Theodore Sturgeon, Storyteller

This is an essay written by Paul Williams in 1976. It was published on the Theodore Sturgeon Trust webpage in 1997, and then reprinted as an afterword in "Case and the Dreamer", Vol 13 of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon (North Atlantic Books 2010)
© Copyright 1976; 1997 by Paul Williams.


I.
The best short story writer in America lives on a hill on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He works on TV scripts, gives lectures, teaches a class, writes book reviews and does introductions to other people's books. That's all. He's sold four new short stories in the last four years. Of the 23 books he's written in the course of his career, only three are still in print in the United States. His old masterpieces are not being read; and his new ones are not being written.

And he has no one to blame for this state of affairs but himself.

* * *

Theodore Sturgeon.

I'm 28 years old (or will be when this is published) and the man I'm writing about is more than twice my age. And when I was just half this age, 14, it occurs to me now, I was at a party on the 14th floor of the Pick-Congress Hotel in Chicago at about five in the morning, the last night of my first science fiction convention, and Judith Merril, famed anthologist and author/editor of some of my favorite books, turned to me and asked -- just about everyone but me had consumed a fair quantity of alcohol by this time --"Doesn't it bother you to see that your heroes have feet of clay." And I said, "They couldn't be heroes if they didn't," or some such clever 14-year-old remark. Then the sun came up over Lake Michigan while the drunk science fiction writers told stories and sang folk songs, and I was indeed filled with quiet awe -- not at the great names made flesh around me, but at whatever miracles had brought me, at age 14, to this inner sanctum, this place of dreams.

Theodore Sturgeon was Guest of Honor at that particular science fiction convention (Labor Day Weekend, 1962), and I shook his hand but didn't actually talk with him. He had his wife and his children with him, and was very much the center of attention wherever he went in the convention hall, and anyway I had nothing to say; I loved the man and I loved his stories and there was no way I could tell him that.

Fourteen years later I visit his home, we talk about anything and everything, I enjoy his hospitality and see his feet of clay -- we've been friends of a sort for two or three years now -- and each time I read a story of his he is again my favorite writer, a worker of miracles; but in between times he's just a friend, attractive and annoying and as blind as the rest of us...... To write this story I need a hero, because this is a story of great achievements. But even after months of careful research, the man slips away from me, he's too human -- I know him and his life so well but I still can't understand where his miracles come from.

* * *

Sturgeon wrote, just to give you an example, the all-time great story about Senator Joseph McCarthy, who he was and how he did what he did. The story is called "Mr. Costello, Hero," and it starts out on a spaceship. This man Costello is a passenger on the ship -- wonderful guy, everybody likes him. Except maybe the skipper, an uptight old coot who doesn't approve of the progressive influence Mr. Costello has had on his crew. Like they've started playing draw poker without the draw, because that way there's less opportunity for anyone to cheat. And volunteers stand watch in the galley, to make sure the cook isn't poisoning the food. True, it makes for a crowded kitchen, but Cooky doesn't mind -- this way he knows everybody can trust him.

Costello gets off at a city on a frontier planet and manages to drive a wedge between the city-dwellers and the trappers who provide the fur that is the planet's chief export, by making people deathly afraid of anyone who likes to be alone. Pretty soon he's running the place. It's utterly terrifying and utterly believable, particularly because Sturgeon tells the story from the viewpoint of a guy (the ship's purser) who really likes Mr. Costello and doesn't see anything wrong in the way he does things.

It's a triumph of skilled storytelling -- great characters, absorbing narrative, hair-raising conclusion. But there's more to it than that. The story was written and published in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy era, and it is a devastating, thinly disguised attack on the man and his methods ... but more than that, it's a beautifully lucid presentation of exactly how a man like McCarthy can use fear and vanity and gullibility to divide people and set them against each other and put himself in power.

"Mr. Costello, Hero" is one of the finer pieces of writing to come out of the whole McCarthy experience, and it was written for a science fiction magazine by a genre writer who had listened to the Army-McCarthy hearings on the radio and had once in his youth written speeches for a local politician in a Texas seaport, and that was the extent of his involvement in the world of politics.

How does Sturgeon do it? No two stories of his are alike, but of the 160 he's written in the last four decades, I count at least 50 major works, stories as beautiful and important as anything you might care to compare them with. And none of these stories is known to anyone but science fiction readers and Sturgeon fanatics; and 45 of the 50 are not even in print in this country.

And Sturgeon sits in his house in Los Angeles, full of ideas, and stares at his typewriter, and doesn't write.

II.

Theodore Sturgeon was born February 26th, 1918, on Staten Island in New York City. His name at birth was Edward Hamilton Waldo. "I was born a Waldo," Sturgeon told science fiction scholar David Hartwell in an unpublished 1972 interview, "and had kind of an interesting family. Peter Waldo was a dissident priest in the 12th century who got ahold of the dumb idea that perhaps the Pope at Rome ought to go back to the vows of poverty and obedience, get rid of the Swiss Guards and the jewel-encrusted cross, and put on a monk's habit and go out amongst the people. The Pope took a very dim view of that indeed, and they persecuted the Waldenses all across Europe for 200 years."

"That was the Waldensian Heresy, that you should go back to Apostolic Christianity. Nobody wanted to go and do a thing like that. And they settled in Flanders, and in England, and in 1640 two ships of them decided to go to the New World. They got separated by a storm, and one of them went to Connecticut; there are still Waldos in Connecticut to this day. The other ship went far south, and it wound up in, of all places, Haiti. Well, Haiti in 1640 was already a refuge for runaway slaves; and when they found they had a shipload of dissident priests, they welcomed them with open arms. Waldo became corrupted to Vaudois, which became Voodoo, which is the etymology of the word 'voodoo'... . There's been a whole line of gurus in my family: Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of them."

