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The Nail and the Oracle
Volume XI: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon
North Atlantic Books, 288 pages

The Nail and the Oracle, Volume XI: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon
Theodore Sturgeon
Born Edward Hamilton Waldo in 1918, he changed his name to Theodore Sturgeon in his early teens. He sold his first story, "Heavy Insurance," in 1938 for $5 to McClure's Syndicate for publication in newspapers. The sale of "The God in the Garden" to Unknown was his first published SF story. His novel, More Than Human, won the International Fantasy Award. His story, "Slow Sculpture," won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. He died on May 8, 1985, and he was posthumously awarded the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award.

Theodore Sturgeon Literary Trust
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Dreaming Jewels
SF Site Review: More Than Human
SF Site Review: To Marry Medusa

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

It is now generally accepted as a truism that Theodore Sturgeon was the best short story writer to emerge from science fiction. Perhaps even, so a lot of his advocates would claim, one of the best short story writers in American literature. It's a big claim. But it is not always supported by the evidence.

The trouble with a claim like that is that it is too easily parsed as: every word he wrote is golden. That is the sort of thinking that lies behind a project such as The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, which has long since turned in to one of the biggest projects in the history of SF. How else explain why so much of the early volumes was taken up with stories that had been (justifiably) unpublished at the time? The truth of the matter is that Sturgeon was a jobbing writer, turning out stories to put bread on the table. In such circumstances much of his output was hasty, written for a specific market, unconsidered. At his best, yes, he was one of the finest short story writers we have seen. But he was not always at his best. One of the things this exhaustive and exhausting series demonstrates is how much that is mediocre surrounds those stories on which his reputation deservedly stands.

This eleventh volume follows the same eccentric chronology as its fellows: the stories are arranged not in order of publication but in order of composition, as far as that can be determined. This is not necessarily an exact science. This volume, for instance, contains a story called "Hold-up la Carte" which first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in February 1964. The blurb that accompanied that original publication reports that Sturgeon happened upon the story in 1962 in a file of old and unpublished work. It is clear, therefore, that on the strict chronological structure of this series, the story should have been published a number of volumes ago.

Except that we have no idea when, prior to 1962, Sturgeon actually wrote a story that he had clearly forgotten by the time of its rediscovery. Certainly the story feels out of place where it now appears, and it is interesting to note that the original blurb described it as old-fashioned, a "period piece... that will remind you of the good old days". Now, another 40 years on, it feels positively antique. It tells of a robbery at a small, late-night diner foiled by a distraught and lovelorn waitress, and it is absolutely packed with coincidence and contrivance. There isn't a sentence in the story that rings true. If you were to put this story, unattributed, in front of anyone and say it was the work of the best short story writer in science fiction, you'd get some very peculiar looks.

This volume takes us, with the slight detour of "Hold-up la Carte," from stories first written in 1957 to stories first written in 1970. There is something strange about both cut-off points. The first story included here, "Ride In, Ride Out," written with Don Ward, is a cowboy story that was probably written in 1957 but first published only in 1973; and it is the only story that does not date from the 60s, as if really it should have been tucked on to the end of the previous volume rather than added to the beginning of this volume. At the other end of the book, the last four stories included here -- "Jorry's Gap", "Brownshoes", "It Was Nothing -- Really" and "Take Care of Joey" -- are four of the so-called "Wina" stories, written under the influence of the woman who would be his fourth long-term partner. Yet there were more than four Wina stories, they filled his 1971 collection Sturgeon Is Alive And Well, and it seems curious that the editors have not thought to keep this body of work together in one volume.

What we have, therefore, is 12 stories written over a period of 13 years that effectively chart Sturgeon's relationship with the 60s. If ever there was a writer who seems ideally suited to that liberated, hedonistic decade, it should be Theodore Sturgeon. His fiction had assumed an ease with sexual matters, and in life (as Harlan Ellison reports in a typically bombastic introduction) he was prone to casual nudity. Yet the 60s did not seem to suit him at all. His productivity declined sharply (the Wina stories marked the beginning of a late flowering, but that is for a subsequent volume), and the stories he did write tend to ignore the mores of their age or else approach them with a noticeable dis-ease. Only two of the stories in this collection really seem to connect with their milieu, and they are the only two that make a serious contribution to his reputation as a writer.

