Short Story Reviews: Fritz Leiber’s “The Ship Sails at Midnight” (1950) and Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Sex Opposite” (1952)

My series on (sometimes quietly) radical 50s stories on sex and sexuality continues. Check out my two earlier installments: post-apocalyptic sexual chaos and Philip José Farmer’s “The Lovers” (1952).

Rob Latham in his article “Sextrapolation in New Wave Science Fiction” (2008) argues that in the early 1950s “a handful of stories were published in the magazines that dealt explicitly with sexual topics” long absent from genre. Latham suggests that some of the notable New Wave takes on science fictional sex read as reconceptualized versions of these stories [2]. With few exceptions, the 50s trailblazing tales were ignored by the major digests of the day and instead appeared in the failing pulps–Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories–or in “second- and third-tier digests just struggling to establish themselves” such as Howard Browne’s Fantastic Adventures. For example, my two previous posts in this series covered Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (1952), which appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Philip José Farmer’s “The Lovers” (1952) in Startling Stories. The later was rejected by H. L. Gold, according to John Brunner, at Galaxy with the note: “I’ll publish this if you can get rid of the sex–I run a family magazine” [3].

Let’s get to the stories! Both Fritz Leiber’s “The Ship Sails at Midnight” (1950) and Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Sex Opposite” (1952) explore polyamorous relationships between humans and aliens. In Leiber’s case, a group of bohemians fall in love with a bisexual alien. In Sturgeon’s tale, a heterosexual couple both fall for a parthenogenetically female “alien” symbiote that appears male to women and female to men.


3/5 (Average)

Fritz Leiber’s “The Ship Sails at Midnight” first appeared in Fantastic Adventures, ed. Howard Browne (September 1950). You can read it online here.

Four self-proclaimed “‘wild’-young people, bohemians” (61), fresh out of college but still “sponging” off their parents “doing academic odd-jobs” (57), encounter the enigmatic and stunningly gorgeous Helen serving food at Benny’s, an all-night diner. Soon after meeting Helen, Es, “something of an artist,” starts to push the boundaries of her previously staid art (56). The narrator, Larry, who calls himself a writer but spends more time “reading magazines and detective stories, lazing around, getting drunk, and conducting […] endless intellectual palavers” (58) suddenly has something to actually write about–a carnal and intellectual love for Helen that they keep hidden from the rest. Louis, a philosopher, slowly encounters new avenues to explore rather than “merely cultivat[ing] a series of intellectual enthusiasms [..] and fruitless-excitement over the thoughts of other men” (57). And the gruff exterior of Gene, an atomic scientist, begins to mellow. All four view Helen as a “Great Books discussion leader” who serves as an intellectual midwife–who fosters, encourages, and inspires the expansion of their minds.

Helen makes only indirect references to her past. In one instance, when the group recalls strange events that transpired a few months before, she murmurs that perhaps an alien might “grow itself a new body” (63). But the arrival of a stranger who threatens their connection to Helen soon unravels the mystery. Not only is she an alien who crashed on Earth but has fallen deeply in love with each of them. Es, Louis, Larry, and Gene all have more than a platonic connection with Helen, a sexual relationship: “…but I fell in love with all of you” she confesses (67). And cracks immediately appear amongst the so-called bohemians who end up being “pretty vain and possessive” and “straight-laced” after Helen’s secret gets out (61). And Gene is driven to violence. I find it humorous–and incisive–that the atomic scientist is the man who lashes out.

“The Ship Sails at Midnight” ends with a far less fractious reflection. The four in their grief, and once-again friends despite Gene’s horrific cruelty, wonder what would have happened if “we’d kept Helen” (69). While Es’s relationship–I assume a lesbian interaction was more taboo than Helen having more one male partner?–is not directly stated, Leiber’s descriptions of Helen’s allure and the alien’s confessions of love make no distinction between sex. For example, Larry describes how Helen had given them a look to the “four of us that first night at Benny’s” (67) and recalls how Es shivered in her presence (57).

