Why I Like… Theodore Sturgeon (in three stories)

“Bright Segment” (1955, in the collection Caviar) displays Sturgeon’s stylistic abilities as a writer. The story is about a slow-witted, lonely man, and is written in suitably plain language, with simple statements and and-joined sentences. This was my first encounter with this sort of writing (Hemingway is of course the main one known for writing like this, and Roald Dahl (in his early stories) and Ian Fleming took the technique from him). Sturgeon has a very flexible, often poetic, writing style, but “Bright Segment” shows him tightly focused in one cut-back voice, and using it very effectively. The plainness of the sentences and the simple actions keep you close-up focused on what the protagonist is doing, as he finds an injured girl in the street outside and very carefully, very consideredly, sews her up and nurses her back to health. The protagonist’s concentration comes out in the writer’s, and so comes through to the reader who is (I was, anyway) quickly involved in the story, and thoroughly hooked by the action. Here’s the beginning:

He had never held a girl before. He was not terrified; he had used that up earlier when he had carried her in and kicked the door shut behind him and had heard the steady drip of blood from her soaked skirt, and before that, when he had thought her dead there on the curb, and again when she made that sound, that sigh or whispered moan. He had brought her in and when he saw all that blood he had turned left, turned right, put her down on the floor, his brains all clabbered and churned and his temples thumping with the unaccustomed exercise. — “Bright Segment”, by Theodore Sturgeon

(Another example of Sturgeon as wordsmith is “Killdozer”, which is somewhat more difficult to read. This one is written from the point of view of some men using heavy digging equipment, and Sturgeon has both the nomenclature and the feel of using such equipment spot on.)

“The Professor’s Teddy Bear” (1948, Weird Tales, also in the collection E Pluribus Unicorn) always leaves me stunned at what a bizarre story it is. How does someone come up with a plot like this, and make it work? It starts with a young boy being put to bed for a daytime rest by his mother. He’s laid down with his teddy bear, who turns out not to be a teddy bear at all but some sort of parasitic psychic vampire that feeds on the boy’s future. It encourages the little boy to fantasise about events in his life to come, and change them to make terrible things happen, and as they happen, the creature somehow manages to feed on the blood that will be spilled. Then we’re actually in the future, as the boy, now a grownup university lecturer, recalls a vague memory of having once thought about being in this particular hall, delivering this particular lecture, and having the feeling that something terrible is about to happen to the brown-haired girl in the audience, and can he stop it? Sturgeon has a wonderful audacity as a storyteller, often hitting the reader with it from the first sentence and not letting go.

But it’s “A Saucer of Loneliness” (Galaxy, 1953, and again in E Pluribus Unicorn) that goes to the core of what struck me most forcefully about Sturgeon when I first encountered him. He’s a great wordsmith, and an original storyteller, but here you see how he always uses the science fictional, fantastical or horrific ideas behind his stories to talk as openly as possible about the most vulnerably human side of his characters. In “A Saucer of Loneliness”, a young woman is standing in a park in the middle of a large city when a small flying saucer descends, hovering over her head and making some sort of brief contact before leaving. After this, the girl is pursued by government agents, sensationalist reporters and UFO nuts, all wanting to know what the saucer said. She refuses to tell anyone, to the extent of living a life virtually cut off from human company, because the message the saucer gave wasn’t the usual science fictional one — it wasn’t a warning about an oncoming disaster or a scientific secret — it was a personal one, a message in a bottle sent out across the universe from one lonely being to another, and not meant to be shared with governments and other less-than-human organisations.

There are many Sturgeon stories I could mention, and many wonderful moments where a line of description lights up an otherwise average Sturgeon tale (a description of desert cacti, for instance: “It was sahuro country here, and all about they stretched their yearning, other-worldly arms upward, as if in search for a lover who might forget their thorns”, from “Cactus Dance”), but that’s three to be getting on with…

(There’s an excellent Sturgeon page here, including a pretty thorough bibliography.)

