The Ultimate Egoist: Volume 1: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, ed. by Paul Williams, North Atlantic, 1994, ISBN 1-55643-182-1, $25.00

I’ve been excited by the prospect of this book for quite some time. Imagine all the Sturgeon short stories collected in a series of volumes, and not just the ones that were published or previously collected, but all of them. Edited and with notes, to top it off, by that most meticulous of literary executors, Paul Williams (the man behind the Collected Philip K. Dick). Unfortunately, Sturgeon never attracted the same fanaticism that Dick did, and this project was on shaky ground for some time. The first book is finally out, and it definitely lives up to the expectations for it.

  • “Heavy Insurance” — Sturgeon’s first published and possibly first completed work. A clever short short revolving around the, then, unusual properties of dry ice. With short shorts I am always reminded of Jack Ritchie’s Little Boxes of Bewilderment, and this story, even as early in Sturgeon’s career as it was, can stand among those tales.
  • “The Heart” — A more obvious early story. The dialogue is nice, but this is the kind of story and ending that would receive a rejection slip these days with a note scribbled on it saying, “So what?” A trunk story that was fished out by Sturgeon years later after he had already made his name. I understand his feeling for it: I have a couple of little darlings in my trunk as well.
  • “Cellmate” — The word choices and the “so what” ending give this one away as an early piece. (A prisoner, no matter how hip in the 50s, is not going to call a jail a bastille.) The story itself is a little eerie, but nothing to be excited over. Some nice touches, but overlong for the limited punch.
  • “Fluffy” — A few awkward wording moments, but they don’t detract from the joy of a clever little twist story. This would have been a page from Jonathan Carroll except Sturgeon has to have a “logical” explanation (well, OK, an explanation–Carroll wouldn’t have felt the need for any) for the basic conceit. However, it’s still just a twist story. Sturgeon quickly moved beyond it.
  • “Alter Ego” — Almost a study in what not to do in a story, this previously unpublished piece reeks of the new writer, for it is all tell and no show. It spans years, yet there is not time sense. There are some specifics, but no details. While the plot itself could become something, it’s too pithy for this treatment and too pathetic for longer. It’s not too surprising that this one didn’t see print in its time.
  • “Mailed Through a Porthole” — Might have worked better as a poem. From the first line I knew where it was headed, and it never drifted from that resolution. It needed a twist to turn it around. Even so, the writing was nice and clear.
  • “A Noose of Light” — Another unpublished one–this one probably because it is all tell, and no show–although it could easily have been rewritten to be show. The trouble when you’ve written a tell story is that you’ve worked so hard thinking and producing that draft, that you block trying to do the draft that you should have done first all along.
  • “Strangers on a Train” — More of a vignette than a story, for it’s pretty obvious the connection here between the two people. However, there is something in Sturgeon’s knowledge of human psychology and relationships–something that will be shown as genius in one of my favorite Sturgeon stories, “It’s You.” This unpublished piece is like a working artist’s sketch for the oil painting of that later story.
  • “Accidentally on Porpoise” — The first thing that would have to change is the atrocious title, which isn’t even an especially clever pun. There are some things here that could have been good, like the play on people having shark and dolphin characteristics, the concept of a human being having to be recreated (an idea, according to the notes, intrigued Sturgeon, much like the definition of “human” drove much of Phil Dick’s work). But it’s too long for its subject, making it seem forced and static.
  • “The Right Line” — A simple little love story, based on Sturgeon’s real merchant marine experience, no doubt. The style is fine, similar in kind to the early Wodehouse, but where Wodehouse used language for amusement, Sturgeon uses it to duplicate reality.
  • “Golden Day” — A short short without much payoff. As a fan of the form, I tend to be highly critical. But then, I favor a particular type–the clever or twist short. Much of what gets published under 1,000 words tends to be character vignettes, which I don’t care for.
  • “Permit Me My Gesture” — Ah! The exact opposite reaction from “Golden Day”–this is my kind of short short: neat set up, perfect background, and clever ending twist. The notes include a letter from Sturgeon to his wife; in it, he calls this kind of story a gadget plot, and “Golden Day” a gag. I’ll have to check my reactions to see if gadgets are always what I term as clever.
  • “Watch My Smoke” — Sure enough, I liked this clever little thing that Sturgeon also termed a gadget story. The difference? A gag story is a “fool the reader,” a story based on making the reader perceive one thing early in the story and have it be something else. A gadget is a twist story. Both kinds were the makings of the Twilight Zone series, but I largely prefer the twist.
