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April 2001
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by James Sallis

A Saucer of Loneliness, Volume VII: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, ed. Paul Williams, North Atlantic Books (November 2000) $30.00.

Selected Stories by Theodore Sturgeon, Vintage Books (Oct 2000) $13.00.

When, in the Sixties, a new writer in the field, I spoke to others, Chip Delany, say, or Mike Moorcock, about the writers we most admired, a common handful of names bobbed to the surface. Alfred Bester, Cordwainer Smith, Fritz Leiber, Phil Farmer, Phil Dick. In each case there'd be electric sparks jumping between us (Remember . . . that scene . . . the way he . . . ) like massive neurons firing. Then one or the other of us would mention Sturgeon, and silence would fall. In respect, certainly, but something more as well. It was almost as though we realized that whatever we said, whatever words we found, would be pale imitations of what Sturgeon had done.

*     *     *

If she's dead, I thought, I'll never find her in this white flood of moonlight on the white sea, with the surf seething in and over the pale, pale sand like a great shampoo. Almost always, suicides who stab themselves or shoot themselves in the heart carefully bare their chests; the same strange impulse generally makes the sea-suicide go naked.

*     *     *

These past weeks I've been spending time in company with one of my oldest friends, a man so deeply imbedded in my life that, were his many presences there torn away, I myself well might begin to fade—a man I never met. I read Vintage Books' excellent Selected Stories in a single sitting, reread two or three favorite novels, shuffled again and again through my stack of worn paperbacks, dipping in and out like a hummingbird. Then, after looking back over earlier volumes in Paul Williams's ongoing, heroic project to restore to print all of Sturgeon's stories, I turned to this latest, seventh volume.

What most surprises me is recognizing how many times I've read many of these stories, two dozen times or more, some of them, in the forty-five years that Sturgeon and I have been traveling companions.

By contrast, one of them, "The Education of Drusilla Strange," I read but once, again some forty-plus years ago, yet remember as vividly as if it were last week. This story I found to be scored so deeply within me that I didn't so much read as remember it, in much the same way that I might recall events or experiences from my own life. And that, perhaps more than anything, gives the measure of Sturgeon's particular genius.

*     *     *

The prison ship, under full shields, slipped down toward the cove, and made no shadow on the moonlit water, and no splash as it slid beneath the surface. They put her out and she swam clear, and the ship nosed up and silently fled. Two wavelets clapped hands softly, once, and that was the total mark the ship made on the prison wall.

*     *     *

There are writers who throughout their careers with a certain relentlessness pursue the same themes again and again, forever refining, restating terms, purifying tone and attack, honing the edge. Years ago in a New Yorker interview Alberto Moravia remarked of such writers that "Their truth is self-repeating. They keep rewriting the same book . . . trying to perfect their expression of the one problem they were born to understand." Glib perhaps, but in large part true. And especially true, I think, of highly individualistic writers, those who work within a genre, for instance, yet are always pushing the envelope (and often, as well, the postbox into which they drop it) towards some new reach and hold. Their aesthetic goal comes to seem, and in some respects no doubt is, a search for personal transformation.

*     *     *

In a wonderful essay on Richard Yates for the Boston Review, Stewart O'Nan pointed out that among the many obligations we assume as writers is the imperative to do whatever we can to preserve the work of those who came before us, to see that it's not forgotten. This is a charge Paul Williams, with his crusade to ransom Sturgeon's stories, has taken to heart, one which now, in my own small way, I'd like to second.

More than anyone else, Theodore Sturgeon taught me to write. And long before that, before I even knew it, I think, he made me want to be a writer.

When I first encountered it, Sturgeon's work affected me in ways no other had. I could not throw off stories like "The Other Celia," "Bright Segment," "The Professor's Teddy Bear," "Scars." They followed me around, floated towards me on the night's dark oil, stalked me. And when, about 1964, I began seriously trying to write fiction, it was to Sturgeon that I turned. I sat in the student union of the university I'd not so much dropped out of as evaporated from, and read compulsively, over and over again, everything of the man's I could find. More Than Human, The Dreaming Jewels, Some of Your Blood, The Cosmic Rape. And stories: "The Man Who Lost the Sea," "Cellmate," "A Saucer of Loneliness," "And Now the News." Trying to see how he did it. Trying to understand how he went about making his characters so real, how he brought these made-up worlds into such vivid focus. And just how it was that he managed to affect me so.

In an introduction to Volume II of the complete Sturgeon stories, Chip Delany recounts reading "Thunder and Roses" at age ten or eleven, recalling his fascination at the manner in which Sturgeon paced characters through all sorts of "ordinary things like shaving and taking showers" making it all so much more vivid than seemed possible, describing "the feel of warm water down your neck" and the crumpled tube of toothpaste on the shelf while all along, outside, the characters' world was coming to an end.

