Theodore Sturgeon

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Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction and fantasy writer who did his best work in the 1940s and 50s, but is still worth reading today. I don’t know much about his life, except that he was a brilliant writer. Although his first collection of short stories wasn’t very good–it shows a writer serving his apprenticeship by first writing artificial stories before learning to write something real that people might respond to deeply–his next two collections were amazing. He wrote a few novels too, also very good, but his best work was short stories or novelettes. I don’t know if that’s significant or not, but some artist prefer a smaller canvas.

Somewhere I read that he had a bad, abusive childhood, about which I know no details, but it does make his work more interesting because one of his frequent themes is that of the outsider longing to be accepted. He could get into the heads of a variety of people, and show why they did what they did, good or bad.

Science fiction and fantasy may have given him some advantages, but one disadvantage was that it probably didn’t pay as well as mainstream fiction at that period. And since his best work was about human beings, I doubt he needed a science fiction or fantasy framework. Maybe he just preferred that.

I think most writing, and maybe most art, is about morality or ethics in some way, and so was his. One such ethic, explicitly reflected on, was survival. That’s deeply ingrained in us, but there are different levels of it. The most important level is survival of the species, then of the group, and the individual only last. If the individusl survives at the expense of the group or species, that’s likely to be an evil.

Not that a majority is always right. Sturgeon wrote a short story showing homosexuality among both aliens and humans (the latter not literally enacted), and a number of people thought he was gay after he published it. Apparently not, from his own and others testimony: he was just compassionate.

Like anyone else, people who have been abused have some choice in their responses. They can allow the abuse to destroy their lives (which can be difficult to avoid), or they can transcend it. I don’t know what kind of abuse Sturgeon suffered (though some of his child characters are abused), and I don’t want to trivialize what a lot of people have suffered, but Sturgeon seems to have transcended whatever he did experience. He looked for love, and found it, as evidenced in his own writings and the recollections of others.

Interestingly, he seems often to have suffered from writer’s block, which may have something to do with the odd perspectives his stories take. For instance, a man diswcovers a voodoo doll that works, and finds a distinctly odd and sitastefall way to destroy it. Or an alien race whose individuals vomit up their digestive systems into the faces of attackers. There are others, but I won’t extend the list.

Probably his greatest novel (which is really three interrelated stories) is More Than Human, about a possible next step in human evolution: what might be called Homo Gestalt. It’s something like individual as family: different individuals have different functions, but are part of something different from a traditional family in ways not easy to define. The main difference is that all the individuals seem strange to the outside world, not least in having psychic powers.

The first component is an idiot–literally. But he has telepathic and hypnotic powers that help him survive and develop to the limited extent he can.

The second is a little girl, also somewhat telepathic, who has psychokinetic powers: she can move objects with the power of her mind. She takes up with twin black girls with speech impediments who can teleport (travel from place to place through mental powers).

The idiot lives for awhile with a farmer and his wife on an isolated farm, helping them, learning from them, and through that interaction reaching something approaching normal human functioning. The farmer’s wife gives birth to what looks like a mongoloid child, and dies. The mongoloid child turns out to be something analogous to a computer, though he never learns to care for himself. He never learns to talk either, so the only one who can interpret what he says is the psychokinetic girl.

With the addition of him, the parts are all assembled: the girls as hands and feed, the mongoloid computer, and the idiot as the head. With human contact he’s developed as far as he’s able, but he’s biologically incapable of very wide horizons. Some time before his accidental death the group takes in a boy, who subsequently replaces the idiot. The story goes on from there, but Sturgeon’s viewpoint is clearly shown in the characters he chooses to form this Homo Gestalt: all of them societal rejects for one reason or another. Most of us wouldn’t bother to look for talents in what seems to be such unpromising material. Sturgeon implicitly chides us for that.

There are analogies to such a group in nomal human life: families, tribes, cities, nations, corporations, musical groups, sprots teams and armies are some, but those are approximate, not equivalent. All are similar in terms of the whole being more than the sum of its parts (when the group works really well, which historically isn’t consistent), but not all are as intimate. Some experience something akin to telepathy in playing sports or music together, but this seems not to be an ability that’s reliable in any other circumstance. And human groups tend to have internal bickering or one person tyrannizing over the others. So does the one described. The group may be more than human, but not THAT much more.

If we take the American nation as an example, the framers of the US Constitution attempted to eliminate the possibility of tyranny (but not of bickering), and did a very respectable job of that, but human ingenuity still managed to find opportunities.

And there’s always the question of the individual versus society. Where does each individual’s rights end, and those of society begin? It’s impossible to see the answer to that as every being cut and dried. There’s always a balancing act. Sometimes individuals demand too much from society, sometimes the other way around. It’s useless to demand that the individual be selfless unelss he or she is willing to demand it of him or herself.

But Sturgeon sees real life as connection. That’s what his characters want, though not all can attain it. In writing about life he writes about love, and what it can achieve. The individual may love, and if so, he or she has hope. Without love there’s no hope.

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