Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 940
Theodore Sturgeon (STUR-juhn) was one of the most important writers of short stories and novels within the American science-fiction and fantasy genres between about 1940 and 1960. His great concern for characters and emotions was unique at a time when most of the works in those genres were concerned with...
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Theodore Sturgeon (STUR-juhn) was one of the most important writers of short stories and novels within the American science-fiction and fantasy genres between about 1940 and 1960. His great concern for characters and emotions was unique at a time when most of the works in those genres were concerned with plots and settings. He was born Edward Hamilton Waldo; his name was changed when he was adopted in 1929. Because of a ruthlessly strict stepfather, Sturgeon’s childhood was unhappy, a situation only made clear in the posthumously published Argyll: A Memoir. His childhood also provided much material for his fiction, in which characters feel compelled to be cruel with the best of intentions (in stories including “Cellmate” and novels such as The Dreaming Jewels).
Sturgeon attended high school in Philadelphia. In his early teens he showed great promise as a gymnast, winning a national title on the horizontal bar and having high hopes of becoming a circus performer. When he developed rheumatic fever, his stepfather would not allow him to be ill, insisting that he must go to school. This worsened the condition and ended his circus ambitions. He escaped from home by going to nautical school; there he observed and suffered from the misuse of authority, so that he developed the antiauthority stance which he maintained for the rest of his life. After running away from the school, he became a merchant seaman.
At the same time, in his late teens, he was writing stories. The first of these appeared in 1937 in newspapers owned by the McClure syndicate. This gave him the confidence to leave the merchant marine and, from about 1938, to live in New York as a full-time writer. His first science fiction story, “Ether Breather,” was published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in September, 1939. Many of the stories which followed it were fantasy-horror stories which appeared in Unknown magazine. Sturgeon worked hard at writing stories, but it was a poor living, and in 1940 he was afflicted by the first of a series of writer’s blocks.
Trying to escape from these, and also needing more money because he had married in 1940, he tried a string of different jobs. He worked as a hotel manager in the West Indies, as a steward in the U.S. Army, and as a bulldozer operator in Puerto Rico. This last experience led to the writing of one of his most popular stories, “Killdozer” (published in Astounding in 1944) about a bulldozer which achieves sentience.
By the mid-1940’s, Sturgeon was back in New York, working as an advertising copy editor, a literary agent, and as editor of Tales of Tomorrow magazine. One of his noted stories from this period, “Bianca’s Hands,” was considered too terrifying for publication in the United States, but it won a competition run by the British magazine Argosy, appearing there in 1947. At this time, Sturgeon was placing about a story a month, mostly science fiction and fantasy-horror but also crime and Western.
He married for a second time in 1949 and for a third in 1951. His first novel, The Dreaming Jewels, was published in 1950, originally as a magazine story in Fantastic Adventures. It features a young man who escapes from cruel stepparents by running away to join a circus, in part a wish-fulfillment version of his own life. The 1950’s were a very fertile time for Sturgeon. He continued to produce stories prolifically, many of them being gathered together in several collections. His novel More than Human, about the forming of a gestalt by several talented but incomplete individuals with psychic powers, was well accepted by critics and readers; it won the International Fantasy Award in 1954.
By 1960 he had succumbed to another writer’s block. Although he kept busy during the 1960’s, editing, writing articles and reviews, and doing teleplays and novelizations of screenplays, he was never again to write fiction freely. He had built up a great following over the previous fifteen years and was widely regarded as the most important writer in his genre. The prestigious The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction dedicated an issue to him (September 1962), an honor given to only a handful of writers.
In 1970 Sturgeon returned to the top of his form with the science fiction story “Brownshoes,” which received the Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1980 he produced a fine horror story, “Vengeance Is.” He worked spasmodically on a big, new science fiction novel (Godbody, only published after his death, and which proved disappointing). He married twice more, and he continued to write reviews and articles, some within the science-fiction genre but also for the men’s magazine Hustler. His stories were frequently reprinted in new collections that overlapped with older ones. In his last few years he was a frequent attendee at science-fiction conventions, where his urbane conversation was always welcomed by large numbers of fans.
When Sturgeon died in May, 1985, with his fifth wife and six of his seven children in attendance, there was a great outpouring of grief from writers and readers alike. He was a very popular figure, charming all who met him and giving freely of his time and experience to anyone who asked. He was responsible for a useful definition of science fiction: a story built around humans, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have occurred without a scientific content. Sturgeon sometimes said that this was only meant to refer to a good example of the genre. He also originated Sturgeon’s Rule, that 90 percent of everything is rubbish. Sturgeon showed that science fiction should look not so much at future hardware or at alien bogeymen but into the hearts of people.