I Remember Ted

by James Gunn

G unn is an American novelist, short story writer, editor, non-fiction writer, dramatist and scriptwiter who writes in the science fiction genre. His novel The Immortal(1962) was made into a television series; other works include Alternate Worlds(1975), an illustrated history of science fiction, and Isaac Asimov: Foundations of Science Fiction(1982). His 1986 Star Trek novel, The Joy Machine is dedicated to and based on an idea by Sturgeon; it includes a bibliography and reminiscence. Gunn, who had known Sturgeon since the arly 1950s, conducted seminars in science fiction at the University of Kansas: Sturgeon was a regular instructor at these seminars. In the following except from Gunn's article in Fantasy Review Vol 8, No 5, May 1985, page 7, he shares some of his personal memories of Sturgeon.

Every member of the science-fiction community is irreplaceable, but some are more irreplaceable than others. We will never replace Theodore Sturgeon. He was unique.

I did not know Ted as well as others had known him, who met him as a young man in New York in the early days of his self-discovery as a writer. My first contact with him was the result of a telephone call from Horace Gold. Horace said he would buy my short novel Breaking Point if I would let Ted cut it by a third. I has such admiration for the author of most [of] the stories I liked best in Astounding and later in Galaxy that I agreed without hesitation. Then, when I visited New York in November 1952, having decided to return to freelance writing after learning about the sale of four stories, I visited Ted in an unusual house built by a retired sea captain on a hill overlooking the Hudson. He drew me in to the circle of people he thought mattered, and he showed me Ted Sturgeon: personal magnetism, an interest in others, an intense involvement with words and writing, and a generous admiration for the accomplishments of others.

Later I met him occasionally at science-fiction conventions, most notably in Philadelphia in 1953, when I heard him announce Sturgeon's Law (ninety percent of everything is crud) and sing Strange Fruit. But I got to know him best in his later years, when he was not doing much writing any more, when he answered my appeal to help with the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction - my decade-long effort to teach the teachers of science fiction.

Ted arrived for the second Institute (as did Fred Pohl); only Gordon Dickson had a longer tenure, and Ted came last year when Gordon could not come. Last year Ted was watching his health, wearing a monitor on his wrist to check his pulse and having some difficulty with hills, and that was frightening, because Ted had seemed always so wiry and inexhaustible that we all thought he would go on for ever.

Ted would arrive and immediately begin to charm everyone around him. Ted cared about people, anybody, everybody. One student enrolled in the Institute only because Ted would be there, and within hours she had poured out to him to him the intimate tragedies of her life. Ted was like that; he didn't so much invite intimacy as draw it into him with every breath, the breath that must have become so difficult for him at the end. People wanted to do things for Ted, just as he was willing to do anything for them. They would meet him at the airport, write to him, seek him out. One fan came to the Institute just to sit with his wife's young child (and later returned to participate in the Institute). Another, when his wife (whom he always called "Lady Jayne") could not afford to come took up a collection to fly her to the Institute as a surprise.

Ted loved to come to Lawrence. So did Jayne. They told me so often and were willing to do anything they could to help the Institute, to keep it going. I always wondered whether he loved to go anywhere he could find people to talk to, people to bring into his magic circle, but it may have been the special kind of people who came to the Institute that drew him. They were involved people, teachers most of them, and special teachers at that, because they were willing to experiment, and Ted knew that through teachers he could influence thousands of young minds.

He wanted the teachers to understand what he thought was important. That was writing. He wanted them to love words, the way he did. He wanted them to love the right words and the right way to put them together, and he wanted them to pass the loves of his life along to their students. One evening he would talk almost entirely about his discovery of what he called "metric prose", the author's conscious choice of a particular poetic foot for passages in which the author wanted to achieve special effects. But he always insisted (I can hear him now in his intense, musical voice) that the reader must never become conscious of the technique or the game is lost.

He would spend another evening discussing style and reading a particular favorite or two among his own work. But he would spend most of the time reading the English translation of a French author who told the same ridiculous story in dozens of different styles. Ted chortling over each discovery, as if he were enjoying it for the first time, and then leafing further into the slender volume to come upon another. Once he forgot the book and wrote some examples of his own; they were far more interesting because he was a far better writer, but I never could convince him of that. He liked his French author because it showed that somebody else had discovered, before he had thought of it, a beautiful way to reveal the power of words and style.

Ted loved finding new writers or admiring the work of older writers. He fell in love with them and his love overflowed into the reviews he wrote for The New York Times and other journals. He may not have been the best critic in the field, because he hated to give a work a bad review, but he was the best-loved critic. Dozens of important authors will never forget the encouragement he gave them.

Ted also wanted people to live, which meant to not be afraid to enjoy life and to be eternally curious, as he was. Fred Pohl says that every novel is about "how to be more like me." That certainly was true of Ted's stories, which had more of himself in them than might be said about the work of any other author I know, but it was also true of his life. In that too, he said "how to be more like me." Each summer we would ask our guest writers to give a public lecture, and Ted would tell the audience to "ask the next question," for which a fan had made up a symbol for him as a medallion he wore around his neck: a "Q" with an arrow horizontally through it. And he would always end with the statement that "you must never stop asking the next question, because if you do that, you're dead." I hope Ted, wherever his questing intelligence has come to rest, is still asking the next question.

If there is a great deal in this reminiscence about love, it is for a good reason. Ted loved life, loved people, and loved writing. He particularly loved outsiders, the unfortunate, the despised, the downtrodden. The superhuman gestalt in More Than Human was made up of outcasts, the refuse of traditional society. For good reason. Most of his fiction involved those kind of characters because they were his special people.

He believed that we should love everybody, but particulary the unloved and those who placed themselves beyond scorn or beneath contempt, often by their practices or appetites. His favorite title among his own works was "If All Men Where Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"

One of the insights that came to me in the early days of the Institute was that many science-fiction authors (maybe all of them) can be differentiated by what they think is the single change that will solve the world's problems: "everything would be wonderful, if only..." Isaac Asimov might complete it "... people behaved rationally"; Robert Heinlein "...the incompetent people let the competent people solve the problems"; A E van Vogt, "...people could use their hidden powers." For Ted it had to be "...people loved each other."

If there is an afterlife, Ted now must be afloat in a sea of love. If there isn't, he left much behind, both in people whose life he touched and the books and stories that destilled his message into fiction that continues to ask the next question.