Sometimes, it actually works.
by Hart Williams (c) 1996
KILLDOZER! The Complete
Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, Vol. III, edited
by Paul Williams, with an introduction by Robert Silverberg;
North Atlantic Press, 367 pp., $25.
Theodore Sturgeon once wrote: "I have so very much to say which does not require the sf matrix ... yet I have found myself increasingly tempted to develop a purely human situation in sf terms because of this club membership I have tattooed on my forehead. I offend myself whenever I do this, or even consider it, and would warmly welcome someone's assurance that my best would be good enough even if it were not science fiction."
From the moment that men first landed on the moon, science fiction became the de facto literature of the Twentieth Century, though this was not recognized in Sturgeon's lifetime, nor, in many cases, is it still. The "ghetto" mentality persists: among academics enamored of "post-modernism," and, sadly, among many still practicing in the field. But the fact can only become more clearly inevitable with the passage of time.
This would not seem germane herein, except that both Robert Silverberg, in his introduction, and Paul Williams, in his story notes, seem vaguely embarrassed that none of the stories included herein are profound -- they are merely, to use Graham Greene's term, "entertainments." Odd: no one demands profundity of O. Henry, of Henry James, of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Certainly Sturgeon wrote some of the most profound stories IN science fiction, but these entertainments are, in many cases classics -- whether "deep" or not.
Certainly none familiar with sf
can fail to remember "Medusa" or "Abreaction" or
"Memorial" or the eponymous title tale. But, as is
pointed out by our tour guides, these are stories from the lean
period of Sturgeon's first, legendary writer's block: 1941-1944
(and, to some extent, nearly until the '50s, when the great and profound
Sturgeon material begins to appear).
The most important considerations, then, are: what is the writer's style? and, how do these tales age?
The answer to the second is easy: not at all. The use of language is, often, the wiseguy argot of the 'forties, but it is in perfect pitch, no more an anachronism than Shakespeare's English. Of perhaps all science fiction writers, Sturgeon dates the least. How much "science fiction" has inadvertently dated itself with this sort of thing: "By 1974, the United Hemisphere's Government launched the second Martian Expedition, led by Commander 'Sparky' Thorvaldsen"?
Sturgeon is never guilty of this.
Beyond an obvious connection to his time, the guts of a Sturgeon
story are always timeless. We can no
more demand utter timelessness of Sturgeon than we can demand
that Tom Sawyer get Becky out of the cave by use of his cellular
phone, but Sturgeon does not date - which is the reason that his
stature in XXth Century Literature can only increase.
The delight here is in - as it should be -- the manner in which matter is exposed. Sturgeon has that impossibly rare ability to deftly turn a phrase without letting the bon mot overshadow the story itself. Style and subject are always impeccably fused. Here, listen to Sturgeon's take on Roger Zelazny, who too often allowed the former to overshadow the latter: "even so deft a wordsmith as Zelazny can forget from time to time that such a creation can keep a reader from his speedy progress from here to there, and that his furniture should be placed out of the traffic pattern. If I bang my shin on a coffee table it becomes a little beside the point that it is the most exquisitely crafted artifact this side of the Sun King. Especially since it was the Author himself who put me in a dead run."
This in no wise disparages Zelazny. (And did I mention that Sturgeon was an exceptional critic and essayist, as well?) Would that Sturgeon might, just once, receive an introduction half as good as he himself gave Zelazny.
Sturgeon never puts furniture in the way. Indeed, it is often difficult, on rereading, to STOP to admire that coffee table. The roller coaster has no brake. This auctorial compulsion that Sturgeon so effortlessly provides is so rare that the tone of Messrs. Silverberg and Williams seems, at first blush, incomprehensible. Still, Sturgeon's cross (along with that Mark tattooed on his forehead) was that more was expected of him than of, perhaps, any author in the field. Genius seems to be its own burden.
Well and good: the best is yet to come. But consider: I had originally intended to review this tome along with the newest treasure from The Library of America: John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings - 1936-1941." But to read Steinbeck - brilliant though our Nobel Laureate might be - after reading Sturgeon is to nosh on a sawdust sandwich after feasting on Cordon Bleu. The language is wooden: each verb is preceded with an adverb, each noun modified by an adjective.
So, perhaps the fact that these "entertainments" are not Universal Truths may be forgiven. Even without the depths, Sturgeon is unique, hypnotic, indelible.
But don't take my word for it. Listen to one of his best friends, and biggest fans - strangely, almost never associated with Sturgeon, but often considered his antithesis. In his concluding Afterward - the last finished prose that the Grandmaster ever wrote, according to his widow - Robert A. Heinlein says: "Ted's ear was phenomenal and not limited to parlor tricks. Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and almost the right word was the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Sturgeon did not deal in lightning bugs."
Theodore Sturgeon was considered the writer by nearly every major figure that sf ever produced, and by quite a few "mainstream" writers as well. But, as HE said, the onus of that "bastard" genre he felt trapped in seemed tattooed on his forehead.
If my unalloyed praise of Sturgeon appears unseemly, or my enthusiasm for this writer bearing the "Mark of Cain" that we call "sf" seems absurd, I certainly stand in good company. Should you read Sturgeon, you will as well.
Hart Williams finds Jacques Derrida to be, unintentionally, the greatest humorist of the XXth Century.
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