Book Review: A Way Home, Theodore Sturgeon (1956)

(Mel Hunter’s cover for the 1956 edition)

3/5 (collated rating: Average)

Although Theodore Sturgeon is generally considered a master of the SF short form, his collection A Way Home (1956) contains only two worthwhile stories — “Thunder and Roses” (1947) and “Bulkhead” (1955).  The rest I was either unable to finish or struggled to muddle through over the course of the last two or so weeks.  Fortunately,  the near masterpiece “Bulkhead” was almost worth the pain induced by the intelligent dog related subgenre of SF manifest in “Tiny and the Monster” (1947) or the cute accidentally destructive hurkle kittens of “The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast” (1949).

At this stage in my recent endeavor to brush up on the best of the 50s short story wordsmiths, I place Sturgeon below Robert Sheckley, Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, Fritz Leiber, Miriam Allen deFord, Lester del Rey, Walter M. Miller, Jr., C. M. Kornbluth, and Frederik Pohl. (shocking to some, I know!).

However, before I make a more definitive conclusion I call on my readers to list what you consider his best short work in the comments.  I have three more of his collections on the shelf — A Touch of Strange (1958), E Pluribus Unicorn (1953), and Starshine (1966) — and if any of the recommendations are in those I will read them in the next month or so.

Recommended only for fans of Theodore Sturgeon or devotees of 40s/50s SF — but then again I too thought I was a fan of his work after enjoying More than Human (1953).

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

“Unite and Conquer” (1948): 3.5/5 (Good):  One of the better stories in the collection is formed around the following the following tendency of H. G. Wells’ SF, “in each case there’s a miracle — a Martian invasion in ‘War of the Worlds,’ a biochemical in ‘Food for the Gods,’ and a new gaseous isotope in ‘In the Days of the Comet.’  And it ultimately makes all of mankind work together” (9).  Sturgeon plays with this meta-idea and constructs a story where one of these “miracles,” in this case a small nuclear bomb detonation, is falsified in order for humanity to put aside their differences work together.  Told with some zest and 40s optimism — a solid story.

“Special Aptitude” (1951) 3.25/5 (Good):  A man reminisces about a voyage of exploration he took on the Third Venus expedition (at least Sturgeon’s futures include female astronauts who do no only make coffee for the male crewmen!) and how the crew teased a man named Slopes.  When the crunch came to snatch the mysterious happiness inducing Venusian crystals from the Venusian aliens, Slopes, despite his seeming lack of intelligence and space skills, figures out a way.  And now everyone can be drugged and happy! Our narrator, in his jovial (Venusian drug induced) reminisce votes slopes the Man of the Century.

“Mewhu’s Jet” (1946) 2/5 (Bad):  A normal suburban family listening to the radio realizes that the event described by the announcers, the erratic descent of what might be a spacecraft, is heading towards their house.  Soon they discover a “man” named Mewhu — a humanoid who has a strange bone structure — injured nearby.  The family nurses Mewhu back to life and discovers the “vehicle” that he used to enter the atmosphere, a glorified pogo stick.  Sturgeon has a dramatic “reveal” at the end of the story.  But, unless you’re interesting in reading about child-like Mewhu and his “special” pogo stick, avoid…

“Hurricane Trio” (1955) 2.5/5 (Bad):  A painful little tale of a man and his wife who head on a vacation and meet a mysterious (and seductive) woman who runs the cabins.  Of course, the man is all obsessed with her but does not go too far and calls off the trip.  As they head home he crashes into the landing gear of a spaceship on the road!  And is mysteriously resurrected….

“The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast” (1949) 2/5 (Bad):  By far the worst of the collection.  A blue baby hurkle kitten from the planet of Lirht inhabited by the gwik in a time when the “fate of the miserable Hvov were being formulated, gwik still still fardled, funted, and fupped” and the “great central hewton still beat out its might pulse, and in the anams the corsons grew…” (108).  Yes, I understand, Sturgeon is deploying a more fairytale-like tone filled with child-like phrases and invented words for a serious subject — in this case, the dire ramifications of the arrival of the hurkle kitten on Earth.  As silly as the little blue hurkle kitten are they cause itching fits that will bring about our destruction!

