I recently finished David Dowling’s Fictions of Nuclear Disaster (1987) and thought I’d review a handful of the short stories discussed in the monograph. The first on my list is Theodore Sturgeon’s haunting “Memorial” which first appeared in the April 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. You can read it online here.
“Memorial” (1946), Theodore Sturgeon, 4/5 (Good): Grenfell has a plan to create a war memorial to end all memorials—The Pit. It will writhe with lava. It will shine forth with a ghastly glow. Created by nuclear explosion a thousand times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb (161). Like some grotesque manifestation of the Darvaza gas crater, it will be a “living reminder of the devastation mankind has prepared for itself” (161). And the message will be the most “useful thing in the history of the race—a never-ending sermon, a warning, an example of the dreadful” possibilities of nuclear war (161).
But there’s more than a bit of delusion behind Grenfell’s plans. And a chip on his shoulder that smolders and smokes propelling him forth without self-reflection. Fresh off the Manhattan Project, Grenfell has post-war dreams of course. Dreams of atomic energy harnessed for the benefit of all in the most mundane formulations. Need to heat your house? An atomic pile laced through the foundation! But the government doesn’t want rogue scientists like Grenfell hatching atomic schemes from their desert reaches. The post-Hiroshima terror of possibility of the nuclear holocaust “canalized his mind” (162) convoking visions of messianic deliverance: “he was the center of his own universe” (162). He must frighten humanity with The Pit. He must show the immediacy of the coming end.
Framed by a description of The Pit in the far future, “Memorial” centers itself around a dialogue and component ideologies of Grenfell, the scientist, and Roway, who, at least in Grenfell’s presence, proclaims himself a sensualist. Grenfell sees atomic energy as a force–though an immense demonstration of its chaos–that can prevent humanities slide into chaos. Roway gives in to pleasures in the end days that he knows have already arrived. As an agent of the government, Roway espouses, with strategically placed “…” indicating the silliness of it all, nuclear weapons as war deterrent: “To show the rest of the world that our way of life… to scare the daylights out of… to—” (167).
I recommend “Memorial” (1946) to fans of Theodore Sturgeon, 40s SF, and fiction that effectively revolves around a single powerful image. The Pit, initially a manifestation of Grenfell’s apocalyptic vision, comes to fruition and continues to burn into the future transforming everything around it. As terrifying as the The Pit’s “seething […] mass of volatized elements” (168), “Memorial” crystalizes the “metaphoric aftershocks” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the global mind. Sturgeon’s nightmare represents his own uncertainty of what was to come. Grenfell’s offhanded comment about science fiction “word-merchants” who once saw atomic energy as “a limitless source of power for background to a limitless source of story material” lays bare the sad posturing of the self-proclaimed prophets of the previous age who, while terrified, could not comprehend the immediacy of it all (165).
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18 thoughts on “Short Story Review: Theodore Sturgeon’s “Memorial” (1946)”
I’m a huge fan of Ted Sturgeon. Nice to see this post as well as others here from you. I should do another post on Sturgeon soon.
Thanks for stopping by and your kind words. What did you think of this particular Sturgeon story?
The echo effect at start and finish was nice. Structurally it was strong, but it lacked a joie de vivre that I missed. The dialogue was pretty crunchy. The men were, in a word, Types. All in all, a decent Message Story, but he did better and more effective work.
Valid criticism — they are definitely set up as types for the sake of the thought experiment. However, the date… this is the best early Sturgeon I’ve read so far and I think it effectively conveys the post-Hiroshima shock. I gave it some slack as a result. I find stuff like this better than “Killdozer!” (1944). Haha.
…not, perhaps, the highest bar one could set…
It was translated in the first Swedish SF-anthology Morgondagens äventyr (“The Adventures of Tomorow”, 1953) E.N. Tigerstedt was the editor; he was later a famous litt proffesor; he regretted doing this anthology because his “concurrents” was using it against him; “dealing with crap litterature!”
