Future Media Short Story Review: Theodore Sturgeon’s “And Now the News…” (1956)

Today I’ve reviewed the fifteenth story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. Theodore Sturgeon explores the effects of information overload in a chilling study of the making of a terrorist.

Previously: Walter F. Moudy’s “The Survivor” in Amazing Stories, ed. Cele Lalli (Goldsmith) (May 1965). You can read it online here.

Up Next: John D. MacDonald’s “Spectator Sport” in Thrilling Wonder Stories, ed. Sam Merwin, Jr. (February 1950). You can read it online here

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Theodore Sturgeon’s “And Now the News…” first appeared in the December 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher. You can read it online here. I read it in TV: 2000, ed. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh (1982). I highly recommend the anthology for all readers interested in this theme.

Written during the boom in TV sales and consumption in the United States–from 7k sold in 1944 to 5 million in 1950 (and by 1960 90% of homes contained a TV) (source)–“And Now the News…” describes a world saturated by all forms of media [1]. From the morning newspapers that wait at his door consumed at breakfast, the “three [radio] stations in town with hourly broadcasts” (262), and the TV news programs in the evening, MacLyle’s waking hours are completely inundated with the news [1].

More than just a hobby, consuming the news takes on a “grim and spastic” nature (269) in which he progressively cuts out interaction with his family entirely. Sturgeon puts it bluntly: “his wife and kids learned to shut up when the news came on” (263). MacLyle justifies his obsession by quoting–and internalizing–a passage from the famous John Donne poem “No Man is an Island” (1624): “…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” (262). Media becomes the sole apparatus by which MacLyle engages with the world. His emotions and experiences are mediated through those of others. He viscerally feels what he hears and sees: “after the news report was over and he had recovered himself from the stab wounds of a juvenile delinquent, the grinding agonies of a derailed train, the terrors of the near-crash of a C-119” (266). It becomes an extension of himself. And like the slow forces of the tide washing over a rocky shore, it slowly etches away at his very being.

After years of suffering, his wife attempts to take matters into her own hands–she misses the “old reliable MacLyle” (269)–by sabotaging their suburban home’s TVs and radios. Unfortunately “she realized too late that the news was so inextricably part of her husband that in casting it out she cast him out, too” (265). After MacLyle makes sure his wife and children will be financially set for life, he heads off for a deserted cabin in the woods in which he had once spent the night. Slowly his ability to read, write, and speak fall by the wayside and other compulsions take over. He must create art. He must play music. His wife consults a psychiatrist who tracks down his forest retreat–now filled with strange forms of art including “gollywogs, a marsupial woman and a guitar with legs” (273)–and attempts to reintegrate him into society. But the psychiatrist must reintegrate him into society–with drugs. MacLyle’s ability to read and write speak return. With horrifying consequences…

Sturgeon’s describes the media as a matrix which we cannot extricate ourselves. MacLyle finds himself unable to turn away from the suffering of others like a boy watching gangrene creep up his leg (280). The saturation of news erodes his ability interact with others and he becomes little more than a passive receptible unable to vocalize his own suffering and unable to create anything. His retreat into the forest is an attempt to generate a new “matrix” in which he had “fulfilled all his obligations and responsibilities and was bothering no one” (276). The societal forces of the 50s cannot allow a useless “aberrate” separate from mainstream society to exist (276).

At another level “And Now the News..” satirizes the suburban existence and contemporary gender roles. MacLyle and his wife represent the successful 50s suburban working class American family able to buy a house with a yard and all the appliances one needs. In a rather perceptive passage, Sturgeon describes his nameless wife as operating in the past in a manner “counter to her reason and desires, purely because they were consistent with being a good wife” (269). But these expected roles do not bring happiness. The news, with its deluge of triumph and violence and suffering and extasy, provides another avenue to feel and experience when the immediate world around you is circumscribed and empty. It’s also addictive. It’s also destructive.

Highly recommended.


Notes

[1] I am currently enjoying Gary Edgerton’s magisterial The Columbia History of American Television (2009). He argues that no major technology penetrated American society faster than the television. Which, of course, had profound effects. If you’re at all interested in the historical context behind many of the stories I’ve explored in this series, procure a copy!