“Thunder and Roses” (1947) 4.25/5 (Good):  A nuclear war has ravaged America and only a few people remain — Pete and his friends wait for death on a military base.  Even the Statue of Liberty (literarily and metaphorically) had been contaminated: “Liberty had been one of the first to get it, her bronze beauty volatilized, radioactive, and even now being carried about the vagrant winds, spreading over the earth —” (115).  They maintain their sanity by watching Starr Anthim sing on the television — she preaches a message that retaliation is useless.  The damage has been done — the radioactive clouds from the bombs dropped by the USSR on America will kill them too.  A moody gem…

“Bulkhead” (1955) 5/5 (Brilliant):  And then seemingly out of the blue (it is chronologically one of the latest story in the collection) comes a brilliant rumination on insanity and the effects of space travel.  Sturgeon’s vision of space travel is not one of almost instantaneous travel between planets.  Rather, a pilot can typically expect to take two major trips in his lifetime as they generally take around 16 years each.  And, there’s no cryogenics or forced hibernation…  You are generally alone, on a spaceship, for 16 years….  Because this type of voyage takes a special type of person who can tolerate the years alone (yes there is entertainment, books, etc) cadets undergo strenuous tests.  And one of these preliminary tests involves dumping a cadet in a small spaceship for man months at a time.  And in each of these vessels is a bulkhead, and a button on the bulkhead.  For weeks the cadet wonders what is behind the bulkhead.  Obsesses over it.  Wants to kill what cries out whenever he touches the button.  But perhaps whatever it is, if it exists at all, will be a savior from the metal terror of solitary confinement.  Brilliant.

“Tiny and the Monster” (1947) 2/5 (Bad):  Dogs with mysterious powers!  Could be coming to you any day as a Nickelodeon movie! One of the stories I was unable to finish.  Tiny, a Great Dane residing in St. Croix, seems to will himself into the ownership of Alistair Forsythe.  We learn all about Tiny’s childhood and his experience with a scorpion and his strange telepathic abilities….  No thanks.  I think Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog” (1922) is the only story about dogs and their perspectives I can tolerate.  I wonder if Kafka wrote a story about a cute blue itch-inducing hurkle?

“A Way Home” (1953) 3/5 (Average):  A middling allegorical tale about forces that conspire to keep you with what is familiar, with the people whom who grew up with, in the town where you were nurtured…  Paul runs way from home and encounters a series of individuals whom are returning after their travails and empty lives to where they were born.  They all tell him to return home — can he escape or will the forces conspire to reign in his will to flee his shackles?

(Robert Engle’s cover for the 1961 edition)

(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1968 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1978 edition)

(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1987 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

61 thoughts on “Book Review: A Way Home, Theodore Sturgeon (1956)

  1. Short stories? “And Now The News” is probably my favorite. He wrote so damned many that it’s hard to remember them by name.

    He’s another author who has influenced my work, a “New Age” sci-fi writer, not quite as absurd as Sheckley or as dark as Phillip Dick, but he had that distinctive New Age nine parts perfectly reasonable to one part balls to the walls crazy.

    I would put his two novels “More Than Human” and “Some Of Your Blood” on my Most Influential Speculative Fiction Novels Of The 20th Century list.

    • And Now the News is a collection — but all of the short stories in the volume are from the late 50s. So perhaps they are better than his early 50s and late 40s works.

      I definitely enjoyed More Than Human — be the stories in this collection other than “Bulkhead” were more than a little disappointing.

      • I really wish I could remember more of the ones I liked. The problem is that his output was uneven, probably because he was cranking out so many for the pulps. The only other one that sticks in my mind is “Affair With The Green Monkey”.

        Hmmm…. Interesting. I always accepted him as one of the classic authors, but when I put my mind to it, I really can’t come up with that much I can recommend.

    • Theodore Sturgeon (also known as Killgore Trout ;-)) was, with Van Vogt (Monsters) and Clifford D Simak (Way Station) one of the true greats of SF, in my humble opinion. A Saucer Full Of Loneliness, Microcosmic God, KIlldozer, half a dozen other fabulous stories (E Pluribus Unicorn was my favourite collection) – what more do you want for f sake? Don’t read the ones that were written with the heating bill propped in front of the typewriter if you can help it – life sure was hard for the hack, even if he was half genius half poet and the other half in the fourth dimension.

