Tag Archives: Theodore Sturgeon

Advice to would-be sf writers, from sf writers

The sf writer cannot avoid man’s problems; by the very nature of his craft, he must meet them head on. That is sf’s challenge, and it is as big as the future of mankind.

Title: The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy
Editor: Reginald Bretnor
Year: 1976
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Here’s one of those “advice on how to write from the writers themselves” books, which I picked up not because I have any goals of writing myself but simply because I like reading what sf writers have to say about their field. This is one of several such volumes helmed by the same editor back in the 1970’s, and is a fairly interesting collection of essays for any sf fan who also likes reading works about sf. Strange fellow though, this Bretnor. His introduction provides some insightful thoughts on sf, but things get a little weird when he starts professing his belief that clairvoyance, dowsing, and other assorted woo is “proven.” Uhhh, yeah, whatever. Anyway, who cares what the editor has to say? What’s important is what the writers themselves have to share. Here’s a rundown of their contributions and a few comments on each:

Poul Anderson, “Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come.” This one’s rather dry, with not much of importance to say.

Hal Clement, “Hard Sciences and Tough Technologies.” A decent article on the use of science in sf and the importance of internal consistency.

Norman Spinrad, “Rubber Sciences.” One of the best essays in the book; it covers some of the same ground as Clement, but from a different perspective. Spinrad says what’s important in sf is plausibility, and not necessarily a rigid deference to scientific fact. He sums up by saying science fiction writers are….

… the poets of the future, the seers of human destiny. Hard science, soft science, or rubber are tools of the trade, means to the end of visionary insight and artistic creation. They should never be mistaken for the end itself.

Alan E. Nourse, “Extrapolations and Quantum Jumps.” Focuses largely on that all-important fictional element, the premise, as well as other fiction basics. Solid article.

Theodore Sturgeon, “Future Writers in a Future World.” This was a pure joy to read. Sturgeon does a better job than anyone else in this volume of getting across the sheer sense of wonder of science fiction, and his essay is full of enthusiastic inspiration for future writers and valuable advice on where to find story ideas. He also stresses the importance of connecting your ideas to real human concerns:

And whatever your idea or statement, gimmick, gadget or message, you will (to be read) encase it in love, and pain, and greed, and laughter, and hope, and above all loneliness.

Jerry Pournelle, “The Construction of Believable Societies.” A good look at the need for social depth — what we often call “world building” — in sf.

Frank Herbert, “Men on Other Planets.” Herbert makes some great points about sf’s ability to escape our society’s unexamined assumptions and play around with them. He also quite correctly warns the potential writer that there’s more to writing sf than thinking up an idea — the development of that idea is the crucial thing.

Katherine MacLean, “Alien Minds and Nonhuman Intelligences.” MacLean chose an intriguing topic, but her thoughts on the matter were scattered and unfocused and, to be honest, boring.

James Gunn, “Heroes, Heroines, Villains: the Characters in Science Fiction.” Pretty self-explanatory. Solid article on the importance of characterization.

Larry Niven, “The Words in Science Fiction.” On how to add some linguistic depth to your fiction. Interesting.

Jack Williamson, “Short Stories and Novelettes.” A few words on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the shorter fictional forms.

John Brunner, “The Science Fiction Novel.” And here’s Brunner on the other end of the spectrum.

Harlan Ellison, “With the Eyes of a Demon: Seeing the Fantastic as a Video Image.” A long and involved article on writing screenplays for television and film. I didn’t find it that interesting myself, but I’m sure it would be helpful to anyone looking to do that kind of work.

Frederik Pohl, “The Science Fiction Professional.” A rather tedious essay on the business aspects of being a writer — all about agents, publicity, contracts, and such.

Basically it’s a few boring articles, mixed with a few really pleasurable ones, with a lot more falling somewhere in between. I’d recommend this book to would-be writers; for anyone else, it just depends on how much interest you have in this sort of thing.

Sturgeon’s solution to the Battle of the Sexes

You cannot be objective about it because you have been indoctrinated….. you come from a time and place in which the maleness of the male, and the femaleness of the female, and the importance of their difference, were matters of almost total preoccupation.

Title: Venus Plus X
Author: Theodore Sturgeon
Year: 1960
Rating: 2/5 stars

venusplusxOn the front of my vintage paperback copy of Venus Plus X is the declaration: “the strangest science-fiction novel Theodore Sturgeon has ever written.” I can’t speak to the “-est” part (haven’t read enough of his work), but the rest of that statement is accurate enough; this is definitely a strange book. It’s a utopian story that focuses primarily on gender issues, viewing sexual differences and competition as the pivot on which society turns. Like many utopian novels, this one makes some good points here and there, but ultimately ends up being (a) unconvincing, and (b) a little bit creepy.

