(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)
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