Pilgrimage by Zenna Henderson

Subtitled “The Book of the People”, Pilgrimage is a fixup novel about a group of humanlike aliens stranded on our world (rural America in the 1950s — which is when the book was written) after their spacecraft, fleeing a destroyed homeworld, breaks up in Earth’s atmosphere. The People are enough like us to not only pass for human, but to successfully mate with us and produce children; the main difference is that they have ESP-like powers, including telekinesis, telepathy, and so on. (Though these powers are distributed — most can telekinese, but individuals also develop specific, specialised powers, which is an important point: the People are only fully realised when part of a community.) Quickly learning that, on Earth, “difference is death”, the People hide their powers, either living in isolated communities, or, separated from their kind, try to forget their powers and live as humans. There are even some second-generation People, and human-hybrid children, who have been brought up ignorant of their alien origins, and who, with the onset of adolescence, inevitably enter a troubled phase where they start to feel their difference from what they had assumed to be their fellow human beings all the more keenly.

Zenna Henderson was a contributor to the SF & fantasy magazines of the 50s and 60s, and her stories of the People are her most well known writing. She doesn’t seem to have produced anything of true novel length, so Pilgrimage is perhaps the closest we have. (Her main books are two collections of People stories, Pilgrimage and The People: No Different Flesh, and two more general collections, The Anything Box and Holding Wonder.) Pilgrimage glues together a number of People tales with the story of Lea, a suicidal young woman saved from killing herself by Karen, one of the People, who gently mocks Lea’s despair, turns her leap off a bridge into a gentle downwards float, then takes her to the People to listen to their stories, and thus be healed of her never fully explained angst.

The result is a series of often quite powerful fables of belonging and discovered identity. Zenna Henderson was a teacher, and many of her protagonists are teachers, too, often itinerant, which is an excellent way of getting them into odd rural communities, or of witnessing the troubled coming-into-power of “different” children. One episode, “Pottage”, is about a teacher who goes to an isolated, apparently highly Puritan community in which any natural expression of joy in the children is discouraged, to the extent of them being taught to drag their feet while walking, and certainly never to run or skip. This turns out to be an extreme form of the People in hiding — feet-dragging is meant to prevent these children from being tempted to “float” (use their telekinetic powers). (This episode was turned into a 1972 TV movie starring William Shatner.)

Still from The People TV movie

The style, and subject matter, of Pilgrimage often reminded me of one of my favourite early SF & fantasy authors, also active at the same time, Theodore Sturgeon. Both use SF & fantasy as a way of exploring the more intimate and emotional aspects of the human condition; in fact both used the possession of unusual powers, and the way this both isolates an individual and leads to a potentially greater fulfilment through community with similarly talented outsiders — think of Sturgeon’s gestalt of incomplete but ESP-powered people in More Than Human, for instance. Both write quite openly, sometimes floridly, but often almost casually, of the more intense human emotions, which might be misread by some as sentiment, but both also have too much a sense of the necessary difficulty of life to be truly sentimental. I was worried, though, while reading Pilgrimage, that Henderson’s having all her characters believe in a benevolent Presence or Power (the People often quote from the Bible) while never really questioning Its role in the trials and severe difficulties they are put through, would make the book unreadable for me. It didn’t happen, but was something I felt needed to be explored or explained more fully. (It was perhaps too much a part of Henderson’s own worldview for her to feel she should, though.)

Lea’s framing story didn’t achieve quite the point of resolution I was expecting, making me feel the book was perhaps missing an ending for her, but the final story, “Jordan”, was perhaps the best in terms of its exploration of the meaningfulness of the People’s tribulations. A spaceship arrives from a planet that another branch of the People have colonised. These are People who didn’t crash, and who have retained their technology and way of life, to the extent of moulding this new planet into a virtual facsimile of their lost Home. Although this is exactly what the Earthbound People have been hoping for, being presented with others of their kind who seem slightly divorced from the tough realities of life presents a quandary. Do the People really want to take this passage to a new “perfect” homeworld, or do they want to remain on Earth, and continue with the hard-fought life they’ve earned for themselves?

The Anything Box, by Zenna Henderson. Cover art by Hector Garrido.

This is the second Henderson book I’ve read. The first was The Anything Box, a collection of non-People SF & fantasy stories, many of which covered similar themes. (I reviewed it a while ago on Amazon.) I have to say that, though I can see how the People series was the perfect setting for an exploration of those themes, my favourite Henderson writing is still to be found in The Anything Box — the title story, about a young girl who escapes from domestic troubles by gazing into an invisible box in which she can see whatever she most desires, is such a pure fable of escape and imagination, it makes for a perfect short fantasy story. (Plus, it has a wonderful cover.) Zenna Henderson’s writing is not for those who can only tolerate modern styles, I think, but for me she’s certainly one of the more interesting and meaningful writers from the pre-New Wave era of SF & fantasy.