      • Peter, do not be rude on my site (i.e. “what more do you want for f sake?”). If you continue I will delete your comment.

        That said, I have made my views clear in reviews, etc. If you disagree with me so be it. I am not exactly looking for your approval as I have certainly read my way around the genre and know what appeals to me.

        But yeah, in my humble opinion Van Vogt ranks among the lowest of the low — he can barely write a coherent sentence yet along a plot which makes the slightest semblance of sense. *wince*

      • As a young man of 60 I’m the generation that read these authors in the ’60s – in all honesty you could not have wished for more. Maybe time and overexposure has dulled the edge of what was in it’s time the absolute bleeding edge of SF. Sorry for the singular syllable in my previous post – emotion got the better of me.

        • Ok, so, I have read 25 + of Sturgeon’s stories and two of his novels. I have read plenty of other 50s authors — what do you want exactly? Me to ignore 50s authors or to prefer some over others which might offend some people? I am downright obsessive when it comes to reading SF despite not being born in the period of SF I read at all… So arguments about “bleeding edge of SF” or “time and overexposure” do not resonate with me. I could care less — as a historian I am fascinated by the historical context that produced these stories. I am also interested in craft of writing (Sturgeon has it but Van Vogt certainly doesn’t).

          Pick something a tad more worthwhile to get emotional about when complaining to someone who has read hundreds of SF novels and stories from the 50s/60s… I adore that period. I simply prefer other authors (Sheckley + PKD + Miriam Allen deFord for example).

      • Bradbury is my all time fave, but Van Vogt at his best wrote like he was sitting on a keg of dynamite. Sheckley was cool, a great humorist. I read all the New Worlds from about ’64 as they came out, The Best Of Fantasy And SF was my favourite anthology, believe me I read everything that was out there – the first novel I read at the age of 8 was In The Hothouse, Aldiss. The first book of short stories was An A to Z of SF, these from my primary school library

        • Aldiss has long been one of my favorites… I think Sheckley is more than a good humorist — he uses humor for some arather startling stories (take a peek at my review of his novel Journey Beyond Tomorrow if you want to know what appeals most to me about his work).

  2. As I think I said on Twitter, I can endorse “Microcosmic God,” and “The Other Cecilia.” “Killdozer” is very famous, but I haven’t read it.

    • One thing I loved about the magazines – the fan letters and reviews – I was was guilty of almost preferring those to the stories – there were also really great anthologies coming out all the time – New Writings In SF, all the ‘Best Of’s from the magazines, the Hugo and Nebula collections, then things like Dangerous Visions, Zelazny was great in those days, before he got big and lost it for me – Fritz Leiber still rocks my boat – there was some filler there too, anyone remember The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys? Pure filler right there. Also there where ’60s reprints of 30’s and 40’s SF graphic comic book SF, Forbidden Worlds etc. Fantastic black and white comic art, even the original Flash Gordon stuff was available in the ’80s. Some of that artwork was off the scale. One story I remember ‘By The Seat Of Your Pants’ about this interstellar pilot lost between universes, another about an oil monster that ate people, Dr Strange, loads of brilliant stuff I can hardly remember – but yes the future was better back then lol

      • Ah yes the Trout question – Kurt Vonnegut wrote some stuff using Kilgore T. as a character/mouthpiece, but he’s thought by many to have based K.T. on the real Theodor Sturgeon – the fish, the Kil from KIlldozer, the T. However he may have just used Sturgeon as a starting point, there may be traits of other writers in there as well. He makes the pro SF writers world back then seem pretty seedy, though he keeps the humour going most of the time. Vonnegut did not wish to place himself in that world, so he maintained a toe hold in the ‘serious literature’ camp along with books like Catch 22, claiming to not be writing SF at all.

  3. I haven’t read a lot of Sturgeon. LIke you, I enjoyed MORE THAN HUMAN and I know I read the wonderfully titled “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” in DANGEROUS VISIONS, but I honestly don’t even remember it. The story “Microcosmic God” is very good, though. Possibly Sturgeon was one of those new wave authors that hit really well when he hit, but his experimental style and challenging of now-dated societal norms make much of his work hard to read now.

  4. And Now the News is the name of a story and also the name of a recent collection. It’s an excellent story, but it’s not really sf. The Man Who Lost the Sea is a tremendously good story, as is Microcosmic God. Sturgeon also wrote some interesting horror stories: for example, It, and The Graveyard Reader.

