Thursday, December 17, 2015

Two 1950s stories by Theodore Sturgeon: "Extrapolation" & "The Wages of Synergy"

Earlier this month I read 1951's "The Incubi of Parallel X" by Theodore Sturgeon, from my copy of the 1978 edition of Sturgeon in Orbit.  Dig that crazy Fernandes cover!  (My favorite Stanislaw Fernandes covers are probably those he did for Avon for their editions of Michael Moorcock's first three Dancers at the End of Time books. I think my brother back in the great state of New Jersey still has mine...I sure hope he hasn't traded them away!  Those covers, with their soft curves and charming female figure, are very warm and human.  The cover of this Sturgeon, with its harsh straight lines and distorted and blindfolded figure, seems dreadfully cold, monstrous.)

This week I'm reading the remainder of Sturgeon in Orbit, which was first published in 1964 with new introductions by the author himself to each of the stories, all of which originally appeared in the 1950s.  Here are the first two pieces from the collection, 70 pages of reclusive eggheads and their love lives with a little space warfare and murder mixed in.

"Extrapolation" (1954)

This tale first appeared in Fantastic under the title "Behold the Fury."  In his intro to the story Sturgeon modestly tells us that, upon a reread, "Extrapolation" made him cry, and that when famous editor Groff Conklin read it, he also cried.  Get your hankies ready, kids!

Wolf Reger is a genius--he has "so many talents" that they are "past enumerating." But he has a tragic flaw, a ferocious temper which can erupt without warning and inspire Reger to murderously assault another person.  We get descriptions of two times in his youth when he lashed out in this way and sent a person to the brink of death.  Because he fears this rage, Reger chooses the lonely life of a recluse, a life with no friends and no women: "he lived to avoid others for their own protection."  Because of his aloofness, and because everybody envies Reger's tremendous superiority, he is widely disliked.

While working at a government rocket base in his early thirties Reger comes across a suicide in the desert, a beautiful woman.  While he makes his living as an engineer, on the side Reger is the world's finest doctor, and he brings this hot chick back to life with only the equipment he has in his Air Force hut.  He marries her, and she falls in love with him.  But, scared that he will lose his temper one day and kill her, when the space ship he has been working on is completed, Reger volunteers to join the crew and blast off into space.  Out there the space ship is captured by arthropodal aliens who plan to conquer the Earth.  To them humans are little better than insects; they are going to change the atmosphere of Earth to suit themselves and allow the entire human race to suffocate!

We learn the story of Reger's early life from his wife, and the story of the space flight from a recording by an heroic member of the captured ship's crew who dies getting the news of the invasion to Earth.  This recording, with its horror overtones (e.g., the aliens dissect some of the crew members) and vivid depiction of captivity on the alien vessel, is the best part of "Extrapolation."

The hero relates that Reger is helping the aliens, giving them all kinds of info about Earth and even helping them modify their ships so it will be easier for them to exterminate us!  Coming from a thin atmosphere planet, the aliens don't know how to fly in a thick atmosphere like Earth's, so Reger designs wings for their warships and provides advice on how to use them.  When the population of the Earth hears the recording, Reger graduates from "widely disliked" to the undisputed title of "Most Hated Man on Earth!"  (Mrs. Reger is "Most Hated Woman," and receives government protection from the angry mob.)

The alien fleet enters Earth's atmosphere, but Reger has tricked them; at the speed Reger told them to fly the wings Reger designed for them fall off and all the alien ships crash and explode, killing all the invaders.  Invincible genius Reger manages to survive this 16-spaceship interplanetary pileup.  When the people of Earth realize Reger still lives, they want to torture him without even the formality of a trial, but he eludes the mob and returns to his wife, the only personj who had faith that he was not a traitor.  She even has faith that he will never have a violent fit and beat her the way he has beaten multiple people in the past.

A lot of these old SF stories take the "science" in "science fiction" seriously, and "Extrapolation," besides glorifying the genius engineer/physician, provides quite a bit of talk about atmospheric densities and temperatures and their relationship to shock waves and that kind of thing.  If you read SF to learn about science this story provides you the chance to check "what is the speed of sound on Earth at an altitude of thirty kilometers?" off your list.  (I didn't double check Sturgeon's answer on Google--I have faith in Ted!)