When Charlie Johns wakes up in a world different from the one he’s familiar with, apparently the victim of a kidnapping-by-time-machine, he’s in for the shock of his life. No, it’s not the time machine itself, but the bizarre people and society to which it has brought him. He finds himself the guest of the Ledom, a new version of humanity that has only one gender, with male and female characteristics averaged into an androgynous middle ground. Any Ledom can mate with any other, but with the “battle of the sexes” out of the way, they do it without the sexual tensions and hangups of previous ages. The Ledom see this as an achievement of the highest order, and the basis of their perfect and blissful existence.

Of course no one can deny that sexual differences have played a huge role in human societies, and that there is such a thing as sexism, and that one gender has been disproportionately excluded from power throughout most of history. But I can’t buy Sturgeon’s premise that this is the primary source of all the ills in the human world, or the suggestion that if that problem could be eliminated, utopia would be the natural result. Of course I have no idea how seriously (if at all) Sturgeon meant the idea to be taken. But, when you discover this change to a one-gender system is not evolutionary at all, but artificial and quite purposeful, it really comes across as overkill, a radical solution to a problem that doesn’t require such an extreme. There is no recognition of the fact that progress has already been made, particularly in the 20th Century; hell, Sturgeon was alive (although a small child) when the 19th Amendment was ratified. But gender inequality is still the greatest evil facing society? I think that’s quite an exaggeration, even in 1960.

Sturgeon does make a valid point, however, about the human desire to feel superior, and the practice of making others inferior in order to accomplish this. He also has his Ledom address the fact that most people in the modern world are so disconnected from the land. Most people get their food not by picking it, growing it, or hunting it; we have specialists to produce it, while we play other specialized roles in a vast and complicated machine. Sturgeon points out that if that machine were ever to break, a whole lot of people would find themselves going hungry very quickly. I think that point was at least as interesting, possibly more so, than the book’s ideas on gender.

This is a highly readable novel, with an easy flowing prose style and a rather short length. And it does raise some ideas worth thinking about. But ultimately it comes across as a little preachy in tone, and doesn’t say anything nearly as deep as Sturgeon probably hoped for.

Some golden and not-so-golden stories from Sturgeon

goldenhelixIf you’ve read many of my reviews, you may have noticed I’ve said repeatedly that my preference is for novels, and I don’t generally find many short stories to my liking. However, I have set myself the task of reading more stories, in light of the role they’ve played in the history of science fiction. So it has become my habit lately to always have a short story collection thrown into the mix of two or three books I’m reading at any given time (and anyway, I have a short attention span when reading, so it’s good to take several breaks during a novel and read a few stories).

The Golden Helix (1979) is a collection of stories by Theodore Sturgeon. Oddly enough, when it comes to Sturgeon, I realize now that I’ve never read anything but his short stories. In my early teen years I had a copy of Sturgeon Is Alive and Well that I found in a box of old books from a yard sale. At the time, I thought Sturgeon was just bizarre, and I’m not sure I understood much of what I read (I had not had a lot of experience with sf at that point). But still, there was something strangely compelling about those stories, some feeling they gave me that I can’t really describe. There were certain scenes in some stories I went back and read over and over again, just for their texture or emotion or style, even when the plot didn’t interest me much.

For the most part, I didn’t get quite that same feeling from The Golden Helix. Possibly that’s because many of these stories are from early in Sturgeon’s career (they are predominantly from the 1950’s), and the author himself, in his short introductory notes, admits the quality level is sometimes not up to later standards. It’s also possible I read this collection with a more critical eye, as an adult, than I did when I first read Sturgeon as a teenager with a fully charged “sensawunda.” At any rate, there were some good stories here, but also some that didn’t do a thing for me.

Let me say, though, that there was one shining example of a fantastic short story here, one of the best short stories I have ever read, a little gem called “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” This is, to me, a model of one type of thing a short story should strive for. It’s not plot-driven at all, in fact there really isn’t much of a plot. Rather, it’s a short piece built around the atmosphere and poignancy of a situation a man finds himself in. It has a kind of compact, self-contained, poetic wholeness to it; this is to short stories what a haiku is to poetry. Loved it. (Sturgeon himself had a different opinion, though. He said he told his editor to burn the story, but that it got published and ended up in a “best of the year” anthology. Go figure.)

A few other stories were also of interest. “And Now the News…” takes a look at what constant negative news does to a man who cares deeply about the world. “The Clinic” involves some aliens with disabilities who feel right at home on Earth. “The Ultimate Egoist” is a fun story built around the philosophical question of how real the world is, and if it really is only a figment of our imagination. “Yesterday Was Monday” is a humorous look at time and how it doesn’t just “happen.”

The title story was by far the longest, and one of those I didn’t like. It is partly based on the silly concept of “devolution,” one of the worst ideas sf ever came up with, and one that needs to quietly go away. The four remaining stories were likewise of little or no value to me. “I Say… Ernest” has to be one of the most utterly pointless stories I’ve ever come across.