That a writer should uncompromisingly, in stories of the fantastic, set out to memorialize quotidian life and language seems at first a paradox; in fact, it's the engine of Sturgeon's art. Such grafting of the extraordinary onto the ordinary lies at the very heart of what he does. He sweeps up the textures of momentary life (the only life we ever truly know, after all, however bolstered or diluted it may be by memory and anticipation) and tucks them into something far larger. His beloved halfwits, though sanctioned from it, live embedded in the common society. That common society is itself but one of many echoes, some audible, some faint, of all societies: historical societies, future societies, possible societies. Loving humanity, loving his misfits and miscreants perhaps most of all, so intimately aligned with his characters that he tells their stories from the inside, nonetheless Sturgeon stands forever apart, seeing the should and could be in the is. Seeing through to the other side of that is, as well. Saying again and again, with Rimbaud, that everything we are taught is false. Believing with Valery that "A work of art should always teach us that we have not seen what we see."

*     *     *

Further along in that same introduction, Delany wrote: "Sturgeon wanted a world that worked differently from the one we live in; and that difference was that it had a place for love and logic both. What seemed to bolster him and give him personal patience and also artistic perseverance was his apprehension of the interconnectedness of all life's varied and variegated aspects."

This, too, comes close to central concerns. For Sturgeon not only retrieves and holds in suspension those aspects of life we take so much for granted—patterns of apprehension, textures of mundane life, what philosophers call dailyness—he also taps directly into that sense we all have of the connectedness of things, that sense of something more, something transcendent, at the core of our consciousness.

Sturgeon wanted "a world that worked differently," Delany remarks, thereby introducing another aspect of the man. There was about him an element of contrariety investing all he did. Sadly for all of us, and for Ted Sturgeon most of all, that contrariety was not always a positive thing. It allowed him as writer to see things anew, to look through from the other side, as it were—to cast aside received wisdom, almost without effort, for that adversary intent Lionel Trilling holds to be at the heart of all great art—but it also occasioned great personal difficulties, gravely interfered with his career and disrupted his life, let him judas-goat himself into horrendous writing blocks.

In a 1976 profile, Paul Williams noted:

"Ted told me he'd been hearing this voice inside him all his life which says, in response to whatever is or seems to be expected of him by the outside world, 'I won't do it.' Only recently, he said, he's realized that there's another half to the sentence, and what he's really saying, deep in there somewhere, is, 'I won't do what they want me to do.' "

Something of the eternal adolescent, then, unwilling or unable to accept the world as it is, striking out, often with the clear, Rimbaudian brilliance of the young, other times in blind, insensate fury, when the world will not be as he wants it to be.

The moralist, the idealist—and Sturgeon was both—feels deeply the loss of what he, what the world, has never had. That sense of loss everywhere in Sturgeon is almost Miltonic. His characters, like Drusilla exiled here to this backwards, prison planet Earth, represent, remember, or envision other, finer existences. (" . . . Earth, which was her world falsified; and the endless music, which was her world in truth . . . ") Though often stunted by circumstance, history, heredity and convention, they are people capable of greatness: the near-morons of "Bright Segment," The Cosmic Rape and More Than Human, supermen-unaware like Horty in The Dreaming Jewels, or the fabulous inventor-songwriter-sculptor-poet-genius of "Maturity." Loners and outcasts all.

All of them, too, to some degree, self-portraits.

*     *     *

In A Saucer of Loneliness, this book so filled with amazements, the most amazing thing of all might easily go overlooked. It shows up in the Editor's Note: "This seventh volume contains stories written between autumn 1952 and autumn 1953." That in one calendar year a single writer could publish so many outstanding stories, stories such as " . . . And My Fear Is Great . . .," "The Wages of Synergy," "A Way of Thinking," "Mr. Costello, Hero, "The World Well Lost," "The Touch of Your Hand," stories of such excellence as would support any other writer's entire career, is astonishing. His first novel, The Dreaming Jewels, had come out in 1950; More Than Human appeared in book form in 1953. Stories like "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff," "To Here and the Easel" and "Hurricane Trio" waited just around the corner.

*     *     *

Yancey, who had once been killed, lay very still with his arm flung across the pillow, and watched the moonlight play with the color of Beverly's hair. . . .The waves blundered into the cliff below, hooting through the sea- carved boulders, frightening great silver ghosts of spray out and up into the torn and noisy air. . . .He wished he could sleep. For two years he had been glad he did not sleep.

*     *     *

Art, like great conversation, contrives to rescue us from the commonplace, to break through the crust of habit and routine and let us see anew, feel anew—to make our world large again.

This is something I first learned at age twelve, sitting on a screened porch half a mile away from Huck's Mississippi with Jimmy Reed and Hank Williams spilling from the jukebox at the drive-in just down the road. And it wasn't from William Faulkner or Robert Browning or James Joyce that I learned it (though I was reading them all), but from Theodore Sturgeon. I realize it again each time I go back to him. What better reason to keep going back?

Theodore Sturgeon is among the finest writers this country has produced. He is, like all great writers, all great artists, absolutely one of a kind, sui generis. We can only hope that, with time, with crusading efforts such as Paul Williams's, he might come to receive the approbations due him. Meanwhile, he remains an intimate part of many of us.

Sturgeon's stories are pokers stirring the coals of our lives and feelings back to flame. They are, each of them, anthems of praise and wonder sung by one small cell to the larger organism, to Life.

The Imagination is not a State, Blake wrote: it is the Human Existence itself.

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