Even while the story seems to be glorifying the extrapolator, the real main point of the story is that it is risky to extrapolate from limited facts, and sometimes you have to trust in faith or intuition.  Mrs. Reger gives an example to a military investigator: if somebody tells you, "A guy beat a woman," you'll think the guy is a maniac or an evil criminal, but if it turns out that he beat her to extinguish her burning clothes, well, that's a different story.  The aliens, and the people of Earth, were wrong to assume that Reger was helping the invasion, even though it certainly looked like he was; only Mrs. Reger, because she has faith in her husband, knew the truth.

This story is pretty over-the-top, with characters who act in somewhat unconvincing ways (the aliens don't send a reconnaissance ship into the atmosphere ahead of their battle fleet to test the wings their enemy made for them?)  Like other Sturgeon stories I have read, it is more of a fable meant to get across Sturgeon's ideas--that we people and our society are corrupt and that we should love each other more--than an effort to create believable characters who behave in believable ways.  As he did in "The Incubi of Parallel X," Sturgeon assures us the murderous invading aliens are no worse than we Earthers (the arthropods are changing the Earth in order to move in the same way we chop down a forest, destroying the ecosystem of birds and squirrels, to build a farm or apartment building), and rather than presenting the invaders as the main villains of the piece, uses the aliens to set the stage for a conflict between good and bad human beings.

"Extrapolation" is an acceptable entertainment.  It is a little hard to believe such a contrived story with such a cartoonish main character brought adult men to tears, however.

"The Wages of Synergy" (1953)

It is normal for writers to express frustration, or worse, with editors, but Sturgeon, who seems to have practiced that "love everybody" philosophy he preaches, uses much of the new 1964 material in Sturgeon in Orbit to praise his editors.  In the intro to "Extrapolation" he talked about how generous Fantastic editor Howard Browne was to him, and in the intro to "The Wages of Synergy" he tells us the editor of Startling Stories (where the tale first appeared), Samuel Mines, is such a good writer he is likely to win the Pulitzer Prize someday!

This cover is by Walter Popp;
Bergey died in 1952
As an aside, the wikipedia article on Startling Stories expends a lot of space complaining about the covers of the magazine by Earle K. Bergey, in particular that the depiction of women is "ludicrous," "unrealistic," and "implausible."  What a bunch of killjoys; does the wikipedia article on Michelangelo complain that the awe-inspiring musculature he sculpted for David and painted for Jesus doesn't make sense?  We're not talking about medical textbooks here; the artist is trying to create something beautiful and inspire a particular feeling in the viewer.  I think Bergey's work is a lot of fun.

As another aside, I've been singing Peter Gabriel's "Indigo" to myself ever since I saw the title to this story.

"The Wages of Synergy" tackles some of Sturgeon's usual topics and is structured as one of those mystery/conspiracy stories in which the characters sit around in bars and apartments and figure out what is going on by talking through the clues and giving suspects the third degree.

As we know from reading all these elitist and misanthropic SF stories, a significant proportion of the human race consists of jerk offs.  Luckily, three of the smartest and least jerky people in the United States, the brilliant scientist Pretorio, the wise philosopher Landey, and the beloved newspaper columnist Monck, have started "the Ethical Science Board" to steer us on the right course, presenting, as one secondary character, excitable scientist Egton, puts it, "the first real chance this crazy world ever had to get onto itself...."  This board's primary purpose is to defend science from the "anti-science trend."  Here's an explanation of the anti-science trend from Egton that not only will thrill all you libertarian types, but shows Sturgeon going all meta on us SF readers, doing a little literary criticism and biting the hand that feeds him!:
"Even the politicians are saying we have to turn to higher spiritual accomplishments because of what science has created.  But their way of doing it will be to stop science from creating anything.  It's a little like blaming the gunsmith every time somebody gets shot, but that's what's happening.  Hell, four-fifths of the stories in science fiction magazines are anti-scientific."
The Board will also "synthesize," make sure scientists work together "towards the same ends, with the same sense of responsibility."  Hey, I didn't say the entire story was going to please libertarians!

