By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1333) It’s the centennial year of Theodore Sturgeon. Let us salute him.
He left seven novels, one published posthumously; two hundred shorter stories, republished in two dozen collections, then fully in The Complete Stories, thirteen volumes 1995-2010, a labor of love – I use the word deliberately – by Paul Williams, Debbie Notkin, Noël Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, and a host of others.
Hundreds of book reviews, for Galaxy, Venture, Twilight Zone, National Review, The New York Times, and Hustler while Paul Krassner was editor, are so far uncollected.
The sounds above open “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959), title tale of Complete Stories vol. 10, whose editor found it apparently the first science fiction chosen for The Best American Short Stories (i.e. 1960).
Best was edited 1941-1977 by Martha Foley (1897-1977), whose magazine Story had introduced J.D. Salinger, William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, and in 1938 gave first prize to Richard Wright; Best had previously introduced Sherwood Anderson, Edna Ferber, Ernest Hemingway; Foley’s own first story, published in the Boston Girls’ Latin School magazine, was “Jabberwock”.
An Ellison story was in the 1993 Best (“The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”; the oceanic coincidence does not seem substantive, although Robert Bloch, who like Ellison was both a fan and a pro, said Ellison was the only living organism he knew whose natural habitat was hot water).
Ellison wrote the foreword to Collected Stories 11, which volume includes one they co-authored (see Partners in Wonder, 1983), a Western co-authored with Don Ward, two from mystery-fiction magazines, and one from Sports Illustrated.
In 1952 Sturgeon said a good science fiction story was one “built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content”. That was before “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff” (1955) – which one of our finest editors, Anthony Boucher, put into one of our finest anthologies, A Treasury of Great Science Fiction (vol. 1, 1959). Come to think of it –
In theory science fiction and fantasy are distinct. In practice – well, I don’t want to decide whether, say, “Seasoning” (1981), which I apparently rate higher than the editor of Collected Stories 13, is science fiction or fantasy, or in what sense we are to suppose the two characters know what is happening at all.
“Yesterday Was Monday” (1941) must be fantasy. But another of our finest editors, Groff Conklin, chose it to open another of our finest anthologies, Science Fiction Adventures in Dimension (1953). It’s been translated into Dutch, Finnish, French, German, and Japanese, and reprinted two dozen times. Its protagonist, and other characters, don’t know what’s happening.
In “The Skills of Xanadu” (1956), another candidate for Sturgeon’s best, the protagonist doesn’t know what’s happening. Everybody else knows.
The title character of “The Comedian’s Children” (1958) – another candidate – is the only one who does know what’s happening. If the protagonist of a story is the one who changes, that may be Nobel Prize scientist Iris Barran; she finds out. This is a transformation story. We transform. There is a bad guy. If his immense talent were not genuine, there would be no story. Is he sympathetic? Well –
Sturgeon also said Science fiction is knowledge fiction. If the best puns resonate in each meaning, this is one of our best. Consider the Latin root of science.
Robert Heinlein (Collected Stories 3, p. 367; from his 1985 introduction to Godbody): “Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and almost the right word was the difference between lightning and lightning bug. Sturgeon did not deal in lightning bugs.”
Isaac Asimov (v. 3, p. xi): “He had a delicacy of touch that I couldn’t duplicate if my fingers were feathers.” Connie Willis (vol. 12, p. ix): “he was writing about different things…. problematic, dangerous … ultimately tragic…. in a simple … style…. Like Fred Astaire, Theodore Sturgeon made it look easy.”
Samuel Delany (v. 2, p. x): “The range of Sturgeon’s work is a … galaxy of … dazzling and precise lights shining out against … ordinary rhetoric…. the single most important science fiction writer during the years of his major output – the forties, fifties, and sixties.”
Ellison (v. 11, p. xiii): “He could squeeze your heart till your life ached.”
Horace (The Art of Poetry, l. 143 – two millennia ago): “His thought is not to give flame first and then smoke, but from smoke to let light break out.”
Sturgeon became fond of Ask the next question, and used as an emblem a Q with an arrow through it. I never asked him about Ask the previous question.