A Best of Sturgeon

OK, confession time. Theodore Sturgeon is the one author I’ve consistently put off writing about in my “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” column. A couple of reasons for this: I read him very intensively as a teenager, and am worried he won’t read as well now; there’s one core work you have to talk about (More than Human) and then some more peripheral stuff it’s difficult to choose between. But I also have a pretext-masquerading-as-a-reason: to talk about Sturgeon properly, you need to talk about his short fiction a lot, and none of the extant collections, to my mind, really contains all the good stuff. So, borrowing an idea from Jonathan, I thought I’d put together my own.

My self-imposed rules: collection to contain a maximum of twelve stories; material is ineligible if subsequently incorporated into novel-length works (so no “Baby is Three” or “To Marry Medusa”); no length restrictions other than that, but a selection consisting of mostly novellas would be considered Bad Form. My selection:

  • “Microcosmic God”
  • “The Man Who Lost The Sea” [[Well, obviously. Hadn’t quite clocked till I reread it quite how much like Tiptree it sounds, especially “The Man Who Walked Home”.]]
  • “Bright Segment” [[To my mind, the most successful of Sturgeon’s horror stories.]]
  • “A Saucer of Loneliness”
  • “…and my fear is great…” [[Sturgeon as lover of language and style at his best.]]
  • “The Skills of Xanadu”
  • “The [Widget], the [Wadget] and Boff”
  • “The Sex Opposite”
  • “The Ultimate Egoist”
  • “The World Well Lost”
  • “Slow Sculpture” [[Pretty much obligatory, given the rarity of late Sturgeon stories, and its status as Hugo and Nebula-winner]]
  • “‘I say…Ernest…'” [[A 3-page squib, essentially a retelling of an anecdote, but such a good anecdote, and one so emblematic of his world-view, that I can’t omit it.]]

A friend of mine keeps saying that one day he’s going to compile a book called Great Emo Stories of Isaac Asimov – containing the one percent of Asimov stories where he puts gadgets and ideas to the back of his mind and talks about emotions instead. [1] (Of the novels, The End of Eternity is the one that goes furthest down this track.) This selection is, unashamedly, Great Emo Stories of Theodore Sturgeon. Partly that’s because I feel that’s his peculiar strength – getting over a message about how human beings should and do interact. The gadget-y stuff in his stories, even in something as accomplished as “Slow Sculpture”, has not only dated but feels oddly extraneous to the story. And I find myself actively disliking Sturgeon stories that try to do more orthodox sf-nal things like “It” or “Killdozer!”. So… 1) What stories have I missed? 2) What would be your contents list?

And, while I think of it, I’m assuming people who read this will know that Paul Williams, who’s been undertaking the mammoth work of putting together the Collected Short Stories of Sturgeon, has been having health problems and could do with any help you might offer.

[1] Said friend has now declared himself, and published the contents list for Great Emo Stories of Isaac Asimov.

23 thoughts on “A Best of Sturgeon

  • June 16, 2009 at 3:48 pm
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    I would say that's a good table of contents, better than the existing Selected Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, although I would include "Thunder and Roses" as well. I had only read a few of his stories in various anthologies until this year, when I found a copy of the aforementioned book in my university library…and I found it a highly disappointing experience. Sturgeon has not dated well at all – his lyricism and naked sentimentality often overwhelms the genuine emotion of his fiction. However, I was struck with deja vu when reading "The Man Who Lost the Sea," because one of J.G. Ballard's finest stories, "The Cage of Sand," ironically appropriates and recontextualizes its last line as a New Wave clarion call to explore "inner space" – it's a direct literalization of his famous dictum that "Earth is the alien planet." Ultimately, I'd rather read Ballard – to my view one of the top three writers sf has ever produced – because the cool intelligence, wit, and precision of the prose of his dark and surreal stories far outstrips anything Sturgeon accomplished.

    –Spencer

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  • June 17, 2009 at 5:34 pm
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    I'd also add the stories "…And Now the News" and "Bianca's Hands" to pad out that list. And for irony and shivers, the story that is a scary reflection of his life and death: "That Low".

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  • June 17, 2009 at 6:21 pm
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    This is a good list, and I also agree with the suggested addition of "Thunder and Roses," but I believe three more should be included (on the basis that any collection that has room for the long novella "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff" could surely add a few more shorts): "Bulkhead," "Hurricane Trio." and (for comic leavening) "Derm Fool."

