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Hart Williams


Theodore Sturgeon as Yoda, or
The Empire Strikes Back

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There is a book that I am going to recommend to you. It is called Microcosmic God: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, Volume 2. It is edited by Paul Williams, comes to us from North Atlantic Books in Berkeley, California, through the sponsorship of the Society for the Study of Native Arts and Sciences; it contains 373 pages, costs $25 and features an introduction by Samuel R. Delany, author, and one of science fiction's first true academic jocks.

It is the introduction which concerns us here, because it is important, and, in most crucial respects, it is deadly wrong.

You see, Mr. Delany met Theodore Sturgeon in 1975. This critic met him in 1976. Both Delany and I knew Ted until his death in 1985; however, if Mr. Delany "knew" Ted, I cannot imagine how he came to create the homunculus, the golem, the academically animated and ideologued zombie Theodore Sturgeon which opens this volume.

Delany and I agree on a crucial (and inevitable) point: Theodore Sturgeon is an important writer; important not only in what he wrote, but in who he taught -- Bradbury, Asimov, Delany, the list is endless. He was the writer, who, while alive, was watched by the other writers. Robert Heinlein and Sturgeon were close friends for half a lifetime, yet Delany takes a special detour in his critical lecture to insult Heinlein.

What Delany and I disagree on is method. The problem that this "essay" on Sturgeon partakes of is that it is utterly about Delany and little about Sturgeon.

Delany is supposed to be writing about a dead writer whom he admires. What Delany writes instead is an ideological tract espousing Delany's philosophy on writing, and, in order to do that, Sturgeon must be gutted. He must be stuffed, set on a stick, and, with the appliances of the puppeteer, made into a "Yoda," which, in the Star Wars films, was a guru character, but physically a puppet.

Delany avoids the real Sturgeon altogether, and yet, to make his points, he must attack the very positions which the real Sturgeon held. Thus, we are presented with Delany's puppetoon version of Theodore Sturgeon, which begins with large dollops of Delany's Sturgeon memorial in Night Cry, from the winter, 1985 issue. These sections have bee pasted into Delany's ten-years-later political tract on "How The Real Writer Writes."

So, how does the real writer write?

According to Delany, "I write a longhand draft; from this I make a rough typescript, specifying, expanding, toothbrushing (sic) out redundancies, excising unnecessary adjectives and phrases, clarifying parallels as I go. From this I make a polished typescript, in which I can catch any missed details as well as do any doctoring necessary on those details thrown out of sync between the first and second layers. In my personal vocabulary this tri-layered process IS my 'first draft.' It is a highly utilitarian method: it makes for prose that stays in print." (xxv-xxvi). Uh, yeah. But what does this have to do with Sturgeon?

Unfortunately, this is Delany's point--not how Sturgeon wrote, but how DELANY writes. This, of course, is errant and arrogant B.S. Every writer, Sturgeon included, writes according to their own, inner, organic process. One would hope that Delany would know this. But this is not his point.

The crux of Delany's essay is that once, with the short novel or long story "Maturity," Sturgeon actually revised the tale. This is held to be something amazing (amazing because it coincides with Delany's pretentious, academic bias; that Theodore Sturgeon influenced SF so deeply with only a high school education, influenced Nobel laureates and NASA scientists to go into science should be a slap in the face to Delany's snobbery, but no). The actual tale behind this is: Ted revised "Maturity" as an exercise in self discovery; he wanted to understand what HE knew about maturity, and the fact that the revised story came out is entirely incidental. Like nearly all writers of what Delany sneeringly derides as "commercial fiction," Ted wrote much or most of his work first draft (not Delany's). Delany all but explicitly denies this, by implication with his exception.

What does this all mean?

Delany, who wrote SF's answer to Finnegan's Wake in Dhalgren (the former technique and book Ted once specifically told me that he despised) wants to use one of the saints of science fiction (and one of its wellsprings of influence) to attack writers like Sturgeon (i.e. non "literary," non-academics). He attacks Sturgeon's friends, his fans (and SF fans and writers in general), Stanislaw Lem (whom Delany accuses, with unintended irony, of being "almost willfully obtuse") and those who do not write (as Delany obviously believes that HE does) "literary" fiction. Thus, the Byzantine and elephantine tirade on technique.

Ted wrote nearly ALL of his masterpieces first draft, pencil-edited them, and sold them to pay his rent. While Delany might feel that this is hideous "commercial fiction," there you have it. Since this doesn't fit Delany's preconceptions, he twists and distorts Sturgeon until the zombie is utterly at odds with the writer Delany seems to admire. ("Seems" because our 'literary' writer cannot make a clear statement, but, rather, couches his every conclusion in a thicket of qualifications. Delany doesn't want to be nailed down, evidently, and, reading this jeremiad, one can certainly understand why.)

With this out of the way, Delany has the audacity to attack two Sturgeon stories (in another book, not this one, as nearly ALL of Delany's essay focuses on. Best not to open the reader to stories included here, lest the reader begin to doubt shaman Delany's outlandish assertions). Both deal with homosexuality, were written in the early '50s, and are both astonishingly courageous stories (remember, this was the height of McCarthyism, and IN science fiction, which feared straight sexuality almost pathologically well into the '70s).

When Delany dismisses both as "well-mannered," and "only a step from rank conservatism," Delany is unmasked. While few writers in SF have so publicly (and self-servingly) exploited their own sexuality (cf. his Breakfast In Heaven, Bantam, 1979), Delany simply doesn't know what he's talking about. When Ted wrote "Affair With A Green Monkey" (also not included here), it was SO dangerous that he slipped in a red herring at the end. For many years, Ted was surprised at how many of his seemingly intelligent peers DIDN'T GET IT! It was, according to Ted's widow, "a sort of intelligence test," to Ted. If you got it, it said one thing. If not, another. Add to the "did not get it" list, one Nebula-winning, snobbish Samuel R. Delany, who pompously and wrongly claims "today we have to admit that its whole thrust is toward a rather trivial one-liner." (The Emperor's clothes were actually poorly sewn, and the buttons were all but falling off ....)

Now, having exhumed the dread specter of homosexuality, I must lay it to rest: Ted was NOT writing about homoerotic desire; he was writing about love, whether in acceptable or unacceptable form. In the '50s, this was all but impossibly brave. But Theodore Sturgeon was an impossibly brave writer. He is STILL dangerous: he was the finest stylist this bastard field (sci-fi) ever produced, and his influence is felt over the entire breadth of that field. Remember, as well, when Ted began writing -- as Delany notes -- SF was considered all-but-pornography. It was shunned by literary snobs (like Delany), and its authors were forced to exist in a low-rent neighborhood of literary hell. What Theodore Sturgeon did was amazing. His stories are STILL amazing, and he will be read in the 21st, 22nd, and other centuries.

But DO NOT let the soulless academics suck the marrow from his bones, and certainly do not allow Delany's "Sturgeon was an honorable man" slander carry any weight. Read the book.

Next time, I will talk about the stories themselves. But, if the reader accepts the blatant propagandizing of Delany's precious, academic school of thought, you will not see Sturgeon, the man, the writer, the giant. You will, instead, see a pallid muppet, gutless and bloodless, waiting to be further dissected by members of the academic community even less well informed than Samuel R. Delany. Delany has no right to arrogate Sturgeon scholarship unto himself, and his essay is all the proof I need offer to establish the truth of this last proposition.

Read the book. Avoid the preface.

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Copyright 1996 by Hart Williams
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