Monday, March 31, 2014

Two stories by Theodore Sturgeon: "Occam's Scalpel" and "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"

Today I read two stories by Theodore Sturgeon of "Killdozer" fame, the shortish "Occam's Scalpel" (14 pages) and the longish "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" (44 pages.)  I'm inclined to think Sturgeon is overrated, but his writing style is good and he has a large body of work, much of which I have not yet read, and so I still have hopes of encountering something I will enjoy as much as my favorite Sturgeon stories.

"Occam's Scalpel" (1971)

I don't think of Sturgeon as a hard SF writer, but I read this story in David Hartwell and Kathyrn Cramer's The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard Science Fiction.  In the introduction to the story, Hartwell and/or Cramer admit that many members of the SF community wouldn't consider "Occam's Scalpel" a hard SF tale, or even SF at all.  We are also told that Sturgeon was regarded by his peers with "something akin to worship," that he was considered "the finest literary craftsman of his day in the genre," and that no writer in SF "has yet produced a body of short fiction superior to Sturgeon's."  It is this sort of talk that I have in mind when I suggest Sturgeon is overrated.

NB: Ted's story does not include an elf riding a dragon
Like the Hugo-winning "Slow Sculpture," "Occam's Scalpel" is about a genius inventor who lacks social skills and who is abused by society.  He starts successful businesses but his associates steal him blind and destroy his firms.  He has the bad luck to have his first wife leave him, his second wife die in a car crash, and then to be wounded by a stray round during a bank robbery, leading to a five month hospital stay.  Have all these disasters turned the inventor from a paragon of decency (he was inventing stuff like a way to preserve organic baby food and a plastic that can be burned without polluting) into something worse?  Let's hope not, because as the story opens he is about to become the head of a huge conglomerate, rendering him the most powerful man on Earth!  (I always think the most powerful man in the world is some politician, but in fiction the most powerful man in the world is often some business guy.)

One of the themes of Sturgeon's work is the importance of brotherly love and the tragic lack of intimacy between people in our world (in The Cosmic Rape he seems to be applauding an alien invasion of Earth that leads to all human beings joining a collective consciousness.)  This theme manifests itself in "Occam's Scalpel" in its frame; much of the tale of the genius inventor is told by a man to his brother during an affectionate reunion.  Then the brothers work together to trick the genius inventor into using his skills and power to clean up the environment.  Like "Slow Sculpture" this story is about how it would be great if intellectual elites would manipulate the rest of us because we are all too stupid and greedy to do the right thing.

This story is better than "Slow Sculpture" in areas like tone, style, and character, and it has some surprises, so I'd give it a marginal or moderate thumbs up.

Back cover of DV 35th Anniversary ed - sorry Ted!
"If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" (1967)

I read this one in the 35th Anniversary Edition of Dangerous Visions.  In democratic fashion, the original edition of Dangerous Visions, with the cover by the Dillons, listed all 33 authors in the same size type.  The 35th anniversary edition instead lists only 13 "luminaries," and Sturgeon is not among them.  Surely Sturgeon is a bigger draw than Damon Knight!  Oh, well.

Editor Harlan Ellison's intro to "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" is about how Sturgeon once wrote Ellison a letter in which he [Sturgeon] tells him [Ellison] that he [Ellison] is one of the few good people in the world.  Adorable.

The story takes place centuries in the future, when the Earth has long been destroyed by Sol going nova and humankind has colonized hundreds of planets.  Travel between these planets is a breeze, but there is one planet the powers-that-be are trying to keep people away from, Vexvelt.  And it is not just the elites, even the common people who encounter them detest the Vexveltians.  Our hero, through detective work, persistence, bravery and luck, makes his way to Vexvelt and befriends the people there.  These people are all super strong, beautiful, run around naked, and are eager to have sex with strangers.  Their planet is a paradise, their society a utopia.  (As in "Slow Sculpture," a big deal is made out of the fact that they can cure cancer, but the rest of humanity is resistant to learning their methods.)

