need growth and change—to live, just like trees or babies or art or science.” (From “Dazed.”)

Surgeon’s own inevitable, often challenging changes as a creator—he endured numerous years of writer’s block, and moved through five significant relationships with women, fathering seven kids—speak to this very process.  In this volume, some thirty-five years into his career, he could still affirm that all the wracking tumult of a life thoroughly inhabited, through all days dark and light, was worth the playing.  Samsara is nirvana, to employ a Buddhist perspective.

And it is thanks to the efforts of Paul Williams—and the marketplace perseverance of publisher North Atlantic Books—that we lucky readers have been able to share Sturgeon’s life and outpourings to this remarkable degree.