[2] “During his Guest of Honor speech at Chincon II in 1963, Sturgeon tells how in the mid-50s unable to think of a single idea for a new story, he wrote to his long-time friend Robert Heinlein and received by return an airmail letter containing 26 story outlines. Only two of these were to form the basis of published works: ‘The Other Man’ and ‘And Now the News…’ […]

By way of subtle acknowledgement, Sturgeon names the ‘hidden’ personality in ‘The Other Man’ Anson, and calls the main character in ‘And Now the News…’ MacLyle – from pennames used by Heinlein, Anson MacDonald and Lyle Monroe” [Source].


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12 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: Theodore Sturgeon’s “And Now the News…” (1956)

  1. Science fiction nourishes only the artificial Intelligence, and have nothing to do with the authentic Intelligence. Can science fiction resolve the humanity problems, can make an end to the poverty, cancer, and pollution for example?

    • Hello, thanks for stopping by. I must confess, I am a bit confused how your comment connects to this specific review. I approach SF a bit differently. I’m not terribly interested in SF identifying what could or will happen in the future. I am interested in SF as a lens to understand when and where it was written and what it can say about the larger historical trends — social, political, and cultural — of the day.. I’m a historian by training and profession. Sturgeon’s story identifies 1950s fears about the impact of technology and its effects. Sturgeon’s claims of possible information overload and how entwined the individual is in what media they consume are fascinating and perceptive points.

      • That is the main point, “fears about the impact of technology and its effects”, that we can focus on it, and should perceptibly analyze it. I have no intention to reject your scientific approach. It’s just point of view, with all my respect.

        • No worries. I was somewhat confused by your original comment — my apologies.

          Yes, I am interested in identifying Sturgeon’s fears about the impact of technology in order to understand the 1950s.

  2. Hey, since you’re enjoying the media book you’re reading, why not try Distribution Revolution: Conversations about the Digital Future of Film and Television?
    It’s a very interesting expansion on the topic of ubiquity.

    Good review of a great story.

    • I guess I enjoy what media was like in the past and what people imagined vs. what it could actually be. Haha. I’ll keep it in mind though. I have a history of subliminal messages on the list to devour Acland’s Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence (2012).

  3. Apart from the author being well known as an sf writer, and the story fist being published in F&SF, I can’t see how this is an sf story. Well written, sure, but it’s subject matter strikes me as non-genre: a slice of 50s US life set in the 50s. No bad thing for fiction, but sf?
    As a study of psychological obsession it has some interest. But parts of it are ridiculous. Surely the psychiatrist’s behaviour toward MacLyle is deeply problematic–even for the 50s. And even if we grant that Sturgeon has something interesting to say about an emergent obsession with the mass media (just the sheer fact of it really) I found his explanation for MacLyle’s obsession only reinforced my sense of it being completely arbitrary.
    Not one of Sturgeon’s best.

    • You are correct about whether it’s genre or not. I read it more as a piece set it Sturgeon’s contemporary day (although he might be extrapolating a bit about someone addicted in the way MacLyle is to the news). I think the media outlets he mentions would have existed in cities at the time (the multiple channels, etc.). As the general plot was created by Heinlein (see note 2 if you missed it), I wonder what his probably more overtly speculative take would have been!

      • It’s funny how different ones take can be on a story. I agree with you that the literary worth is often the least interesting aspect of a story, particularly if one tries to understand a story with an eye to history and other contexts.
        Heinlein would have insinuated some cool sfnal details into his version, I’m sure. Maybe the psychiatrist would have turned up in a futuristic ground car, or MacLyle would have travelled by suborbital rocket, or somesuch. His TV would have been wall sized too!

        • Do you know of earlier stories about information overload? i.e. a psychological break that occurs in this manner. It feels so much different from many of the media short stories I’ve reviewed in this series. It’s more than technology taking over, it’s more than growing tired of technology, it’s media becoming an extension of self and the way to process the world… The idea really is brilliant.

          • You’re slowly convincing me of the worth of this story beyond it’s shiny and very readable “exterior”!
            Re: information overload. Nothing come to mind at the moment. Shepherd Mead’s “The Big Ball of Wax” (1954) could be worth a look, perhaps?

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