Theodore Sturgeon Essay - Critical Essays

Theodore Sturgeon Short Fiction Analysis

In a commercial literature devoted to galaxy-spanning concepts of paper-thin consistency, mechanical characters of whatever origin (human, alien, metal, or chemical), and wooden verbal expression, Theodore Sturgeon was an anomaly as early as 1939, when his stories began appearing in science-fiction magazines. A writer more of fantasy than of science fiction, whose predilection for words over machines was immediately apparent, Sturgeon was concerned with specific fantasies less for themselves than as means to the end of writing about human beings and human problems. Unlike those of so many of his colleagues, his tales usually take place in small, circumscribed locations, where love and healing can overshadow lesser, more conventional marvels and wonders.

Although style has always been somewhat suspect in science fiction, Sturgeon (along with Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury) fought a rear-guard action throughout his career. His example speaks louder than theory about the importance of words, especially in terms of the planned resonance of images and the conscious manipulation of symbols to invite emotional responses to his romantic, even utopian view of the relationship between human beings and their technologies. Viewing “science” as “wisdom,” he wrote of the search for wholeness, often without the aid of conventional means of attaining knowledge. He was antimachine in a way but more opposed to people’s self-enslavement to mechanical procedures, be they metal or mental. Illustration of these themes calls forth as often as not a kind of fantasy that bears a close relationship to magic, events being caused by words and gestures. His is not a “science” that tediously accumulates and interprets observations of the world as it can be measured with instruments fashioned by and limited to the rational capacities of human beings.

There is no typical Sturgeon story, so varied is his surface subject matter, which includes many traditional science-fiction “inventions” and “discoveries,” space travel, planetary exploration, matter transmission, cloning, alien contact, and paranormal powers among them. Sturgeon’s stories usually speculate on love and sex in terms often considered radical for their market. Like D. H. Lawrence, he showed concern for the roots of human behavior in publicly repressed areas of behavior and thought; like Lawrence, too, he may have exaggerated the usefulness for everyone of his own particular cures. More sentimental than Lawrence, he was also more experimental, obviously with respect to subject matter but also in terms of literary forms, playing with chronology, point of view, and other elements of storytelling in a way highly unusual for science fiction prior to the mid-1960’s.

Sturgeon sold some remarkable “horror” stories in his early years of writing, such as “It,” told from the point of view of a putrescent monster as dead as it is alive, and “Bianca’s Hands,” about a man in love with, and eventually strangled by, the hands of a girl who has the mind of an idiot. In “Killdozer,” he created a masterpiece of contemporary terror in which two members of an eight-man construction crew on a deserted Pacific island barely withstand and defeat a malevolent alien consciousness which has taken possession of one of their bulldozers. The television motion picture made from this story did not do it justice.

“Microcosmic God”

The most anthologized of Strugeon’s early pieces, however, is “Microcosmic God,” whose popularity he resented because its relatively clumsy handling and apparently ruthless attitude toward certain life-forms are uncharacteristic of his best work and his own self-image.

Primarily narrative, what dialogue there is being rather stiff and self-conscious, “Microcosmic God” is somewhat of a self-parody, with its protagonist a “Mister Kidder” and his antagonist a stereotyped grasping banker named Conant who would exploit Kidder’s discoveries to take over the world. Almost lost in the reader’s obvious antipathy to Conant’s manipulation of human beings is its direct parallel to Kidder’s even more ruthless manipulation of the tiny conscious beings whose evolution he has accelerated purely to satisfy his own curiosity.

Explicitly science fictional, the story is not rooted in practical experience with the details of construction machinery which makes “Killdozer” so dramatically convincing. Kidder’s literal creation of an entire race for experimental purposes is couched, rather, in more theoretical and conceptual detail. The story’s headlong pace races past problems in verisimilitude, in keeping with the simplistic morality of good (Kidder) versus evil (Conant), but intrusive commentary by the narrator reminds the reader sporadically that this is a fable, even if it does not specifically single out Kidder for censure.

Characterizing Kidder only minimally—both men are comic-book figures—the story shows his impatience with other people, with orthodox science (he claims no academic degrees), and with practical applications for his findings. In Conant, his alter ego, the reader sees explicitly the potential for abuse in his work, which reflects back on Kidder’s own amorality. A god to his creatures, Kidder is a stand-in, not for the “mad scientist” whose image Sturgeon specifically disavows, but for the shortsighted tinkerer, representing all those who endeavor by mechanical means to improve the lot of human beings. The danger within the story is that, when Kidder dies, the creatures will conquer...

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