Spock

Captain’s log, supplemental.

I’ve now worked my way through the whole of Star Trek‘s first season, and have watched the first episode of the second season. The thing I like most about the show — the first time around and this — has to be Spock. He is, aside from the obvious technological trappings (the Enterprise, phasers, “warp factor eight”, “beam me up”) the most science-fictional aspect of the show, being its only regular alien. The alien as unemotional, wholly logical entity was surely a bit of cliché even by the mid-sixties, but the fact that Spock was a main character meant it was something that could be explored in a bit more depth, and so you quickly go beyond the cliché. (Thanks in great part, of course, to Leonard Nimoy’s acting, which lends Spock a great deal of dignity, even managing to withstand the increasingly regular habit of Kirk & co. to end each episode with a joke at Spock’s expense. If it’s not his relentless logic, it’s his pointy ears.)

But Spock gets some of the best jokes. His way of distracting a guard prior to giving him the Vulcan nerve-grip, for instance: “Sir, you have a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.” I remembered that from the first time I saw the series, and it was a little joy to rediscover. Also, when McCoy breaks off an argument with Spock to ask, “Shouldn’t you be working on your calculations?” and Spock says, coolly, “I am.” (One more Spock joke for the road. “You never told me if you had another name, Mr Spock.” “You couldn’t pronounce it.”)

The interesting thing about Spock, as a character, is how he is basically characterised in relation to the people around him. You could imagine a show featuring only Kirk — in fact we get several episodes where Kirk is isolated and has to work on his own — but it’s impossible to imagine a show with only Spock in it. Spock, on his own, would be dull. It would be just him looking into his readout device, occasionally nodding to himself, occasionally raising an eyebrow. He only comes to life, as a character, when his unemotional, logical nature is brought into contrast with the emotional, irrational nature of humans. This is an extreme example of what story guru Robert McKee calls “cast design” — where aspects of a character are brought out only by having other (usually minor) characters act as contrasts to them.

Even Spock having one of his emotional episodes — this being the main surprise his character is capable of, and so is, as a result, something that happens quite regularly — only makes sense when he has something to feel about, which means other characters. The archetypal episode in this sense is “Amok Time”, the opener of the second season. This has to be my favourite episode so far (and a better one, in my opinion, than the episode usually slated as the best Star Trek ever, Harlan Ellison’s “City on the Edge of Forever“). Here, we get Spock as a teenager, moodily refusing to explain what’s making him so miserable, then retreating to his cabin to pluck disconsolately on his Vulcanian harp. “Amok Time” was written by Theodore Sturgeon, one of my favourite writers (it is, in fact, the second of two episodes he wrote for Star Trek, the first being “Shore Leave”, a much less characteristic episode). “Amok Time” is, it seems to me (unversed in Star Trek fandom as I am) something of an equivalent to Doctor Who‘s “Deadly Assassin“, where we finally get to see the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey, and as a result the mythology of the whole programme moves up a gear. In fact, I’d say “Amok Time” had an effect not only on the way subsequent Star Treks built their universe of alien races, but how other (mostly US) TV SF programmes define their alien cultures, too. “Amok Time” gives us not only Spock’s famous split-fingered salute (“Live long and prosper”), but hints at the existence of an entire, ancient culture through one of its key rites of passage. This is something you see time and time again in subsequent SF TV — the Taurons’ gangsterish tattooing and coming-of-age get-togethers in the recent Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica, for instance. I have to admit, this approach usually irritates me, as it seems a bit superficial. In Caprica, the Taurons’ invented rituals just seemed to have been lifted from other, existing cultures — Yakuza tattooing, Jewish bar mitzvahs — and modified a bit to make them alien, but in “Amok Time”, the ritual is linked to a specific aspect of Vulcan biology. It has a reason; it’s not merely striving for an effect. As a result, it works.

The most character-defining moment in “Amok Time”, though, is not the rite of passage, or Spock’s adolescent moodiness beforehand, it’s the moment his realises he hasn’t killed Kirk at all, and is, for a second, genuinely happy. He quickly collects himself, but from then on you know that, beneath all the illogicality and decorum, Spock is, really, just one of us. And no doubt part of his personality is down to the role he sees himself as playing as part of the Enterprise’s family — he consciously defines himself as “the one who’s not human”, and does his best to act that way. Cast design, then, is a two-way process.

But I bet he enjoys those jokes at the expense of his ears as much as the rest of the crew.