Edward Waldo's father, who was in the paint, oil and varnish business, left his mother when Edward was five. Five years later she remarried, and Edward (along with his older brother Peter) was adopted by his stepfather and his name was legally changed to Theodore Sturgeon. Sturgeon because that was the stepfather's name -- he was a professor of modern languages at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia -- and Theodore because Edward was the boy's father's name and the mother was still bitter and anyway young Edward had always been known as Teddy. (To this day, libraries all over the world list "Theodore Sturgeon" as a pseudonym for "E. H. Waldo," which is incorrect; Sturgeon is his real name.)

At the age of 13, Theodore became a star athlete. He'd had to do something. His stepfather had arranged for him to enter high school at the age of l1 -- he went from the fifth grade to the ninth grade with nothing in between but eight weeks of summer school -- and naturally he was the smallest kid in the class. "I was pretty well brutalized by the whole thing. I had to figure out different ways to walk to school every day, because kids would lay for me on the way. I had curly golden hair and was very thin and kind of wheyfaced and -- pretty. And I was just an absolute target."

"While I was in high school I discovered apparatus gymnastics, and that became my total preoccupation. In a year and a half I gained four inches and 60 pounds, and I became captain and manager of my gym team, which is literally a transfiguration. I was totally born again. The very kids that used to bully me would follow me around and carry my books. And then when I was 15 I came down with acute rheumatic fever."

"By this time I had a two-year scholarship already at Temple University, an athletic scholarship; and my whole life was blueprinted. I was going to get my degree in physical education and spend a year teaching, and then I was going down to Florida and join the Barnum & Bailey Circus and become a flyer. However, acute rheumatic fever and six months flat on my back took care of that. My heart was so enlarged, it squirted up between my ribs where you could see it beating from outside. Inside of a year I had a fantastic recovery -- but no more gymnastics, ever. It was a shattering experience."

Sturgeon left high school a few weeks before graduating. He went to sea for three years. And then he became a writer.

III.

Sturgeon's best-known work is a novel (actually three interconnected stories) called More than Human. It's about five children with unusual psychic powers who are able to "blesh" their talents together so that they become a single functioning organism, homo gestalt, the next step in human evolution. This novel contains some of the most memorable characters and extraordinary passages of writing ("The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead") in modern fiction. It won the International Fantasy Award in 1954, has sold over a half-million copies in paperback, and both directly and indirectly has had a huge impact on the ideas and values of several generations of young Americans.

When a friend of mine, in 1964, asked David Crosby about the new rock group he was performing in, he said, "We blesh." Crosby, like most mid-Sixties' rock musicians (and underground press editors, political activists, dope impresarios, etc.), was an avid reader of science fiction in general and Sturgeon in particular; and he realized early that the Byrds and other rock groups were living examples of Sturgeon's idea that a group of humans could function as more than the sum of the individuals involved ... not just more, but mystically more, so that the group took on its own personality and created things that none of its individual members could even have imagined. Chester Anderson wrote in the San Francisco Oracle in 1966, in a widely reprinted analysis of the new rock or "head" music, "Rock is evolving Sturgeonesque homo gestalt configurations....." The Merry Pranksters were another example of the same phenomenon, as were all the nameless groups that came together to organize political or cultural events and then disbanded and vanished when the work was done.

The "counterculture," in retrospect, was heavily modeled on a handful of science fiction and fantasy novels: Childhood's End, Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Stranger in a Strange Land and More than Human. The ideas expressed in these books hit home for a lot of impressionable adolescents, who later tried hard to transform their yearnings into changed lifestyles and new realities.

And a new set of values. Sturgeon, in More than Human and throughout his work, is a moralist as well as a visionary. Not the kind of moralist who knows what's right and what's wrong and tells you in so many words, but the kind who is searching for the answers and shares his search with his readers. In More than Human, the problem faced by homo gestalt is, "Now that you're superman, what do you do with your powers?" Sturgeon's answer is awkward and incomplete, but, for our generation, much more appropriate than Nietzsche's.

We have to live our lives, he says, constantly refining and acting out a definition of morality that goes beyond individual survival and even goes beyond survival of the social unit. He is reaching constantly for a higher sense of the human role on this planet, and in that he is very much in touch with his postwar readers.

* * *

Sturgeon has an ambivalent attitude towards his own work, his career, all that sort of thing. He wants success desperately, and avoids it like the plague. Late one night, puttering around the kitchen (it was probably 3 a.m., and he was probably getting ready to feed the rabbits or wash the dishes), Ted told me he's 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."

And, God knows, he doesn't.

Sturgeon does not do what the world expects him to do. He resists mightily. He always has. When he was in high school there was a regulation that, when the weather got warm, if you came to school wearing a sweater you had to take it off. So Ted would show up at school wearing a sweater but no shirt.

"He has this need to do it backwards....." Betty Ballantine, Sturgeon's editor on a number of his best books, was talking about Sturgeon's approach to a novel or short story (like when he wrote a western in which the hero loses the girl) (or portraying Mr. Costello via an admiring observer); but as soon as the words were out of her mouth we both realized it was a perfect description of Sturgeon's approach to everything in his life.

In his own funny way, Theodore Sturgeon is one of the contrariest people I've ever met. This makes him hard to work with and helps keep him away from success. But it's also a significant part of what makes his stories so special. Sturgeon consistently sees things as though he were looking from the other side.

He turns things around and inside out at the same time, without letting go of your hand. It's a neat trick if you can do it.

IV.

Q: How did you get started as a writer?

A: "I was in the merchant marine, working on a coastwise tanker, and I worked out a way to rob the American Express Company of several hundred thousand dollars. I did my homework: I wrote to the company and found out precisely how they shipped this and that and the other thing, got it all worked out and then wrote it as a short story because I didn't have quite the guts to do it myself."

"And one magical day, when I was picking up my mail at the Seaman's Institute in New York, I got a letter that said I'd sold the story. I'd sold it to a newspaper syndicate, the McClure Syndicate, and I was so excited I quit my job, I went ashore and I was going to be a writer."