This collection was worth reading, for me, because it allowed me to discover “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” and also because even if I don’t always like the details of plot or character, I still enjoy Sturgeon’s style. I do think, though, that next time around I’ll try one of his novels.

The makers of our science fiction dreams

I just finished a fascinating book called Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers At Work, by Charles Platt. It’s a book of author profiles based on interviews Platt (an editor and writer himself) conducted in the late 1970’s. The work was originally published in two paperbacks in the early 80’s; this 1987 hardcover volume is a “new and revised” merger of those two earlier editions. The authors covered are: Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), L. Ron Hubbard, Algis Budrys, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Thomas Disch, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Stephen King.

Platt’s introduction tells us something about his goals:

I started doing profiles of science-fiction authors (and other writers of imaginative literature) because I knew from personal experience that they could be just as interesting — sometimes, just as bizarre — as their own books. Also, I believed that the personality of the writer was relevant to his work. Most critics focus exclusively on the text itself, as if it might be “improper” to make deductions or inquiries about a writer’s life. To me, this is snobbish and arbitrary. We can appreciate their work more if we know more about them as people.

And I do know more about these authors as people, after reading these profiles. I learned a lot about these authors, about the way they live, the way they write, the things they’re passionate about, that made me appreciate many of them more (and a few of them less). Most of the material presented is direct quotation from the authors, with a minimum of Platt’s commentary. Which is fine, because Platt’s comments and questions are rather dull most of the time (with a few insightful opinions now and then). It’s the words of the writers themselves that really make this book shine. I’d like to share some of the more interesting quotes and tidbits of information I picked up from this book.

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and her husband both worked for the CIA in its early days, in relatively important positions (cool — a spy and a science fiction writer). Alice had a degree in psychology, and one of her comments was:

“Man does not change his behavior, he adapts to the results of it. That is, to me, the most grisly truth I learned from psychology.”

Harry Harrison shared his opinions about the corruption of sf awards, the lack of respect (and decent pay) for sf writers, and the dirty behavior of publishers and Hollywood. It all culminates in this recollection:

“Someone once sent me a clipping from some magazine, an interview with George Lucas, saying ‘I grew up reading science fiction, I really was a fan of science fiction, but I didn’t like things written by people like Heinlein or Bradbury, I thought Harry Harrison was my god, and I enjoyed everything he wrote.’ That kind of thing. I thought, ‘Well! Why the hell didn’t you write to me and have me do a god damned script for you, you know, if that’s what you feel, old son, I’d be very happy to come over and make some money from this rotten field.’ Oh there’s no justice in this field.”

Frederick Pohl is (or was back then) quite politically active; he also sometimes lectured/preached at churches (mostly Unitarian). But he was pessimistic about whether anyone really listened to him:

“I remember talking to a group in Chicago once and saying that the primary requisite for achieving a viable relationship between our society and the planet’s ecology was individual self-control. They stood up and cheered me. Then the next speaker said exactly the opposite and they stood up and cheered him too.”

A. E. van Vogt spent much of his interview babbling about Dianetics, est training, and other psycho-nonsense. He came across as a total crackpot, saying that psychology needed saving and he might be the one to save it. Mighty humble, that one.

Philip K. Dick talked about…. well, the kooky stuff PKD is so well known for. From much of what he said, his unfortunate mental problems are all too apparent. However, even with his problems, he came across as more modest, intelligent, and likable than van Vogt.

Frank Herbert was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He and an electronics engineer friend once tried to design their own new kind of computer. He also experimented with harnessing wind power and came up with some pretty cutting-edge designs.

Piers Anthony is a hyperactive tour-de-force. He talks fast, moves fast, works fast — fast and non-stop. And even though he has a very successful writing career, he lives humbly:

“I am not foolish about money at all. I don’t waste it, you don’t see me going off and buying Cadillacs, no you see me out there splitting wood, because we have a wood-burning stove, and solar-powered water heating, if the sun doesn’t shine we don’t bother with hot water, because I don’t like paying fuel bills. I’m a miser!”

Alfred Bester had one of the most fun profiles to read. Asked about his method of dealing with rejection letters, his answer was: “drink more!” Did you know Bester, while an editor for Holiday magazine, was responsible for talking Peter Benchley into turning what was then just a story into an entire novel — Jaws? When asked about retirement, he said:

“Retire? Yeah, I want to retire with my head in the typewriter. That’s my idea of retirement.”

One of the things I liked about Platt’s style was that he helped to give a feel for the authors by describing their homes (most of the interviews were in person), and particularly their work areas used for writing. There was quite a variety, from Ballard’s desk by a big window facing his back yard, to Anthony’s office barn, to Farmer’s windowless basement room with walls covered in erotic art.

There’s a lot more I could mention — this book is full of great stuff! And somehow, in some mysterious way, my “to read” list has grown longer. Funny how that happens all the time. 😆