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  • June 17, 2009 at 7:59 pm
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    I'd have to include "It," to my mind one of the finest horror stories ever written, "Killdozer," and, perhaps my single favorite Sturgeon story, "The Other Celia." Have no argument, of course, with "The Man Who Lost the Sea," which may well be one of the best SF stories of the whole century. Always thought that "Saucer of Loneliness" was over-rated, just as I don't think that "The Nine Billion Names of God" is Clarke's best story, or "To Serve Man" Knight's.

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  • June 17, 2009 at 10:58 pm
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    I've re-read "Bianca's Hands" fairly recently and agree that it should definitely be on that list. This time around it seemed to me to be the best Flannery O'Connor story she didn't write.

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  • June 18, 2009 at 2:16 am
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    "… And Now the News" is essential. Can't possibly be left out. Only "The Man Who Lost the Sea" is better — and maybe not even that.

    I like "A Saucer of Loneliness" a lot. I think I can see why some people downgrade it — I do see where they're coming from (it's oversentimental and not really SF are the main complaints, and neither is really false), but still … still … it hits me really hard.

    Have never liked "Thunder and Roses" — if you want overrated Sturgeon, that's the one.

    I'd consider adding "Affair With a Green Monkey", and maybe "Mr. Costello, Hero". And I'd have no argument with adding "Bianca's Hands", though I have to say I'd rather have "A Good Man is Hard to Find"! "The Other Celia" would work fine as well. "Hurricane Trio" is good too.

    "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff" is a curious case. I'd include it, because at its best it's great. If he finished it like it started, it would be in serious contention for the best SF/F novella of all time. But he didn't. Still, even in its failure it is utterly pure Sturgeon.

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  • June 18, 2009 at 6:29 pm
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    "Maturity" might be a contender as well.

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  • June 18, 2009 at 7:16 pm
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    Thanks, all. I suppose I should insist that when you say "X has to be on the list!" you need to follow it with "Well, Y has to go, then."…

    Some thoughts on specific stories: "…And Now The News" was the one that just failed to make the cut on my list. "The Other Celia" and "Mr Costello, Hero" were very close, too. I'm with Rich on "Thunder and Roses". "Bianca's Hands" is one I've never quite got on with, though I recognise that may be a personal thing. I haven't read the three stories that gottacook mentions, or "Maturity" and "The Low". I recognise that there are problems with "A Saucer of Loneliness", but it does seem to me if not the best then certainly the most emblematic[1] Sturgeon story I know – the one where you feel he got his concerns on the page in purest form.

    [1] Yes, I know I over-use this word.

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  • June 21, 2009 at 9:52 pm
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    "…just as I don't think that 'The Nine Billion Names of God' is Clarke's best story, or 'To Serve Man' Knight's."

    Does anyone really think "To Serve Man" is damon's best story, as opposed to his most famous?

    I suppose some must, but I don't think I've ever noticed this being a particularly popular opinion. Maybe I just haven't been paying enough attention, of course. Also, a lot of people only know the story due to The Twilight Zone's adaption, just as a lot of people only know Bixby's "It's a Good Life" that way.

    Clarke's story is similarly gimmicky — and gimmick stories are highly memorable — but I'm inclined to think it's been overall held in somewhat higher regard in Clarke's oeuvre. Arguably "The Star" gets more praise, though? (I'd agree neither is Clarke's best short.)

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  • June 21, 2009 at 9:52 pm
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    Prompted by this, I've just posted my proposed table o' contents for The Great Emo Stories of Isaac Asimov over in my Livejournal. Thanks for the shout-out.

    Thanks even more for the Sturgeon list–I've always felt I hadn't read enough of him (I've read relatively little) and wondered where to go next.

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  • June 21, 2009 at 9:52 pm
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    Interesting list. I'll offer a different reading to one of your comparisons, however: Sturgeon's story "The Man Who Lost The Sea" is from 1959, Tiptree's "The Man Who Walked Home" from 1972. This is not a case of Sturgeon sounding like Tiptree, but rather of Tiptree sounding like Sturgeon.

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  • June 21, 2009 at 9:53 pm
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    Good list. Bright Segment is not sited as often as it should be, it is one of Sturgeon's best. But his very best is surely 'The Other Celia', my all time favourite short story. It has so much to say and yet is so short, hardly a wasted word, everything contributes to the overall effect.