  • “The Other Cheek” — Clever and sweet. Obviously Sturgeon had discovered a market for short shorts (the McClure newspaper syndicate) and he worked on the plots for these exclusively. A short short is a perfect story to practice storytelling as well, because it depends on being very economical with words.
  • “Extraordinary Seaman” — A little longer than the others, and not quite as twisty as it could have been. This one is more like “The Right Line”–a little love story akin to the early stories of P.G. Wodehouse. Boy-meets-girl, girl hates boy, girl loves boy sort of thing. Does this stuff get written and sold anymore?
  • “One Sick Kid” — A short based on Sturgeon’s personal experience, kind of a “true life” op-ed piece. A bit formless, though, without a genuine payoff, i.e., life isn’t as clever as fiction.
  • “His Good Angel” — A little romantic bit that contains a little bit of clever but nothing major. It was of the light vein that Wodehouse started in as well. Sturgeon would follow the clever track while Wodehouse had followed the romantic comedy lead.
  • “Some People Forget” — These early stories are marked as going for the emotions–Sturgeon was trying to learn how to pull the heart strings. In “One Sick Kid” it was patriotism, here it is grief and guilt. Maybe it was the tenor of the times, where a story could go for the gut like this, but today the only people to get away with this are Hollywood scriptwriters.
  • “A God in a Garden” — Here is the raison d’etre for this volume, for the admiration that writers and readers have for Sturgeon is based on stories like this one. The perfect twist tale–what some people would term a Twilight Zone story. A man with a character flaw (he lies to his wife), a conflict (his wife knows about the lying, and is upset), and the twist (he digs up a god in his garden that gives him the ability to always tell the truth–not the actual truth, but whatever he says becomes the truth). Sturgeon handles it all brilliantly. The notes seem to agree. This story–Sturgeon’s first sale to John W. Campbell for Unknown–was like his coming out party. Finally he had found a market that didn’t require formula (the string-tugging as described under “Some People Forget” above), yet welcomed cleverness.
  • “Fit for a King” — A patriotic string tugger, with some interesting insights into Sturgeon’s feelings at the time. The notes say that Sturgeon would continue to write these stories for the McClure newspaper syndicate while writing the stories for Unknown.
  • “Ex-Bachelor Extract” — A romantic string puller, with a little cleverness between the title and the ending.
  • “East is East” — Another nice little boy-meets-girl story. These things are essentially vignettes–character studies with a defined formula to them. While they are not the stuff of genius, they proved essential to Sturgeon finding a range of characterization.
  • “Three People” — A patriotism string-tugger, but this one must have tried too hard because it went unpublished. Based on a childhood incident, but too clearly aimed at the marketplace, rather than coming from the heart.
  • “Eyes of Blue” — Williams’ question in the notes asks us if all these stories of slumming rich girls who fall for forceful guys who turn out to be of the best class tells us something of Sturgeon’s psyche. The answer is yes, although we can’t go too far with it. As Williams says, some of it also has to do with Sturgeon’s knowledge of the marketplace–knowing that things had to work out for the better because the syndicate market demanded a payoff.
  • “Ether Breather” — A bit dated by technology–that is, an atomic powered TV set is overkill and we have color TV without all this other stuff–and by the language–in the future people speak like the hip of the 1940/50s? But for all that, an OK piece of SF work. It’s a first contact piece with a twist, and probably couldn’t get published in a magazine today, but Sturgeon was part of the writing group that defined what SF was, and this was just another piece of that definition.
  • “Her Choice” — A neat little Con game/twisty romantic short short. Nothing but plot, but a nice one.
  • “Cajun Providence” — I guess this was a twist story at one time, though I find it a little hard to believe that even in the 40s people outside Louisiana didn’t think of crawfish as food. I guess that’s my southern upbringing coming out.
  • “Strike Three” — Not to my taste, as it was a little tame and seemingly unrealistic given my recollections of school. Of course, the strange tenor of the P.G. Wodehouse boys school stories strike me the same way. In each, there is a world that to us seems like a fantasy.
  • “Contact!” — These last ones seem to be stretching it even for the McClure’s syndicate. It could be that this, as Sturgeon called it, “pen prostitution” had reached that point for him where it was easy enough to get the reader hooked, that a merely satisfying experience was enough to provide as his contracted duty. The difference between these and earlier, more heartfelt ones, and the SF/fantasy ones is becoming apparent.