"Well, I sold the story for five dollars, payable on publication. It had taken me three months to research it. And they were willing to buy one story, sometimes two, a week. No more. So for almost six months, I lived on five or ten dollars week. I lived on West 63rd Street, where Lincoln Center is now, and it cost me seven and a half dollars a week for the room; and I ate on whatever was left."

So in 1938, at the age of 20, Theodore Sturgeon quit the merchant marine and became a full-time writer. He'd been at sea for three years, starting with six months on a school ship, the Penn State Nautical School, which was just like going back to the ninth grade and getting brutalized (new cadets were hazed mercilessly by upperclassmen) all over again. "I remember the first shit session I was in. One of the officers came up from aft, and started to walk forward, and walked right past this line. And I greeted him with --silently, of course, but I thought, 'Oh thank God! Here comes an officer. This is going to stop.' And I could not believe it when he walked right through without looking. We were getting brutalized and beat on and kids were passing out, it was just ghastly. And the guy did nothing to stop it; he smiled slightly and walked on. That was so bloody unfair -- " Ted says this like it was yesterday; after 40 years, you can still hear the anger in his voice.

"I could not bring myself to quit while this was going on. But the very minute I completed my first term, and was no longer on the bottom....." He dropped out of nautical school, just like he'd dropped out of high school, and used his cadet credentials to get an Ordinary Seaman's Ticket, and shipped out with a steamer outfit called the Merchant and Miners Transportation Company.

The short stories Sturgeon wrote for the newspaper syndicate, in his room on West 63rd Street, were not science fiction -- they were human-interest vignettes, boy-meets-girl or sailing stories or whatever, but always with some kind of little clever twist that gave them their charm. Like the girl gets the guy by putting vanilla extract on her ear lobes, so every time he gets near her he thinks about cookies and yellow curtains in the kitchen.

Sturgeon wrote these stories, and other odd assignments when he could get them, and then one day when he'd walked over to Brooklyn to see his brother, or maybe late one night nursing a five cent cup of coffee in Martin's 57th Street Cafeteria, somebody showed him a copy of a new fantasy magazine called Unknown, and said, "Hey! This is what you ought to be writing for ..." Sturgeon went to see John Campbell, the editor, who also edited a magazine called Astounding Science Fiction and ended up selling him 26 stories in the next year and a half. It was 1939.

* * *

Science fiction was not a new discovery for Sturgeon. Like most of us, he started reading the stuff when he was 12 or 13. His stepfather -- always the autocrat -- took one look at Ted's copies of Amazing and Astounding and forbade him to bring those pulp magazines into the house. The Sturgeon family lived in a 4th-floor apartment, top of the building, and the closet in Ted's room had a hatch that led to a crawl space under the roof. Ted took his magazines up there and dropped them behind the fourth rafter back, where they couldn't be seen even by somebody standing on a chair looking in with a flashlight. "So it's a mystery to me how that man was ever able to discover them....."

But he did. "One time I came home, and he says, 'There's a mess in your room. I want you to clean it up.' I walked in there, and that room was nearly ankle deep in tiny little pieces of paper no bigger than postage stamps. He had torn up my entire collection of science fiction magazines. It must have taken him hours -- I guess his hands must have ached for days. I can remember I was sobbing, just crying, sweeping up those little pieces of paper, and looking at one every once in a while, wondering what story that was. And I had to clean it all up. Which may well be why I'm a science fiction writer today."

* * *

Ted's brother went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and Ted stayed in New York, writing his stories. He married his high school sweetheart -- her name was Dorothy, and she changed it to Dorothe so it would be the same as Theodore -- and they had a baby girl, Patricia, and then Ted -- who'd written his best-received story to date, a tale of eldritch horror called "It," in ten hours on his honeymoon, and then followed it with a little epic called "Microcosmic God," which made such an impact that decades later it was voted one of the top five sf stories of all time by the Science Fiction Writers of America -- Ted turned his back on his growing reputation as a writer and got a job managing a hotel in Jamaica.

Sturgeon was 22 years old. He'd thought he could turn out stories fast enough -- at a penny a word -- to support his new family, but it wasn't working out; in fact lately the stories had stopped coming altogether. This hotel gig would take care of immediate needs, and then maybe the change of scene would get his creative juices flowing again....

It didn't work out that way. In the next five years, Sturgeon wrote exactly one story, right in the middle of this period; the rest of the time, though he tried and tried, nothing happened. The war came, the hotel closed down -- Sturgeon became a bulldozer driver, a heavy equipment operator (he was not a big man, but he was good with machines, and it was wartime) -- they moved to Puerto Rico, and then St. Croix. A second daughter, Cynthia, was born. Eventually Ted quit his other jobs and just worked full time at trying to write -- but apart from his classic short novel "Killdozer," written in nine days in 1943, no stories came. He just didn't understand it. It was like something had broken inside him, and he couldn't put it together again.

V.

"No living writer has quite Sturgeon's grasp on horror and hilarity, nor knows quite so many kinds of people so well."
-- Groff Conklin

"Perhaps the best way I can tell you what I think of a Theodore Sturgeon story is to explain with what diligent interest, in the year 1940, I split every Sturgeon tale down the middle and fetched out its innards to see what made it function. I looked upon Sturgeon with a secret and gnawing jealousy."
-- Ray Bradbury

"Theodore Sturgeon has made himself the finest conscious artist science fiction ever had."
-- James Blish

"I think the corpus of Sturgeon's stories ranks with de Maupassant's. I think it is superior to O. Henry's, superior to Damon Runyon's, superior to Ring Lardner's, you know, the great short-story writers of..... I think it is superior to Hemingway's short stories (if you take the Hemingway novels, you may be into something else). I think one is dealing with a writer of that stature. To the extent that the short story is an art, Sturgeon is the American short story writer. The fact that he happens to be writing in science fiction is a glorious accident."
-- Samuel R. Delany


In pursuit of a hero.