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  • June 21, 2009 at 9:53 pm
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    Some good ones not yet mentioned:

    "The Touch of Your Hand" – A Vancian medieval/far future fantasy about hubris and unquenchable anger.

    "…And My Fear is Great…" a Van Vogtian morality play in the big city.

    "Talent" Did Jerome Bixby's script for the "It's a Good Life" episode of the Twilight Zone spring from this little horror tale?

    "The Hurkle is a Happy Beast" a phildickian romp. Short, fun farce.

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  • June 22, 2009 at 6:47 am
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    If you're looking for "the most emblematic[1] Sturgeon story I know – the one where you feel he got his concerns on the page in purest form", then you'd probably have to include "Dolphins Don't Bite" (1980), since it manages rather effectively, and not too cluckingly, encomapss mos of his themes and concerns of the last 20 years

    – matthew davis

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  • June 22, 2009 at 6:47 am
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    If you're going after "the most emblematic Sturgeon story I know – the one where you feel he got his concerns on the page in purest form", then you'd probably have to include "Why Dolphins Don't Bite" (1980), since it manages to cover most of his themes and obsessions of the previous 20 years.

    – matthew davis

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  • June 26, 2009 at 2:59 am
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    I'll just toss in votes for "The Professor's Teddy Bear" and "Vengeance Is" as two very different stories separated by lots of years that nevertheless highlight Sturgeon's considerable skills. I guess they stick in my mind because they are among the last few stories I read by him after practically overdosing on him in college.

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  • June 26, 2009 at 2:59 am
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    I think you should also consider 'The Graveyard Reader', Sturgeon's most moving story of redemption by love.

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  • June 26, 2009 at 9:00 pm
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    Thanks, all. Anonymous people, a general note: I don't mind you being anonymous, but could you give me and everyone else some kind of name, even if not a real one, to refer to? Otherwise – especially since comments here aren't numbered – conducting the conversation gets difficult.

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  • June 27, 2009 at 7:49 am
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    Point taken regarding anonymity. Your 'Selected Stories' is exemplary and I would probably buy it even though I have most of the stories. It's a mark of Sturgeon's richness that people can come up with so many other choices.

    My own dozen would include several not yet mentioned. 'The Pod in the Barrier' is a neglected longer story (which incidentally makes use of the anecdote retold in "I say…Ernest…").

    Your list could perhaps use a fantasy for balance. Cue another plug: Boris Karloff and John Christopher (of 'Tripods' fame)both chose 'The Graveyard Reader' as a favourite, and it's his only story, to my knowledge, to have been adapted as a play. It is also quintessential Sturgeon.

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  • October 3, 2009 at 11:23 pm
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    good to see 'The Graveyard Reader' getting a mention: certainly one of his best stories. Also 'When You're Smiling' is a brilliant psychological study of two opposing types of personality, one of them psycopathic and one of them a murderer (but not the same one!)
    I too had noticed Ballard's ironical take on Sturgeon in 'The Cage of Sand' but disagree that Ballard is the far superior writer. Ballard's tone is mostly ironic, and he doesn't really have any individual characters as such (they all merge together into a sort of collective psyche); whereas Sturgeon has many different tones, and many different characters. Ballard is very good on mental disintegration and landscapes of decay, but that's his limit; Sturgeon is the more healthy writer, and can see grounds for hope and redemption.
    Regarding 'Talent' and 'It's a Good Life' – they were first published in the same year, so it's possible their similarity is a coincidence – or did Sturgeon and Bixby know each other and discuss story ideas?
    Vernon

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  • March 6, 2010 at 6:10 pm
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    Who is anyone to say which story/ies are his best; even if you were capable of writing anything better. We are all talking about favourites here. Right? So why not consult the author himself who said he always liked his Unicorn story, "The Silken Swift," in which he uses such lyrically beautiful language. There are some others that can be read again and again. "Bianca's Hands'" ending was pure shock and is always fun to return to, and share with others. I still have tracheal-muscle memory of the gasp I emitted after reading the last line from "And Now the News." We all have indelible memories of the way we were changed when reading many Sturgeon stories. I don't care who you are, or what you do, or where you've studied; let's not fool ourselves into thinking we're capable of rating or judging any of them as best. Really guys.
    Jonathan Mark McMillan
    Vancouver, Canada

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  • March 16, 2010 at 3:21 pm
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    You seem to have forgotten Thunder and Roses….

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