  • “The Call” — A gag story, and one on which I gagged. I definitely do not like these dipsy-doodle, “fool the reader” stories. I do not like to be fooled; I want to be amused or impressed.
  • “Helix the Cat” — A cute and clever little SF fantasy about souls and the “uplifting” (to use Brin’s term) of a cat. There’s lots of good twists and turns in this one, almost enough to forgive the rather poorly represented characters. All in all, a good story though.
  • “To Shorten Sail” — A gag story, but one that I didn’t mind as much. Part of it was the subject material–I’m sure that I’d be next to useless on a sailing vessel, but I love to read about them.
  • “Thanksgiving Again” — A wonderful gimmick–the fact that Thanksgiving in the U.S. and Canada is different–and a wonderfully heartfelt romantic string tugger. This one was a little longer than the others, which might also have given it a slight edge, enabling the reader to get to know the characters a little better.
  • “Bianca’s Hands” — A disturbing little fantasy/horror piece, showing the depth of Sturgeon’s mastery of character, mood, and language. Yes, there’s a plot, but the plot is nothing besides the description. It is so well done–this description of Bianca’s hands and Ran’s love for them–that is is close to erotic. Of course, Sturgeon was no stranger to that genre, although his take on it would not be fully revealed until years later with the novels Some of Your Blood and Godbody.
  • “Derm Fool” — Given a little more conflict between the two main characters, this could have been a screwball SF story. It’s pretty screwy as its written, a strange little SF/fantasy about shedding skin. There’s something you don’t read about everyday.
  • “He Shuttles” — This was a strange one, and I’m not quite sure how to take it. The setup is nothing new–a man with three wishes–but I didn’t follow the plot and its conclusion. Basically, as many an editor has said of my own stories, I didn’t get it.
  • “Turkish Delight” — A gimmick story based on Sturgeon’s merchant marine knowledge. It doesn’t quite work, because he has to explain the gimmick. It’s best when the gimmick is self-evident, but only at the end of the story.
  • “Niobe” — A pleasant try, mixing poetry with a gothic inspired plot, but the edges are fuzzy. It works too suddenly–ghost stories require that a mood be built, some sense of normality before the horror.
  • “Mahout” — Not so much a gimmick or gag story, although that’s what it’s meant to be, but a tall tale. Again, Sturgeon is working under the first rule of a beginning writer–write what you know. Sturgeon knew the sea and sailors.
  • “The Long Arm” — A gag story–fooling the reader by having the main character think “man and woman” early on in the story as a red herring. I don’t like the gag’s because they’re not honest with the reader. It’s not even like a story with an untrustworthy narrator; in those types of stories, the length of the tale lets you start suspecting the narrator before receiving confirmation that something is not right, rather than having it sprung on you in surprise.
  • “The Man on the Steps” — A sickly patriotic gag story. Sturgeon must have achieved some kind of plateau with the McClure syndicate, because they accepted this later one, while rejecting “Three People,” just as sickly patriotic, earlier.
  • “Punctuational Advice” — A nice one, from punny title to name gimmick. Of course, it’s because I go for the gimmick ones. This has an early red herring, but it’s not a true red herring, but more of a feint.
  • “Place of Honor” — These short shorts are starting to wear on me–they were not meant to be read consecutively like this, but one a day in the special slot of a newspaper. Too many in a row, and the edges start to show.
  • “The Ultimate Egoist” — The logical extreme of the philosophical question best answered by Rene Descartes when he wrote, “Cogito, ergo sum.” Whatever Woody thinks is, and what he doubts isn’t, and it doesn’t take long for him to break under the strain.
  • “It” — Probably one of the most famous Sturgeon stories, spawning at least two comic creatures: DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man-Thing. Actually what Sturgeon accomplishes here is the envy of every horror writer–he invents a new monster. Unfortunately he did it in a short story rather than a novel or a movie, so his creation has yet to join the full pantheon to which it belongs, taking its place beside Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
  • “Butyl and the Breather” — Sequel to the earlier “Ether Breather.” I didn’t much like the first story, and the sequel wasn’t an improvement. Too much of an “as you know, Bob” or “talking head” story.

I hope that this project–to collect all of Sturgeon’s short stories–continues apace. Paul Williams’ earlier effort in this vein was the incredible Collected Philip K. Dick, and while the Dick was interesting, PKD was a writer who excelled at novels, not really the short. Sturgeon, on the other hand, was the opposite. I learned a lot about writing from the Dick volumes, and I hope to learn even more from Sturgeon.

[Finished 25 September 1995]


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