It was his daughter Tandy -- the fourth of Ted's seven children -- who gave me the word for what kind of a hero Theodore Sturgeon is. She said she's had this vision, since she was a small child, of "a society that works" -- maybe a small village -- not a conscious model, but something she's picked up from dreams, or by osmosis. "A place I know as the society that should be. And the storyteller is central to that society. He -- Homer -- is the cement that holds society together. They need to go and listen to him."

"Now people don't ask. They've forgotten, they don't have time to listen. But they still need it. And they like him because he makes them want to listen."

Storyteller. That's the word.

Tandy's vision reminds me of a Sturgeon story called "The Touch of Your Hand." It takes place in a small village, and there's a wise old man who the people go and listen to -- but he's a musician -- but the story's about an angry young man, who wants to take these sleepy villagers and teach them to struggle and hate, so that they can build cities and glorious machines and become real men ... and about a beautiful young woman, who doesn't understand, but who loves him and tries to help. Like most Sturgeon stories, it has powerful characters and some very surprising twists in the plot-line. And the story, which manages to show at the same time much of what is ugliest and most beautiful about human beings, is also memorable for introducing one of Sturgeon's most original and challenging ideas on the subject of how to improve human nature

The same idea in a somewhat different form crops up in a later story, "The Skills of Xanadu." ("Touch" is from 1953; "Xanadu" from 1956.) In both instances Sturgeon suggests that human beings, or creatures like them, will develop a form of telepathy within a social group (a village, a nation) which allows each person to automatically draw on the group's collective reservoir of knowledge and acquired skills whenever he or she needs to know something. In other words, if you need to sew a buttonhole and you don't know how, you just concentrate and the way to do it will come to you from someone who does know will come to your fingers, and you can just start to do it and feel how it should be and which motions are right.

"We are telepathic, not in the way of conveying details, but in the much more useful way of conveying a manner of thinking." ("The Touch of Your Hand.") "He knew without question that he had the skills of this people, and that he could call on any of those skills just by concentrating an a task until it came to him how the right way (for him) would feel. He knew without surprise that these resources transcended even death; for a man could have a skill and then it was everyman's, and if the man should die, his skill still lived in everyman." ("The Skills of Xanadu.")

Above and to the left of the sink in Sturgeon's kitchen is one of those crowded bulletin boards where odd items accumulate and stay in place for years. My eye was caught one night by a postcard bearing a line from Karl F. Gauss (German mathematician, 1777-1855), and I mentioned it, and Ted said it was one of his favorites, and from that time forward the quote has become a kind of touchstone in our conversations, we'll just naturally arrive at it in the course of what we're saying, look at each other, mumble some obeisance to "that line from Gauss," and move on from there. We can almost hear the theme music in the background....

The quote reads: "I have had my solutions for a long time; but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them."

If you look at this long enough, it will tell you: how Sturgeon writes a story. How he lives. And the way in which a Sturgeon story affects the person who reads it.

* * *

Sturgeon's vision of a limited telepathic linkage that allows each person's skills to become everyman's is at least as important an idea as the notion of going to the moon, which originated in science fiction (thousands of years ago) and has been repeated over the years until somebody finally went ahead and acted it out. It is the idea, not the technology, that is the force behind human progress. As Frederik Pohl explained it in his brilliant story "The Gold at the Starbow's End": "Most problems have grammatical solutions. The problem of transporting people from the Earth to any other planet does not get solved by putting pieces of steel together one at a time at random, and happening to find out you've built a spaceship by accident. It gets solved by constructing a model which describes the necessary circumstances under which the transportation occurs. Once you have the grammatical model, you just put the metal around it and it goes like gangbusters."

All of Sturgeon's stories are models: problems and solutions. He is a (very sympathetic) student of the human situation -- what makes people tick? But to say that he has his solutions before he starts is not to say he knows the end of the story before he starts writing. The solution is the beginning of the story, it is the implicit harmony of the situation, the way things ought to be. As soon as we meet the people, the characters, we feel it. This harmony is violated by the problem(s) facing the characters -- which is the dramatic element, the tension: if there were no problem, there would be no story, just a portrait. But there is a problem; and the end of the story, the climax of the plot, is not the solution (that's implicit, a restoration of order) but the how-to-arrive-at-it. At the end we discover how the solution is arrived at. And that's the part that Sturgeon (like Gauss) doesn't know until he gets there.

The secret I am trying to tell here is the art of storytelling, at its highest -- how it's done. It's like Houdini getting himself locked in a trunk and thrown in the ocean. I don't think he knows beforehand how he's going to get out of that trunk. Rather, he's putting himself in a situation where he will be forced to focus every bit of his own strength and concentration on the problem at hand -- and he knows that under those circumstances, and only those circumstances, he has the capability to find a way out. It's an act of faith.

The solution is: open the trunk. That's obvious. And the way to arrive at the solution is to lock yourself in the trunk. That's not obvious at all. But it's beautiful.

VI.

Sturgeon came back from the islands and turned into a zombie. Originally he'd flown to New York for a ten-day visit, to get a new agent. "I went into some kind of a funk at the time, it must have been a severe depression." He found an agent, but he still hadn't done any writing, and he couldn't get together the money or the energy to fly back to St. Croix. So he stayed in Manhattan, sleeping 18 to 20 hours a day.

Ten days became eight months, and finally Dorothe, who was still down in the islands with two kids and no money, decided she'd had enough, and asked for a divorce. Ted flew down to try to patch things up, but it was too late. His marriage was kaput. Another failure.

The atom bomb exploded in Hiroshima.

Sturgeon had moved in with a friend of John Campbell's named L. Jerome Stanton. "Stanton had an apartment on 8th Avenue with no furniture in it, and I had a whole warehouse full of furniture, so I moved my furniture into his place and just did anything he suggested ... you know, take the stuff out to the laundry or do the shopping or cook the dinner or something, until it was done, and then I just stopped, like a switch had been thrown, until he said to do something else. I was really in a zombie-ish condition ... ."