They say it is a small world.  These three uniquely ethical individuals aren't just living in the same town--they are all having sex with the same girl, our female lead, Prue. But not for long!  Before the Ethical Science Board can really get off the ground each of its three leaders dies while in bed with Prue, just after achieving orgasm.  Prue has a fourth boyfriend, our male lead Killelia, a reclusive genius of chemistry who has sworn off research because he stumbled onto something unspeakably dangerous. When Prue tells him about the trail of dead bodies she's been leaving, Killelia realizes that the three ethical giants were killed by their orgasms because some conspirator got a hold of, and injected into these exemplars, the very same chemical Killelia discovered while researching the chemistry of the orgasm, the very same chemical the apocalyptic nature of which lead him to abandon his career!

(In case you are wondering how Prue's numerous boyfriends feel about each other, rest assured that part of being ethical is being immune to jealousy--"The Wages of Synergy" is a free love polemic.  In fact, the first page of the story, a sort of preface set in italics, is a lament that people living in apartments feel the need to be quiet while having sex, when sex should be open and joyous.)

Killelia and Prue, via detective work, figure out what is going on and lure the conspirator into their clutches; the malefactor is killed in a fight when he accidentally pokes himself with a hypodermic full of poison he brought with him to use on our heros.  It turns out that the conspirator is Pretorio, the very head of the Ethical Science Board!  (Killelia theorizes that he "snapped.")  Pretorio faked his own death, then conspired to kill Landey, Monck and (unsuccessfully) Killelia so he could run the Ethical Science Board from behind the scenes and use it, and the threat of indiscriminately spraying the chemical that makes male orgasm fatal, to rule the world!

The story ends with Prue and Killelia getting hitched.

I don't really think I can recommend this story to anybody, though it has numerous noteworthy elements.  There are lots of extended and elaborate metaphors and analogies, like Killelia's science career being like an underground passageway full of magic that lead to something too horrible to face, the field of chemistry like intersecting roads and paths, the chemistry of the male sexual process kike "an orchestration...with more pieces in its music than any conductor ever used."  Prue gives a somewhat confusing lecture on the difference between morals and ethics.  And there is the fact that the sex scene and the talk of sex is all sort of vague and oblique, words like "orgasm" and "ejacualtion" and even "climax" being studiously avoided. Unfortunately, all of these components are noteworthy in part because they make the story feel obscure, slow it down, sap any excitement out of it.  The long analogies and philosophical discussions place obstacles between the reader and the plot and the characters instead of bringing the plot and characters to life and instilling them with feeling and meaning.

Characters and plot weak, ideas perhaps interesting, but poorly presented.  Thumbs down.

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Both of these stories suggest that science, knowledge and logic are powerful, but insufficient on their own to guide the individual or his society.  Science can be used for evil purposes, and people jump to wrong conclusions based on limited information all the time, so people need faith, intuition, and ethics to guide them.  Both stories also feature superlative geniuses, the finest minds of their generations, who have psychological problems that can transform them, without any warning, into dangerous killers.  How can we be optimistic about science and society if the best among us can turn on us at any moment?  Maybe Sturgeon is presenting us with a chicken-and-egg problem; he sort of leaves room for the reader to believe that Reger and Pretorio's insanity is a response to the essential insanity of our society, that in an ethical society that embraced free love they wouldn't have "snapped."

The essential optimism of the stories lies in their depiction of love based on faith and trust; each ends with the reclusive scientist embarking on a happy marriage.  Mrs. Reger has faith that Reger won't go bonkers and hurt her, even though he has a history of such behavior, and Killelia has faith in Prue's love, even though she has a history of sleeping with every ethical scientist she lays eyes on.  As Matthew Arnold might suggest, even if the world is terrible, if two people love each other, perhaps together they can live happily.

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Two more Sturgeon stories from the 1950s in our next episode.

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