    I agree that his plots and ideas can sometimes by corny, but he’s a great stylist and his characters are usually well-drawn and believable. So I can usually find something enjoy, even in his “bad” stories.

    • I agree — even the bad ones were “well-written.” But, I cannot read 20+ pages about Tiny the smart but huge Great Dane and his psychic powers regardless of how well it is written… (Tiny and the Monsters)

      • Despite being a fan of his work I am in agreement with you about Tiny. Not one of his best stories. Surprisingly,Asimov and Greenberg picked this as one of the best short stories of 1947 in science fiction. He wrote much things in that year. Maturity is a novella which excellent and was written at the same time. Thunder and Roses,which you said is in this book is from that year and much better. Actually Asimov and Greenberg said they would have included Maturity if it had not been as long as it is. The book is Great SF stories 7.

        One of the things that grated about that story was the mother. She was a tiresome character. Don’t you agree?

  5. “Microcosmic God,” “The Other Cecilia,” and “Killdozer” are the three that jump to mind, probably being the most famous. Though the first two are much, much better than the third. I have several collections that fawn over “Killdozer,” and while it was good it didn’t strike me as world-shattering. I don’t remember it conveying as much of the lyricism or emotion that made Sturgeon’s writing such a standout in its time.

    “And Baby Makes Three,” but that became part of More Than Human so I guess it doesn’t count. “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff” I thought was very well done. “The Ultimate Egoist” was one of the best of his earliest works. Others worth reading: “A Saucer of Loneliness” “Slow Sculpture” (won a Hugo + Nebula as I recall), “Thunder and Roses,” “…And Now the News,” “It,” “Maturity,” “Hurricane Trio.” There are a number of contenders, just depends on your tastes.

      • The alien deus ex machina was an eye-rollingly bad choice in an otherwise strong story with very subtle extraordinary elements. Most of his strengths are at play, excellent hook, strong characters, tangible emotion in the prose. It’s a weird glimpse at Sturgeon writing mainstream lit… kind of like PKD with Confessions of a Crap Artist.

        Sturgeon wrote thinking he could publish it in Good Housekeeping and break into the mainstream—kind of like what Bradbury was doing, moving upmarket. I’ve always felt he tacked on the science fiction bits just so he could push it into Galaxy since the slicks didn’t want it.

    • Baby is Three is in the complete collection as a sepreate novella and the ending is different so it counts. Also totally agree with you on Killdozer.

  6. The previously mentioned The man Who Lost the Sea is another story that is generally regarded as one of his best. I also really love something he wrote called I Say…Ernest. It’s not science fiction, or even a story really. It’s a 3 page essay about an event that happened in his his life that is both really funny and really poignant.

  7. One story of Sturgeon’s that is absolutely brilliant is Bright Segment, about a developmentally challenged man who nurses a young woman back to health from severe knife wounds. It’s beautiful, horrific, and tragic all at the same time. I’d count it among the finest stories he ever wrote, along with Microcosmic God, It, The Golden Helix, and his great novels The Dreaming Jewels and More Than Human. In fact, a French anthology series in the late 60’s or early 70’s adapted Bright Segment for one episode with the great Gert “Goldfinger” Frobe as the simple minded protagonist. Check it out, you’ll be glad you did!

  8. Having the complete short story collection I can tell you most of his work is better than this collection. It was not a good choice. Thunder and Roses are Bulkhead are standouts. Unite and Conquer,Special Aptitude,and A Way Home are decent stories. Really the weak stories are Mewhle’s Jet,Tiny and the Monster,and Hurkle. Hurkle was also picked by Asimov and Greenberg as a best of the year. It was written for the first issue of Magazine and Science Fiction in 1949. Odd,since he had hit his stride by the late 40s.

    The mid 40s was a transition period when he started to move away from slight stories but was still doing a few. If you want a better collection of stories from this time try ordering E Plubris Unicorn. It also has some good non science fiction stories like Die Maestro,Die.

    • I’ve read quite a few of his stories in various collections over the years — and do own E Pluribus Unicorn (*wince, what an awful title*)… But have not been compelled to pick it up. Too many more lesser known and more deserving authors out there in my opinion.