Due to the publication date, it is hard to escape the feeling that Leiber wants to explore the erotic elements of the tale with far more direct strokes but is prevented by the genre mores of the day. I can imagine the editor excising Es’s line–after Gene, Louis, and Larry reveal their secrets–stating her own affair with Helen. Leiber’s story fills the void of implied lust between human and alien that echoes through the pulp covers of the period. Helen states: “I know you’ve all laughed at the comic-book idea of some Martian monster lusting after beautiful white women. But has it every occurred to you that a creature from outside might simply and honestly fall in love with you?” (63). And, in the end, each–according to Larry’s narration–wish the spell had never been broken and they had continued to love Helen in their own way.

While this doesn’t reach the heights of Fritz Leiber’s best work, there’s a quietly subversive feel to the story–although it’s a bit lost in the satire of the self-proclaimed intellectual youth that permeates the pages. If sex and sexuality in 50s science fiction is something that interests you, then track this one down. I still recommend that you read Leiber’s “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” (1949) and “A Bad Day for Sales” (1953) first.


3.25/5 (Above Average)

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Sex Opposite” first appeared in Fantastic, ed. Howard Browne (Fall 1952). You can read it online here.

Preliminary note: I wish I completely understood Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X (1960). “The Sex Opposite” might be productively read in conjunction with his better known novel. I struggled to get a grasp of Sturgeon’s aims in Venus Plus X. I found it an oblique but intriguing thought experiment that attempted to analyze contemporary views on sexuality and gender roles.

Dr. F. L Muhlenberg, a brilliant young biologist and special medical consultant to the City and State Police, is summoned to investigate a murder unlike any other. The victim? A conjoined humanoid entity that appears to be hermaphroditic. The method? Torn apart. The location? A deep recess in the woods. Soon the intrepid reporter Budgie gets word of the murder and arrives at the morgue. Muhlenberg initially refuses to divulge what he knows but soon they team together and fall in love with each other and with a mysterious stranger that appears to each of them. They discover that the stranger–while appearing male to Budgie and female to Mughlenberg–is a humanoid symbiote with an unusual role in humanity’s history. The couple proclaim their deep love and admiration for the symbiote despite their initial confusion: “You’re looking for a pronoun” (84) the entity muses. At no point do they experience or voice revulsion. Despite the couple’s platonic love for the entity, the symbiote must go into hiding and erase knowledge of its existence as most humans cannot accept “anything that’s… different” (88).

While far from Sturgeon’s best, “The Sex Opposite” contains a range of fascinating ideas and a surprisingly progressive message that love is love even if the participants do not neatly fit into 1950s society’s conception of gender. As with Fritz Leiber’s vision, it’s hard not to conclude that Sturgeon wanted to explore the nature of the unusual ménage à trois in more explicit ways but had to create an ending that preserved the traditional nuclear family.

I found the structure and manner of telling extremely clunky for Sturgeon. Told as a roman noir murder investigation replete with snarky reporter and a grouchy man who needs companionship, “The Sex Opposite” doesn’t revolve around a snappy adventure but a series of lengthy dialogues about the nature of love and desire. It is most successful in its ideas!


Notes

[1] Rob Latham’s article “Sextrapolation in New Wave Science Fiction” appeared in Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction, ed. Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon (2008), pg. 52-71.

[2] Latham, 66: “In many cases, feminist sf built upon–and ethically complicated–the genre’s quasi-Freudian experiments of the 1950s; several of Sheldon’s stories–such as “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (1971) or “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” (1973)–can be read as corrective extensions of Farmer’s pioneering tales of inter-species desire, drawing out the fetishistic exoticization of otherness lurking within them.”

[3] Latham, 56.


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22 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Fritz Leiber’s “The Ship Sails at Midnight” (1950) and Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Sex Opposite” (1952)

  1. Very interesting review; I hadn’t really thought of how 50s sci-fi prefigured some of today’s gender issues. Also somewhat of a trip down memory lane; I was very fond of Leiber & Sturgeon back in the ( I read Venus Plus X years and years ago; I actually thought it was pretty much forgotten).

    • Thank you for stopping by! What did you think about Venus Plus X? I struggled to identify exactly what Sturgeon was trying to say with the premise… I need to track down some scholarship on it.

      The Sturgeon story definitely feels the more progressive of the bunch. While it of course uses language of the 1950s, the main characters describe the symbiote — which might be presented as truly alien due to its conception of gender and sex (splitting like a paramecium after self-fertilization) — as profoundly human and something to be admired. The main male character holds back tears when considering how much he cares for the entity. It’s fascinating (if unsuccessfully in the manner in which it is told). I’ve read far more polished Sturgeon stories for sure.