Such where those times…
So beware, Doc Boaz!
I read this story a long time ago; i liket it but the dialogue between these ” types” was a bit long. (It was an early Ted S…).
The story is definitely an excuse to have two people of different philosophical bents talk to each other. That said, it speaks to the growing political control of sciences that occurred during and after WWII, foreshadows in some ways the Cold War drive to perfect the next great weapon, etc. Of course, all the debate is for naught — atomic weapons are too powerful to be controlled.
Yes, my “criticism ” could have been said of many of those best dialogues in the history of philosophy; Platon etc “It was to long!”
Remember; it was decades since I read it
I read this a few years back and I can’t say it stayed with me. I find Sturgeon hit and miss, sometimes rising to the challenge of his interesting ideas. For instance, I read his longish short “Unite and Conquer” the other day and found it a fairly tiresome example of what has become a well established trope (uniting humanity by way of an apparent alien menace). But all is forgiven when reading great stories like “Microcosmic God” and “The Man Who Lost the Sea”—even “Killdozer!”.
No to “Killdozer!” — that story made me quit reading an anthology a few years back… it was so long… and so not for me.
As I mentioned to Mats above, the story for me is valuable as a historical artifact at that exact moment in time — 1946 post-Hiroshima. And the relentless idea that atomic energy cannot and will not be controlled.
I like Killdozer for non-sfnal reasons. Sturgeon apparently worked on a construction gang for the US Army in the war, and it shows in the story. Definitely the verisimilitude shines through what is a very silly plot. A far better story from that period that i’m fairly sure you’d like is “Microcosmic God”. It also resonates with the idea of a new power being beyond human control.
Nevala-Lee suggests that “Microcosmic God” explores issues related to his more than substantial flirtation with Scientology [edit: misspoke here. It happened later]: https://nevalalee.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/astounding-stories-6-microcosmic-god-and-e-for-effort/
Sturgeon was not an author I realized was affiliated with Scientology until recently.
I like the idea of it being “as perfect an allegory as I can imagine for Campbell’s vision of Astounding”. But it’s a bit too early for Scientology by almost a decade. I think Sturgeon’s involvement was limited to being a part of Campbell’s stable up to the late 1940s—but then I’m no expert on him or his work so I can’t say for sure.
Sorry, I misspoke. Sturgeon became affiliated later. I mixed up the Nevala-Lee articles in my mind [at work at the moment! hah!]
“One of Campbell’s priorities was to sell the therapy to his top writers, much as the Church of Scientology later reached out to movie stars, and the single greatest predictor of how an author would respond was his proximity to the centers of fan culture. Two of the most important converts were van Vogt, who was in Los Angeles, and Theodore Sturgeon, who lived in New York, where he was audited by Campbell himself. ”
When I get home I’ll hunt through recent monograph Nevala-Lee published for more Sturgeon and Scientology bits!
I have to say I have a lot more time for Sturgeon than I ever will for Van Vogt or Campbell for that matter. I’ve read Nevala-Lee’s book “Astounding”, but no doubt I pushed this bit of information far away from my consciousness! I find it simply inexplicable why someone like Sturgeon would have fallen for that patent chalatanry.
Paul Williams, in the third volume of the complete short fiction of Theodore Sturgeon, says “Memorial” was possibly written in January 1946, but given that it appeared in the April 1946 issue of Astounding (which means it would’ve been shipped out to newsstands in March), it’s more likely that it was written in late 1945, making it one of the very first post-Hiroshima SF stories. Functionally it’s little more than a Socratic dialogue, not as ambitious as later Sturgeon stories, but it does have a genuine paranoia.
I’ll have to dredge the David Seed volumes on nuclear war fiction to remind myself what he says about its early nature. Still waiting for a monograph on Sturgeon in the U. Illinois Masters of Science Fiction series I enjoy so much. If the Sturgeon volume was out it would jump to the top of my history to read list!