Although Sturgeon was primarily a science fiction writer, and clearly at his best in the genre, like most writers who emerged out of the pulp tradition he was ready and able to turn his pen to any type of story. This collection, therefore, includes one cowboy story, two crime stories and a mainstream piece. They are, without exception, the weakest stories here. The cowboy hero of "Ride In, Ride Out" arrives in a small town, treats himself to an unlikely gourmet meal, decides to treat himself to a brandy at a saloon, which therefore misidentifies him to a bunch of bad guys, but when he talks his way out of their clutches he returns with his guns strapped on. Not only is it impossible to imagine anything like these circumstances really happening in the old West, but the story is as tritely written as it is tritely constructed. The crime story, "Assault and Little Sister," is a sour piece that is the only story in the collection calling upon us to condemn a character, in this case an ugly woman whose ugliness inspires her to make a false accusation of rape. While the state of the nation story, "Jorry's Gap," appears to run directly counter to Sturgeon's own beliefs by presenting the sex-and-drugs lifestyle of the late 60s with unequivocal dismay.

Even the weakest of the SF stories -- "The Nail and the Oracle", "Brownshoes", "Take Care of Joey" -- are better than those. But even here there is a sense of someone not quite connecting with his milieu. "The Nail and the Oracle", for instance, appeared in 1965, but you will search it in vain for any note of new wave sensibility; rather this contrived confrontation between three power-hungry men and an all-knowing computer reads like second-rate Asimov from ten years earlier, complete with clumsy twist ending. Both "Brownshoes" (also published as "The Man Who Learned Loving") and "It Was Nothing - Really!" are stories about the social consequences of invention, the first a perpetual motion machine, the second about the tensile strength of nothing. The copious story notes (a feature of this volume as of all the others) describe both as being about the then current concern of how to save the world, but that isn't a reading of either story that would strike you as immediately obvious. Rather they are about the need to protect both yourself and your invention from the military or from big business (the two are presented as virtually interchangeable), but also about the risk of losing one's integrity in the process. There's a certain pseudo-hippy idealism in this, but it is the primary motivation of neither the plot nor the characters. "Take Care of Joey", which hovers somewhere between mainstream and the fantastic without fully deciding to be either, has a professed idealistic core, one man's quest to find a person prepared to act for others without getting anything in return. But everything in the story is mechanically structured to lead towards the moral of the tale without over-much regard for realistic characters or circumstances.

Other than these, there's a collaboration with Harlan Ellison, "Runesmith," about the man responsible for unleashing hell on earth. Supposedly written in homage to Cordwainer Smith, though it bears no resemblance to anything Smith might have written, it is actually a story that owes far more to Ellison than it does to Sturgeon. And there's a sports story, "How to Forget Baseball," which is really about how even a good man can be corrupted by watching violence. Both of these are good, though hardly star turns by a prose master. But there are two stories here upon which Sturgeon's reputation can comfortably rest. "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" was Sturgeon's contribution to Ellison's Dangerous Visions, and is the one story here where Sturgeon gives voice to his instinctive sexual laissez-faire. It is a long hymn to incest, though that is really just a disguise for an all-round sexual freedom. Because he was deliberately playing up the transgressive nature of his story (following the brief for Dangerous Visions more closely than many of the contributors), this story can be loud and hectoring, and the sense of a planet whose every inhabitant is looked upon with hatred by the rest of the universe yet whose sin is comprehensively hidden from the public doesn't altogether make sense. Nevertheless it is a beautifully constructed and, when our narrator finally gets to Vexvelt, an oddly lyrical story.

Even so, it pales beside the best story here, "When You Care, When You Love." This was apparently planned to be the first part of a novel that was never completed, and we can only count that as one of the greatest tragedies of Sturgeon's career. It's a long story, but it is so carefully put together that you dare not remove even a sentence for fear that the whole structure would fall apart. Yet for all the delicate precision of the construction, there is absolutely nothing mechanical about the story at all, and unlike "If All Men Were Brothers...". Sturgeon never feels the need to raise his voice. It is, of course, a love story, and its plot is not all that uncommon.

Sylvia Wyke is a representative of a clan surprisingly common in SF of the 50s, the richest person in the world but completely unknown to the world at large. There seemed to be a moral sense that ran through a lot of the SF of the time that public wealth was sinful, so if you wanted to give a character the power of unlimited money you had to give them secrecy to assure their moral status. Inevitably, Sylvia falls in love with a poor boy, but the contrast between their wealth, their experience of the world, has no part to play in this story.

Rather, no sooner have they married than Guy dies, but Sylvia is not going to allow her great love to be snatched away from her like that and bends all her fabulous wealth towards beating death, towards restoring her Guy. How this is done is revealed in a throwaway line early on when this is described as "the story of the boy who became his own mother." Unfortunately the story ends at the point of rebirth: the raising of the new Guy, Sylvia's own frozen sleep until he reached the right age, and the question of whether their love could survive these circumstances, were all left for the parts of the novel that were not written. Still we have this beautiful, moving and delightful opening, that just perhaps demonstrates that Sturgeon was worthy of this tremendous effort.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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