      • I was QUITE young when I read it; at that time it would never have occurred to me to analyze a novel for style or anything else, for that matter. I was simply reading anything I could get my hands on, which fortunately included lots of sci-fi/fantasy. As for Venus’ content, I was a little shocked at the whole idea not to mention that “racy” cover! I did not see the end coming.
        It’s really fascinating to see these ideas of gender fluidity and non-traditional relationships percolating in 1950s sci-fi (along with other ideas far in advance of their time).

  2. When future critics will look back upon contemporary literature, they will probably sigh that the leading cultural envelope spent an awfully amount of ink on LBTQ issues so that they didn’t have to occupy themselves with the the real threads to our civilization.

    • One of the few perks of teaching college-level history survey courses is seeing the reactions of the more youthful generations to events they might not know much about. I can imagine the future shock that you mention as something akin to their bewildered and perplexed expressions after I explained and we watched interviews about “The Lavender Scare” in the 1950s…

  3. Hello,

    I am downsizing and have a sizable (approx 1,000) SF collection (of which 400+ are hardbacks), predominantly 60s and 70s pub dates, that I have to part with.

    I also have about 15 SF criticism works.

    I hate the thought of them just being tossed out, but I haven’t found a place to sell them that even wants them, much less values them in the same way I do.

    I don’t know if you have run across places that sell old SF or if there’s something that you might want. I’m more interested in finding a home for them than making money. If a place wanted the books but didn’t pay much (or anything), as long as they paid the shipping, I could ship them.

    Thank you for your site. I look forward to each new post. I enjoy the insights and discussions, as well as pointing me to works I’d missed or reminding me of ones that I read long ago.

    My apologies for intruding into your time – I’m running out of time, grasping at straws, to find an acceptable way to let these books go.

    FYI. I had Science Fiction classes under Dave Samuelson at Cal State Long Beach in the late 70s, who got me to write a brief write up of A.E. van Vogt’s “Slan” in Magill’s Survey of Science Fiction Literature. My one slim contribution.

    Thank you for your time, Kent Craig

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. I’m a fan of Leiber’s SF and Fantasy. I haven’t read “The Ship Sails at Midnight” yet but I have a copy of The Best of Fritz Leiber on my Kindle to be read sometime in the future and it is contains that story. My favorite story by Leiber was “Gonna Role the Bones”.

    I’m a big Sturgeon fan, especially his short stories. I think that “More Than Human” was one of the greatest classic SF novels ever written. My problems with “Venus Plus X” was that the two supposedly complimentary narratives didn’t mesh very well. I realize that the Herb and Smitty story was suppose to show the roots of what Ledom became but it seemed awkward and didn’t really do the job very well. Then the Ledom story spent too much time exposing Charlie to their unique society where humans have become hermaphrodites to get his opinion instead of showing very much of it’s effects on the members of the society. The Ledom part of the story followed it’s basic plot to a mildly surprising ending but took too long to get there. I don’t think the novel was saying anything too mind boggling about sexual roles, even considering it was written in 1960. The novel doesn’t even seem to be sure if Ledom’s physical form and culture will result in a Utopia or even a better form of humanity. At least it didn’t convince me.

  5. I enjoyed “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” very much although it was more of a supernatural story. I also enjoyed the macabre humor in “A Bad Day for Sales”.

  6. I know I’m nitpicking and I apologize in advance. You refer to “The Sex Opposite” as being “told as a film noir murder investigation” although since it is a written story it would actually be roman noir, a style that predates film noir and an offshoot of hard-boiled fiction. Along with SF I love classic roman noir from Hammett, Chandler, Cain and others. Even Hemingway wrote a great noir story, “The Killers”.

  7. I forgot to mention in my earlier posts that I read and enjoyed “The Sex opposite” and although it was a little “sappy” I liked the intriguing central concept which would have been ahead of it’s time in 1952.

    • I struggled to reconcile the manner of telling with the subject matter. But yes, I too felt it was a bit sappy initially — the more overt noir elements — before the final conversation which slipped into a progressive formulation of love is love (even what could be interpreted as asexual love).

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