He got a job as copy chief in the advertising section of a wartime firm that made quartz crystals; that ended when he flew back to try to talk things through with Dorothe, and when he came back to New York he was more depressed than ever. He wrote to another high school girlfriend, Ree Dragonette, and eventually she came to live with him; meanwhile he was having lunch every day with John Campbell, editor of Astounding (Unknown had folded due to the wartime paper shortage), and spending time in the basement of John's house in New Jersey. It was in that basement, at the end of 1945, after a dry spell of more than five years, that Sturgeon finally started writing again.

At first the new stories were almost 100% dialogue, as if Sturgeon were not yet ready to hear the sound of his own voice on paper. The third story -- "Mewhu's Jet," about a visitor from outer space who turns out to be a little kid on a joy ride -- was mostly dialogue, but the characters were stronger, the humor brighter, the human qualities of the situation more fully developed. Sturgeon's storytelling skill was starting to reemerge.

And then came the breakthrough: a story called "Maturity," a tense, warm, brilliant, utterly moving account of an irresistible, irresponsible young genius (songwriter/sculptor/poet/ne'er-do-well) who undergoes a series of glandular treatments intended to make him grow up, biochemically speaking. It's a love story -- the old eternal triangle -- something of a detective story -- a fabulous portrait of a fabulous human being who is not entirely unlike the author's idealized view of himself -- and more, much more than that, a tale that transcends category to confront one of the central human riddles of any era: who am I? What is maturity?

And, like most of Sturgeon's best stories, and unlike most of the rest of postwar literature, it is heavy on plot: a real story is unfolded, the kind that sucks you in and glues your mind to the page, and all the other good stuff the storyteller offers is thrown in as a bonus and never allowed to get in the way of the story itself. Indeed, the bonus material -- ideas, insights, detailed descriptions (the hero of "Maturity" compares his surprised doctor/lady-friend to a taffy-pulling machine, and launches into a tour de force description of how said machine operates and why it's so beautiful), charm -- is all integral to and indistinguishable from the telling of the story; Sturgeon indulges himself constantly, wonderfully, and yet never wastes a word.

"Maturity" was followed by a succession of fine stories -- notably "Thunder and Roses" (a sad, poetic yarn in which the United States is destroyed by atomic bombs but refuses to retaliate), "It Wasn't Syzygy" (a love story, written in magnificent metered prose, in which the horrified narrator discovers he's a figment of his girlfriend's imagination) and "The Perfect Host" (a tale of possession, built around a unique and powerful idea and told in a manner that breaks all the rules of storytelling -- successfully). Each story was different, was brilliant in a whole new startling way. No one could guess what the man would do next.

Sturgeon became a superstar.

Now, in terms of the money to be made and the size of the audience, being a star in the science fiction world in the late Forties was a little like being a big frog in a rather small glass of water. But it was a respectable glass of water, from the point of view of the people inside it (outsiders, of course, considered science fiction worthless trash). Science fiction people felt like they knew something everybody else didn't know....

Sturgeon had dreams of glory, he would complain about being stuck in the science fiction ghetto, but he never made any real effort to break out. For one thing, it was very comfortable there in the ghetto -- he could write whatever he wanted to and be almost certain of selling it; editors knew him and would give him advances, his stories were read and praised by his peers, including all the writers he himself admired and respected ... and there was a freedom in the science fiction field that did not and does not exist elsewhere, an openness to new ideas, unusual or shocking subject matter, innovative language or story structure. Sturgeon may have known intuitively that he would never enjoy such freedom in any other paying market.

But there was something else, too. Sturgeon had a great desire for success like any kid who's taken a career his parents don't approve of, he wanted to show them ... but he was blocked, there was something very strong inside him that told him he didn't deserve success, he didn't deserve his talent or the love of his friends or anything else good that seemed to come his way. And he couldn't overcome this. He has not overcome it to this day. He still doesn't feel secure even about his own status within the science fiction field! He reads the reviews, he hears the accolades, but he forgets them immediately. He lives in a world of his own, a world where he nurtures his own enormous self-doubt for his own impenetrable reasons.

"I'm not a writer," he told Judith Merril in 1947. "A writer is someone who has to write. The only reason I write is because it's the only way I can justify all the other things I didn't do."

Robert Heinlein, who started writing science fiction at the same time Sturgeon did, came back from the war and started selling stories to the Saturday Evening Post (the number one market for fiction at the time) and then wangled a contract with a major book publisher to do science fiction novels aimed at teenagers. Sturgeon had the same opportunity to break into the big time -- in fact, in March of 1947, he won a $1000 short-story contest (Graham Greene took second place) sponsored by the British magazine Argosy with a story called "Bianca's Hands." He exulted in this success, but made no serious attempt to use it as a stepping stone to broader commercial or literary acceptance. Indeed, he only submitted "Bianca's Hands" -- a story he'd written before the war and had never been able to sell; one editor told him he'd never buy any story from a person who could write such a monstrous thing -- to Argosy because it had been rejected by every other possible market. He'd have gladly given it to for a quick $50; and indeed there were many stories he sold for $50 or $100 that could have gone to much better markets, but were never sent around because Ted needed the money right away and couldn't afford to wait or take a chance on rejection.

So, in 1948, when he needed more money than science fiction world could offer him, he went to work for Time, Inc., writing direct-mail copy for Fortune magazine. He was very good at it. ("Direct mail for Time, Inc. paid off at 2.3%. I wrote three 4% letters, and became a local hero.") He all but stopped writing stories. And he might have spent the rest of his days in the comfortable confines of Time, Inc., had it not been for a young woman named Marion McGahan.

VII.

For 38 years, Theodore Sturgeon has been trying not to write. He does everything in his power, leaps at any distraction, places every possible obstacle between himself and his typewriter and has indeed succeeded in damning the flow for weeks or years at a time. But always in the end his defenses fail him and a new flood of stories bursts through.

