Selected Stories by Theodore Sturgeon
(Vintage, $14.00, 439 pages, paperback; November 2000.)
Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was one of the great craftsmen of science fiction's pulp era. Like so many of his contemporaries, he excelled at the short story, novelette and novella, yet had difficulties with the novel form; his most famous "novel", More Than Human (1953), is an uneasy fixup of three novelettes that are individually excellent. In many of his stories he conformed to the pulp medium, writing tales that might just as well have been produced by any of the forgotten host who churned away earnestly for magazines that have often enough themselves been forgotten. But ever and again Sturgeon transcended the medium entirely to produce stories that could probably have sat more comfortably in slicks like The New Yorker. Quite why his pulp editors published these is something of a mystery, but publish them they did -- and in so doing they contributed to the process whereby fantasy/sf, pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, established itself as a literary form rather than an adventure genre.
Any book of Sturgeon's work that is called Selected Stories and that comes from a mainstream publisher is therefore exceedingly welcome: it is long past time that he was recognized as, at his best, a major contributor to the American short story of the 20th century who just happened to work with sf, fantasy and horror. And initially this compilation looks the part, containing 13 stories of which most are long and two are very long. There are some very fine stories here -- make no mistake about that -- but there are also some very fine stories that are not here, and which should be; and some of the stories in this collection are pretty mediocre.
There may be some sound reason for this odd selection, but unfortunately the book has been published without any editorial apparatus -- even the original publication dates of the stories are omitted -- so we have no idea what principles the anonymous editor followed. Are these stories chosen as examples of phases of Sturgeon's career, or are they intended to be some kind of "best of the best" (which they're assuredly not)? We have no way of telling.
Among the significant omissions are "Microcosmic God", "Baby is Three" (the core story of More Than Human), "If All Men Are Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister", "A Saucer of Loneliness" and "The World Well Lost"; other readers may immediately be able to identify additions to this list.
Nevertheless, some of Sturgeon's very finest tales are indeed here, and it is a delight to re-encounter them. "Thunder and Roses" conveys the moral bleakness of a post-Holocaust world as well as any tale ever has. "The Golden Helix" captures the transcendence both of alien contact and of humanity's potential role within the Universe's grand scheme of things. "Bianca's Hands" is a superb horror fable that initially had difficulty achieving publication in the USA because, while never explicit, it is rooted in the warped sexuality of its protagonist. "Bright Segment" is another horror tale of great charm in that its physically monstrous protagonist, who also in the event behaves monstrously, is nevertheless portrayed with great humanity and compassion, so that he is the object of our understanding and sympathy rather than our revulsion. "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff" is a long and moving exercise in character depiction that might have been even better had not sf elements been grafted onto it, but is in all conscience quite excellent the way it is. And "Slow Sculpture" retains all the freshness and passion it had when first published.
Mixed in among these are some stories that are jolly enough without being in any way exceptional. "The Skills of Xanadu" takes a long time telling something very simple; Eric Frank Russell would have done the same in half the wordage and twice as effectively -- and made you laugh at the same time. The famous and I would suggest hugely overrated story "Killdozer!" takes an interminable amount of time to tell its simple tale of a machine being possessed by what could be the Devil but is, rather, quasi-scientifically rationalized: it's the sort of tale with which to while away a tedious train journey; it is no more than that. "The Sex Opposite", "A Way of Thinking" and "The Man who Lost the Sea" are standard magazine fodder; they're not bad, but neither are they very good.
And then there are a couple of tales which are less good even than this. "Mr. Costello, Hero" serves as a reminder of why the magazines of fantasy/sf's pulp age either transformed themselves or died. At best one could describe the tale as an extremely inept satire of Soviet-style communism -- one of those pseudo-satires that is ineffective through misrepresenting its target. At its worst it's just a rather flabby tale. The horror story "It", while again well known, is really just an overinflated squib, with a plot resolution that bears all the marks of having been stuffed in hastily at the last moment.
Once all of these criticisms have been taken into account, however, one's still left with a heck of a lot of pages of prime Sturgeon for one's $14.00. While this compilation cannot sensibly be regarded as a "Best of", one could name countless authors whose "Best of" collection would not be as good as this. If by some bizarre chance you're unacquainted with Sturgeon's work, this is an adequate introduction to it. If you're more seriously interested, you might be better with the ten-volume (seven so far published) Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon announced at the back of this book, and for which this book might be regarded as a somewhat quirkily chosen sampler.
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© John Grant 7 April 2001