The following review was originally conceived as the fifth post in my series on “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” However, it does not fit. It is a spectacular evocation of memory and triumph and worth the read.
Thank you Mark Pontin, “Friend of the Site,” for bringing it to my attention.
Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Man Who Lost the Sea” (1959), nominated for the 1960 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, thrusts the reader into a seemingly delusional landscape, generated by extreme trauma, of narrative fragments. One thread follows a child as he presents increasingly complex toy spacecraft to a sick man trapped in the sand. In another instance, an accident at sea becomes a transformative realization that fear can be overcome. All the threads coalesce into a remarkable distillation of post-Sputnik (1957) triumph and clarity.
As it is short, go read it first before you dive into the rest of the analysis!
Of Memories, and How They Spin our Threads
In our narrator’s (N) journey to re-awareness, he must conquer the amoeba of terror that envelops his shattered body in the wreckage of the first Mars lander. Sturgeon positions our memories (recalled as disjointed yet meaningful scraps) as the threads that rebind our tattered holes. The memories are both snapshots of individual moments (watching Sputnik in the sky) and entire cohesion generating processes (a voyage to sea and its aftermath). While an incident in the past might have been “beginning of the dissection, analysis, study of the monster” that is fear, “It began then; it had never finished” (159). N, in his state of shock, must complete the process.
At first narrative confusion, like the moment after a concussion, proliferates. As N’s memories fall into place, their lessons recrystallized, he emerges from sands and all the stories converge.
The Measurements of Death
“Then the valley below loses its shadows, and like an arrangement in a diorama, reveals the form and nature of the wreckages” (163).
“The Man Who Lost the Sea” reaffirms, in evocative and emotional strokes, the underlying ideals of the space program. In his final self-appraisal, N represents the drive that propelled the first satellites into the skies. N’s death is triumphant one. N pulls together the strands of his life, muscles himself to awareness, conquers his fear, measures his worth, and in his last breadth erupts a pithy declaration of technological triumph.
In MacLean’s vision, a spaceman dies after an accident where his rocket harms the sentient surface of a planet that triggers a telepathic defense mechanism that bores into his mind. Later he dies unable to emerge from the psychological horror he experienced. He certainly does not regain awareness and place his life as a culmination of scientific triumph à la Sturgeon’s hero. We can only watch as the end narrows in. The death in MacLean’s story is void of triumph. The focus rests on its emptiness/accidentality.
In Miller, Jr.’s “Death of An Astronaut,” his spacer dies bedridden in a run-down home refusing to acknowledge how his choices have impacted his descendants. Or, he realizes that the fantasy he has constructed about his self-value is the only thing that will bring him comfort in his final hours. And the fantasy is preferable to the terror of a wasted life.
The measure of death in “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” as tabulated by narrator and reader, yields a positive and objective truth. The memories, jumbled by the haze of radiation, fit together. There was a purpose to it all. There are no missing pieces.
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