So, why is it hard to get to Vexvelt?  Why isn't the rest of humanity eager to buy their superior products at lower prices, eager to embrace their cancer cure?  Because Vexvelt is the planet of incest!  The Vexveltians are so healthy and rich because they are the only sane people in the galaxy; the incest taboo has made the rest of humanity insane and held them back.  The Vexveltians (and perhaps Sturgeon himself) claim that incest isn't really bad or unhealthy, and that the incest taboo is the cause of all the wars, revolutions, and various unhappinesses the human race has inflicted on itself and the environment for millennia.  Sturgeon doesn't just nibble at the edges of the issue or hint at it obliquely, he goes all the way with this unconventional (to say the least!) line of thought.

In some ways "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" reminded me of those Heinlein novels in which there is an adventure but Heinlein is largely trying to lay his (liberal?  libertarian?) social ideas on us.  (Heinlein, I recall, also seemed to think the incest taboo silly.)

"If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" is well-written, and it is certainly "dangerous," and while it is didactic and even sententious, the pro-incest speech only takes up a few pages, so it isn't burdensome.  Part of the story's appeal is its unusual subject matter and point of view; we've all heard environmentalist rhetoric, feminist rhetoric, Marxist chicanery, a thousand times, but how many times have we heard someone arguing in favor of incest, or blaming the incest taboo for all our social and political problems?  This material is still challenging, and isn't one reason we read SF to get exposed to new, different, crazy, wild, ideas?  Partly because it is so "out there," this is one of the better stories by Sturgeon, and I recommend it.

Sturgeon's Afterword to "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" is also worth reading, shedding a little light on Sturgeon's life, his work process, and on the construction of Dangerous Visions itself; it is suggested that Ellison was "bitterly disappointed" with some of the submissions he received.  Presumably he wasn't disappointed in Sturgeon's story, which is both good and "dangerous."


I was more impressed with these two stories than I was with "Killdozer" and especially "Slow Sculpture," so today Sturgeon's stock is a little higher in my book, which is a good feeling; I open the books I write about on this here blog with the hope of liking them, not execrating them. 


  1. I like Sturgeon and enjoy reading your reviews.
    In all honesty, though, you can skip most of the last 15 years of Sturgeon’s short stories. They’re never particularly badly written, and quite often there are passages of good writing. But they are far too didactic, too many are about schemes to save the world which employ Sturgeon’s pet phrases and ideas of his later years.

    If you are intent on trying his later fiction you might want to try “Dolphins Don’t Bite” from Ellison’s “Medea” collection. It’s his last proper novella, and I think it manages it to employ all off his later themes in a fairly unobtrusive way, with good scene-setting and some surprises.

    For earlier stories you might want to consider “The Man Who Lost the Sea”

    - matthew davis

    1. Thanks for the recommendations. I'm glad you like the blog.

      On page 114 of The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of Disch claims that numerous "senior writers" of the SF community "lost their edge" from smoking too much pot. He doesn't name names, but on the same page he points out that "grass was there" the one time he met Sturgeon.

  2. I've got five or six collections of Sturgeon stuff. Probably the best one is "A Touch of Strange". His short, short works are often just exploring a nifty idea for a few pages. I think his longer stories are more satisfying. "If All Men Are Brothers..." demonstrates an interesting thing about Sturgeon's novella or longer-length work. Often the reading of them - the journey - is more enjoyable than the destination - the point, or the ending. His characters and world building are so vivid and persuasive that even the most far fetched concepts have you nodding along. To find that such a rich environment and interesting premise (Vexveldt - a world that noone wants you to visit) merely comes down to an argument about sexual laissez-faire is something of a disappointment. The same goes for "More than Human", his fixup novel, "The Golden Helix", and others. In his better stories, such as "Mr Costello, Hero" or "Need" there are strong themes, but they don't overwhelm the story journey with didacticism.