He won't admit it, but the real reason Ted doesn't write is that he doesn't want to. His stories, the good ones, are like demons; they possess him. He admires and takes pride in the finished product, but mostly he resents the intrusion. He wants to be left alone.

The Fifties saw a burst of great stories from Sturgeon unlike anything before or since. Month after month brought miracle after miracle; like a pressurized can of genius letting go of its contents. It was an incredible performance. Sturgeon's defenses against writing had been utterly superseded, and it took him years to get them in place again.

This all started in the spring of 1952, after the birth of his first son, Robin.

Sturgeon fell in love with Marion McGahan in 1949; he was 31, and she was 18. They lived together in Brooklyn for a while -- he worked at Time, Inc. in Manhattan, and she worked in the Brooklyn Public Library. They were married in 1951. (Marion was Ted's third wife. He had been living with a singer named Mary Mair since 1947, and had married her in 1948; but by the time of the marriage their relationship was already shaky, and they soon went their separate ways.)

Ted was content to go on doing what he was doing, tossing off occasional stories for the less demanding science fiction magazines (Fantastic Adventures, Planet Stories), secure in his job (by now he'd been transferred over to the promotion department of Time International), and enjoying his central role in the active social life of the science fiction world in New York City. His current stories were unimpressive, but he was lionized for his past achievements and his ever present charm.

But Marion had had this dream, for a long time, of living in the country with a writer, and she prevailed on Ted to make it come true for her. He dragged feet, but....." She wasn't happy with me working for a big, patronizing company -- also she wanted to be near her mother, who lived upstate -- there were a lot of reasons like that. More than anything else, I hadn't written for quite a while, and it was time I got back to my own work."

So they moved to a little stone house back in the woods in Congers, New York, and Marion gave birth to a boy named Robin (after the hero of Ted's story "Maturity"), and Ted wrote a story called "Baby Is Three," which later became the centerpiece of his novel More than Human.

In the next 14 months he wrote, among other things: "A Saucer of Loneliness" (his classic story about a lonely girl, and the message she receives from a flying saucer), "The Clinic" (another story about loneliness and communication and love, an incredible tour de force in which he creates not only two unforgettable people but a whole new language --

I say, "What's this?" and I move the arms.

He say, "Violin?"

I say, "Yes. Make one noise, a new noise -- one and one and one. Now," I say, "what's this?" and I move again.

"Banjo," he say. "Guitar, maybe."

"Make many noise, in set. Make a new set. And a new set. Yes?"

Yes," he say. "It's played in chords, mostly. What are you getting at?"

I bump on side of head. "You have think word and word and word and you make set. l have think set and set and set."

-- that makes more sense than our own), "The Touch of Your Hand," "Mr. Costello, Hero," "And My Fear Is Great" (three unforgettable characters this time, including an old woman who knows about yoga and yin and yang, but has a hard time learning that her powers are limited by her Victorian view of sex), "The Silken Swift" (a beautifully written fable about two women, a man, and a unicorn), "The Sex Opposite" (there are androgynous creatures among us), "The World Well Lost" (a taboo-breaker about homosexuality), "The Fabulous Idiot" and "Morality" (the two other sections of More than Human) and "A Way of Thinking" (another classic Sturgeon tale, about a voodoo doll and a man who just doesn't think the way everyone else does -- another one of those stories that makes you wonder where this guy learned to write like that, which is a question that has no answer).

Sturgeon's career was taking off like a skyrocket, again. His first books -- a short-story collection in 1948, and a novel, The Dreaming Jewels, in 1949 -- had been published by small presses specializing in science fiction. Now he was getting contracts from respected, "mainstream" publishing houses. Farrar, Strauss published More than Human in hardcover, and it got terrific reviews ("One fears to toss about words like 'profundity' and 'greatness' in connection with the literature of entertainment; but it's hard to avoid them here." -- New York Herald Tribune). BMI asked him to write a science fiction opera. Opportunity was knocking everywhere.

But there were some problems in paradise. Ted tended to spend money as fast as it came in -- sometimes faster -- and so even at the height of his productivity he was always strapped for funds and looking around for more ways to make money. This got him involved in television -- as early as 1952 he did a Studio One script and then complained to a friend afterwards that, although the money was good, it was a tremendous amount of work and the final results were unsatisfying. But he continued to take TV work whenever he could find it.

Another bad habit he got into about this time was the contract dilemma. This is a horrible thing writers and publishers do to each other; where you sign a contract to write a book, and get some money, and then you have to write it. Sturgeon's success with More than Human enabled him to get a contract for a novel he wanted to write about a galactic supermind that swallows the human race. The book was due in October 1954, at which point Sturgeon would get the second half of his advance. Trying to write the novel kept Sturgeon from getting much other work done. Failing to write it -- sometimes an idea just won't come when you push at it -- meant the money he was counting on didn't materialize. Financial pressure, guilt, a bad reputation among publishers.... This particular book project sat on Sturgeon's back (his editor was once heard to remark, "I know Sturgeon can write a novel in three days; but which three days?") for four years -- it was finally completed in early 1958, and published as The Cosmic Rape. It was the first of many such problem contracts, most of them compounded by Sturgeon's ability to get further advances on already overdue books by describing some (always authentic) unexpected financial emergency.... Sturgeon got into this writer's quicksand early, and what's amazing is that it took him so long to go down.

1953 was a high point, but Sturgeon continued to produce extraordinary stories in 1954 and the next few years. Many of his very best works -- "Bright Segment," "When You're Smiling," "And Now the News," "To Here and the Easel" (a story about a painter who can't paint), "Hurricane Trio," "The Other Man" -- date from this period. One such story a year would more than justify a $20,000 annual survival grant from the National Endowment, if there were such a thing, and Sturgeon was turning out four or five major works a year.

Until 1958.

