The Ultimate Egoist: Volume 1 The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon

A review by James Gunn

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This is a love letter. It was easy to love Ted Sturgeon because he had no reservations about giving love or accepting it, or writing about it. That was his subject and his way of life. I sometimes tell my students that one way to categorize writers would be by completing for them the phrase, "The world would be wonderful if only..." For Ted the proper conclusion would be "everybody loved each other."

People loved him almost instantly. He could get on an airplane, sit beside a stranger, and they would get off lifelong friends. I know. A hospital administrator from Oklahoma came to one of my summer Institute sessions because it had happened to her, and she wanted to share the warmth of Ted's company for another week.

What made him lovable? I think it was because he paid attention, particularly to people with problems, and they poured them out to him. And that, when he found himself, was what he wrote about, people handicapped by their difficulties in fitting into ordinary society, wanting to find someone or something to share love with but unable to do so because of circumstances or psychic injury or injustice.

Ted's secret was that he was able and willing to concentrate on people in a way that most of us don't, to make them feel that they and what they had to say were important to him. That may have made him hard to live with and may explain the fact that some of his relationships didn't last, may have been too intense to last, because he was a man who, in spite of his ability to listen, lived inside himself (he wrote his mother that The Ultimate Egoist was "a little too close to home"), and his attention must have wandered. He could not have maintained his absorption in one other person for years or even for months, and once a person was accustomed to being at the center of Ted's world displacement must have been difficult to endure.

I meet Ted a few times in the 1950s. Horace Gold had accepted a short novel of mine, Breaking Point, on the condition that I let Ted shorten it, but Ted kept putting it off and when it was done Horace said he hadn't wanted it cut but rewritten. Lester del Rey published it in Space SF in 1953, the year after I went back to full-time writing. I spent a day with Ted in the fall of 1952 in his captain's house on the New Jersey shore. He confided in me as if I were an old friend, telling me personal things about his life and work and writing methods and romances. I saw him again the following year at the World Convention in Philadelphia, when he enunciated Sturgeon's Law.

Most of my acquaintance with him, however, came after 1974 when I started the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction. With the second one Ted (often with Jayne) and Gordy Dickson and Fred Pohl became my regular guest writers, staying for a week each, until Ted's death in 1985. One of my favorite memories was the time William Burroughs's manager called me and said Burroughs (who had moved to Lawrence) would like to meet Ted and could the Sturgeons send him an invitation to tea, and they met for the first time, in the tiny living room of the Nunemaker Hall apartment, and shared tea and admiration, one for the work of the other. Another was the time students chipped in to fly Jayne to Lawrence as a surprise for Ted.

I heard most of Ted's stories, not once but many times, because he told them to each new group. I don't think he ever quite understood that they were there to study the literature and mostly not to become writers (I wasn't about to correct him, because we all loved his stories, and it helps teachers to learn about the problems writers face), and he kept telling them about the magic that created Bianca's Hands and his discovery of "metric prose," and sharing with them a little book, translated from the French, in which the same ridiculous story was told in more than a hundred different styles. I even have a number of his anecdotes recorded on a half-hour videotaped interview produced here on the campus by one of the Institute students from San Diego (and herself drawn to the Institute by Ted) who drafted us all to produce her class project.

So, when Jayne talked to me at the World Con in Atlanta the year after Ted's death and asked me if I had any suggestions for an appropriate memorial, I offered several possibilities before I finally got around to an award for short fiction to accompany the Campbell Award for the novel. And thus the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the best short sf of the year was born, and a year later sculptor Elden Tefft created an appropriate permanent trophy, a massive bronze "Q" with an arrow through it.

Now Paul Williams has brought out the first volume in a projected 8-10 volume set of Ted's short fiction, published and unpublished, and it's like hearing Ted's anecdotes all over again. In fact, an afterword contains a marvelous series of notes on concept, creation, and publication (or lack of it), taken from Ted's correspondence and notes and manuscripts, that Williams has collected from from a variety of sources. Most come from Ted's own papers, saved here and there, throughout his many moves. Williams has dug deep and come up with buried treasures perhaps unequaled in the history of sf.

Most of the stories in this first volume are worth reading only as a record of the development of a great writer. Many of them were short-shorts written for the McClure Newspaper Syndicate for $5 each. Ted used to refer to that period as the time when his room cost him $7.50 a week, and if he had any money left over he could eat, and he would ask the Institute students if they knew that you could make a tasty tomato soup out of water and ketchup.

I tell my fiction-writing students that writers start out as readers wanting to recapitulate what they loved to read, but that readers don't want second- or third-hand reading experience - they want something that comes out of immediate observation and the unique experience of the author, and that is what aspiring writers must learn to provide. Ted's stories for McClure's are typical, almost all of them emerging from reading, and only a few from direct experience, mostly from his seafaring days. Ted himself referred to them as "formula" stories, and at that time he simply wanted to learn how to do it better. Nevertheless, even in those short-shorts one can get a glimpse of the writer-to-be, the intensity of observation that must have come out of his personal relationships, the way of looking at situations and surroundings and people that was just a little off-center. They are worth reading, or studying, for those hints of potential.

Even the stories that Ted began to sell to John Campbell's Unknown and Astounding were mere shadows of the greatness to come, that would make him one of the major writers of the Golden Age, a name to mention in the same breath with the other three introduced in 1939, Asimov, Heinlein, and van Vogt. Williams himself says that Bianca's Hands was Ted's "first major story." "A family jewel," Ted called it. It was written in 1939 and rejected many times (often violently) before it won a $1,000 British magazine contest in 1947. There are, perhaps, half a dozen stories in the book like that, including He Shuttles, The Ultimate Egoist, and It. Perhaps none are as good as Bianca's Hands, but they suggest the Sturgeon to come, the Sturgeon of Microcosmic God, Killdozer, Thunder and Roses, Maturity, Baby Is Three and More Than Human, Saucer of Loneliness, Affair with a Green Monkey, Slow Sculpture, and dozens more.

Throughout the volume at hand, which ends with the publication of Butyl and the Breather in October, 1940, a careful reader can see Ted searching for what contemporary critics would call his "voice." More appropriately, he was gathering confidence in his own uniqueness, in his own genius, in his personal observation, in his "maturity," when he could let everything else go and be himself; That's what he was in Bianca's Hands, the story that kept intruding on a throwaway story he was working on (a basketball story on assignment, he always said) until he had to sit down and write it, in three hours. Ted maintained a venue for sensitivity and style and subject in a field that admired muscular prose and subjects; he was the champion of the outcast and the handicapped in a field that worshipped strength and action. A reader who had no inkling of that position in sf might find most of the boy-girl stories in this book ephemeral, with here and there something like a plum in a bland pudding. I don't think Ted ever reprinted a single one of his McClure stories, and some of them reprinted here were rejected even by McClure. But patience, patience - the best is yet to come, and one can only get there by experiencing Ted's fictional career as he lived it.

The "Q" with the arrow through it was a symbol that Ted used for the last decade or so of his life. It stood for "Ask the next question." That was Ted's prescription for success, stability in motion, for individuals and the species itself and it was his personal way of life. Paul Williams has done a masterfull job in bringing this first volume of Ted's stories to us. The next question: when will the succeeding volumes appear?

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© James Gunn 1995