      …like Christopher Priest. Just read a short story collection of his called An Infinite Summer (1979) — wow! I’ve been on something of a blog hiatus (finishing my PhD + job market stuff) so it might be a while until I post a review.

      • As a fan of his I urge to give him another chance. His early stuff in volumes 1-3 is not quite as good. Hurricane Trio was rewritten with science fiction element in the late 50s. Not impressed with that story either. Is everything he wrote brilliant? No,but he was far ahead of many people then. The best of most of his first three volumes has horror themes. Even Microcosmic God. Most of the early stuff is lightweight. I would the say best stuff is from maybe volumes 4-10 are worth checking out. The later work in the final volumes is more uneven. An symmetry can be in that the first and last 3 are the weakest volumes. .

      • About E Plurbis,yes Sturgeon used some pretty bad puns. Peter David seems to have picked the mantle of bad puns in modern science fiction. Not that David is a bad writer. But his use of puns gets tiresome and his work would be better without it.

      • I was wanted to tell to avoid the first story in that collection “The Silken Swift” until you have read the rest. It is one of his overrated stories.

  9. What the earlier post should have said “Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy”. Also meant to say the Horror Stories he wrote at the time were the best. Microcosmic God has a bit of that style though it was science fiction. His interest in outcasts and the state of humanity came began about the late 40s.

    • Must rephrase my comment once again. It is not that the early horror fiction stories he wrote were the best things he ever did. They were not. They were best type of stories from that early period,i.e. pre 1945-46.

      Hope you review more of his stuff,but will not hold my breath.

      • Yeah, I am unsure why people are still beating at this bush — I understand that he has a rabid fan following. But, I read better SF virtually every day (and that is definitely not to say that some of the work Sturgeon produce wasn’t wonderful — such as “Bulkhead” and More than Human — as I have pointed out numerous times)…

  10. There are some stories of his that are overrated. I can’t deny that.
    Hurkle is the Happy Beast is one good example. Here are a list of his overrated stories.

    1. Killdozer. Overlong machine monster story. Do not know why this is popular.

    2. Hurkle is a Happy beast. Too silly. We are in agreement on this story if nothing else.

    3. Silken Swift. Unicorns and sexual prejudices may have seemed cutting edge then but today it is not. Plus the prose is a bit too flowery.

    4. Skills of Xandu. Simple fairy tale like story. Do not see the big deal.

    5. Widget,Wadgot,and Boff. This one is not as often praised as the other ones. It seems the concept is based on Maslow’s self actualized people. It starts out good but falls apart. Some dialogue does not help either. The premise that one can be self actualized in moments of crisis is not convincing. Also some parts are just creepy.

  11. I have to say, I find Sturgeon either blows my mind or just really disappoints. I can’t seem to find a middle ground with him. I’ve read quite a bit, and think the best collection is “A Touch of Strange”. The best stories, in my opinion are: ‘Mr Costello, Hero’, ‘It Opens the Sky’, and, um, maybe, ‘Need’. If you dislike any one of those, I wouldn’t bother reading the other two, because they are the same flavour. ‘Killdozer’ is ‘Jaws’ with a digger, and that’s that. ‘Microcosmic God’ is the kind preposterous concept you would normally find in an EC Weird Science comic. That he pulls it off is just remarkable.

  12. Sturgeon himself coined the phrase “99% of everything is crap”, so when it comes to his stories keep that in mind. The 1% of his stuff that’s good, great, or just plain brilliant is pretty damn fine:
    Some Of Your Blood
    More Than Human
    The Dreaming Jewels
    Venus Plus X

    Short Stories:
    Bright Segment
    The Golden Helix
    Affair With A Green Monkey
    Slow Sculpture
    Bianca’s Hands
    The World Well Lost
    Saucer of Loneliness
    The Professor’s Teddy Bear
    The Man Who Lost The Sea
    And others that don’t come to mind. There’s always at least a couple of damn fine stories in each of his collections.

  13. Kind of surprised at your reaction to Tiny and the Monster. You said you didn’t finish it. Maybe you should have. At what point did you stop? It’s a much better story than the movie “E.T.” Deals with the same problem, but more plausibly- if that word can be applied to sci fi. And the alien’s solution is the opposite of The Prime Directive where the level of your technology also determines your social maturity. Placed in the context of when it was written, and what follows, this story works.

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