Tandy was born in 1954, and Noel (Ted and Marion's second daughter, and Ted's fourth) in 1956. In 1957 Ted decided it was time to leave Congers, and he and the family moved to a house in Truro, Massachusetts, near the tip of Cape Cod. (He became friends with Kurt Vonnegut at this time; and later Vonnegut used him as a partial model for his character Kilgore Trout.)

Ted finally wrote The Cosmic Rape that year on the Cape, along with several short stories, one of which, "The Comedian's Children," about a manipulative TV personality, was another impossible triumph -- that story tore me into little pieces when I was 12 years old, and it remains one of the most powerful pieces of fiction I've ever read.

But the Cape was cold and lonely, and the Sturgeon family decided they could live cheaper and happier in the West Indies. Ted's mother was teaching on St. Vincent, and she found them a place on the island of Bequi. They arrived -- three kids, possessions, etc. -- and the house was too small, noisy, no privacy ... so they began months of island-hopping, searching for a home. They ended up on Grenada. Ted had no place to write during all this, but he kept trying. He was working on a story called "The Man Who Lost the Sea."

At the end of 1958 he finished the story. It was the only thing he'd written all year. The money was long gone, patience was gone, the romantic dream of living in the West Indies was gone. Ted's agent sent back the story, saying he couldn't understand it. Eventually it sold to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but by that time the Sturgeons were back in Congers, at Marion's mother's house, trying to sort things out, looking for a place to settle down. Ted had finally done it: spent an entire year working on one 12-page story. Wrecked by the tropics again.

(It was a beautiful story, and Martha Foley later selected it for her Best Short Stories of the Year anthology. But it didn't pay the rent, even in Grenada. The years of high productivity had come to an end.)

* * *

There were more great works to come, of course -- two superb novels (Venus Plus X, 1960, about a world where the two sexes have merged into one; and Some of Your Blood, 1961, a fictionalized case history of an authentic vampire, due someday I think to come into its own as one of the finer short novels of the century) and a handful of major stories ("Need," "Tandy's Story," "When You Care, When You Love," "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Want One to Marry Your Sister?" and "Slow Sculpture") spread out over the next ten years. But the floodgates weren't open anymore; instead we have the occasional burst of genius slipping through. There was a minor breakthrough in 1969-1970, after Sturgeon's marriage to his fourth wife, W., which resulted in the Hugo and Nebula awards winner "Slow Sculpture," plus several other stories I liked, and several I didn't like, and a beautiful but unfinished (and unpublished) novel called Godbody. Still, looking at the total picture, it seems fair to say that Sturgeon's desire not-to-write has been pretty solidly in control for the last 15 years or more.

The question everybody asks, of course, is will his genius break free again, will there be more great stories from Theodore Sturgeon?

I'm here to tell you I've studied this matter very carefully, and I think it makes no difference. Don't worry about it. Everything's all right.

VIII.

"They didn't sing? Oh, you've got to hear them sing together...."

-- Theodore Sturgeon, talking to me on the phone, 1976.

My search for the man who wrote those stories has taken me many places -- but never have I felt closer to the mystery than I did one very cold, exciting evening, after a blizzard, last February 2nd, in a small two-room apartment in the middle of Woodstock, New York.

Robin Sturgeon (age 24) works in a paint store Tuesday through Saturday, and plays (guitar) in Jerry Moore's band on weekends. So Monday was the day for me to see him, and it didn't matter that the Monday I chose it was snowing, with winds so wild they closed the New York Thruway ... I just waited in the Port Authority terminal from six in the morning 'til three in the afternoon and when I finally got off the bus that evening into the zero-degree weather and friendly stillness of a small town after a storm, well, I felt very pleased to be there.

I found Robin's apartment after a minute or two -- he greeted me warmly, made a pot of coffee and a telephone call -- and we started talking. A few minutes later the others arrived: Tandy (then a senior at college, a poet), Noel (a freshman at the same college, a would-be law student) and Timothy (still in high school, a hiker and mountain climber). I hadn't expected to meet all four of Ted and Marion's children -- and I wouldn't have, except for that blizzard. A lucky break. The next three and a half hours of excited conversation and collective attention-focusing conjured up the real Theodore Sturgeon more clearly and solidly than if he'd been sitting in the room.

(We were in Woodstock because that's where Ted and Marion finally settled, in 1959; and when Ted left and moved to California in 1966, the children stayed with Marion. Now Robin has his own apartment, and the two girls are off at college; but Woodstock is "home.")

Early in this article I mentioned that Theodore Sturgeon and I have been "friends of a sort" for two or three years now; and now I have to explain why I chose those words. It's because of something Ted said to me several times (he never says anything just once), notably last December.

"You ask me who to speak to; well, W. makes the point that I don't have any friends. I know lots and lots of people, and lots of people know me -- lots of people feel they are my friends, and although I welcome them, when I see them, I still don't feel ... I don't seek anyone out. When people come to me, that's fine. But I really don't reach out to anybody."

Ted is a slippery person. People who know him casually are dazzled by him, because he seems so interested in them, so caring. People who know him or have known him well invariably express strong feelings of resentment mixed in with whatever else they feel towards him -- basically, I think, because they feel rejected, he doesn't seem to care about them anymore, and it hurts. The only exceptions, the only people I talked to who did not radiate powerfully mixed feelings about Ted, were his children. Because they are the only people I talked to who do not feel separated from him.

And that isn't because they're flesh of his flesh (we all know that the separation and resentment between parents and children can be awesome). No, I think it's because they're the only people who have accepted Theodore Sturgeon on his own terms. They're hardly unaware of his weaknesses -- but, collectively at least, they accept them; they're capable of seeing things his way.

That evening in Robin's apartment I began to comprehend what had been staring me in the face all along: that Sturgeon's different way of seeing things is the key to all his problems and miracles. He's aware of this difference, proud of it, eager to share it with the rest of us (there's an evangelistic, or "world-saving," current that runs through a lot of his writing) -- but he's also ashamed of his gift, because he learned very early that the world doesn't like people who are different. And so he's been trying all his life to convince himself that he's really just like everybody else.

Praise him for his talent, and he'll be pleased, on the surface; but deep inside, you've reopened an ancient wound.

So he does things backwards, partly because he sees things backwards, and inside out, and partly because he has to protect himself from a world where pleasure is pain. He writes because his stories bring him acceptance, and attention, and love, and like most of us he wants these things. But like many of us, he also fears these things, and so in his skillful and perverse way he tries not to write. And the result of these two contrary streams eddying and flowing against each other is something rich and strange.

The next day (after the blizzard) I talked with Marion, and she gave me a new perspective on Ted and his procrastination. We were talking about how maybe he would have been happier if he hadn't had the talent to write, and had spent his life doing something else, like fixing toys, instead. But then it occurred to Marion that it was the same thing with the toys -- he loved to fix the children's toys, and he did a beautiful job of it, but over the years his office became filled with boxes and boxes of broken toys waiting to be fixed. You could go in and pick up a fire engine covered with dust and he'd tell you to put it down because he was just about to get around to it. And he believed it. "It has something to do with time in some way," Marion said. "It's as though everything is always in the present."

That's it. The children grow up and don't need their toys anymore, but Ted is living -- not in the past, but in an eternal present, where a moment ago this toy was brought to him, and in another moment, just as soon as he takes care of one or two other things, he's going to fix it better than new.

What is special about this man is that he cares so much about the people and things that exist inside his moment. If you're not in front of him right now you're out of his mind completely; but the world that is before his eyes excites him, delights him, astounds him, always -- he has a sense of wonder about everything he sees that is childlike but all the more intense because it's coming from an adult. He radiates enthusiasm, and as perhaps you can imagine, he was a very wonderful father to his children.

And as you can also imagine, he is one of the world's worst businessmen; and he doesn't know it and won't admit it and he'll be furious with me for writing this sentence. He still feels his manhood is on the line here. Contracts go unsigned, letters of reversion and copyright renewal go unwritten, he has this master plan that he does little to implement but meanwhile he tries to prevent his books from being reissued so they won't interfere with the plan. He relishes the dream of having all his work available in a uniform edition. But deep inside him, I have to believe, there's something that feels much safer knowing people can't read what he's written.

I'm impatient, obviously, with Ted and his eternal present. But it's him. It's his curse and the source of all his pain; but it's also his gift, the source of all his pride and accomplishment.

This is where Sturgeon's miracles come from: they come from his ability to take the ordinary world and see it from a different point of view, stand it on its head and make it fascinating without taking away its palpable reality. They come from the empathy he feels for all people who have a different way of seeing things, and his ability to heighten the reader's empathy to an astonishing degree, until we are forced to agree with the Roman playwright Terence: "I am a man: nothing human is alien to me."

Most of all, his stories come from his ability to care about the people in front of him -- that is, the characters in whatever story he happens to be working on. When he writes, he lives in the eternal present of those people and that place and time. And when he solves the central problem of the story, or rather when the characters he has created solve it for him, the sensation for the reader is overwhelming, because Sturgeon has in fact solved all the problems of the world at that moment. He gives himself entirely to each real story he writes, and when he arrives at his solution, the reader, who has also given himself to the story, experiences a moment of overriding intensity and liberation -- regardless of whether the resolution of the story is horrifying or beautiful (it's usually a little of both).

And that's the other thing. There is someone else, other than Ted's children, who accepts Sturgeon completely on his own terms, and that's the person who is reading a Sturgeon story. The essence of reading fiction is, as Coleridge suggested, "a willing suspension of disbelief." We are seduced; we give ourselves to the storyteller. We see things his way. And if his way of seeing things is truly different, and truly uplifting, then we experience something greater than ourselves each time we listen to his stories.

* * *

"I was embarrassed as a kid -- he had this beard and everything -- I wanted him to be straight and drive a fire truck. Later I realized I got much more than most kids did: a sense of wonder, and the courage to use it."

-- Robin Sturgeon

IX.

Theodore Sturgeon, best living American short story writer, was also the first person in the history of the Philadelphia school system to do a back flyaway dismount. But he worked so hard to prove himself as a flyer, an athlete, that he disabled himself (or you could say he was struck down by the gods, if that's how you want to look at it). He has a history of trying too hard.

Theodore Sturgeon is a success. He has more great stories in him, and he may or may not get around to writing them sometime in the next few decades. But it doesn't matter. The man is capable of stretching out a day's postponement into a 20-year sidetrack, or of compressing a lifetime into six hours of writing. We need not concern ourselves with trying to determine exactly where on his immeasurable time scale he happens to be right now. What's important to us, his readers, is that he's already written more heart-shaking, earth-changing great short stories than most of us will ever have time to read.

And even if he has completed this stage of his career -- which I doubt -- what of it? What has he got to prove? Is it a tragedy not to be able to do back flyaway dismounts forever?

The best thing the public can do for a writer is leave him alone. In which case, you ask, why have I written this essay? I didn't do it to call attention to the writer. I did it to call attention to the stories.

Our heroes have to have feet of clay, not so we can bring them down to our level but so we can rise to theirs. We have to become our own heroes; and if it's true that these stories, "Bright Segment" and More than Human and "The Comedian's Children" and all the rest of them, were written by a human being, then I think there's hope for all of us.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Andros Sturgeon (age 6) has brought his father a toy to be fixed; and sometime before he goes to sleep tonight, Ted's going to feed the rabbits.


Support Paul Williams
Paul Williams - editor, writer, groundbreaking rock critic, and one of the founders of the New Age - has been diagnosed with early Alzheimer's stemming from a bicycle accident. It was Paul's idea to publish all Sturgeon's short fiction in a set of volumes that became The Complete Stories, and his story notes to the first eleven volumes were an important part of this project. Paul's family need support for his care, and both the rock music and science fiction communities that owe so much to Paul's work have organized to help. To learn more about William's work and to donate, see Paul's website.