Author, author: what you need to know about sci-fi legend Theodore Sturgeon

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Jun 16, 2017, 9:34 PM EDT (Updated)

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With Blastr celebrating books during the month of May, we're launching a series of author profiles starting with the late, legendary Theodore Sturgeon.

He may not have been a best seller or a huge "name brand" writer, but Theodore Sturgeon was and is one of the most influential science fiction writers of all time. He wasn't as immensely prolific as, say, Harlan Ellison or Ray Bradbury, but he did pen a total of 11 novels (six originals, three novelizations and two pseudonymous works) and more than 200 shorter pieces, including short stories and novellas. It's that body of work -- the stories and novellas -- that contains some of his best-loved and most classic pieces. 

Sturgeon's work was known for its deeply humanist and compassionate tone -- he cared very much for his characters, many of whom were outsiders, loners or considered abnormal in some way, and his stories often took progressive and liberated stances on sex, war and human relationships. He didn't write "hard" sci-fi, but the social themes of his work had an impact on many writers who came after him. 

It's been said that Sturgeon, who was born on Feb. 26, 1918, and died 31 years ago this Sunday, on May 8, 1985,  was at the height of his popularity the most anthologized writer in the English language. Whether that's accurate or not (most of his novels are available new or used, and there is a 13-volume series available that collects all his shorter tales), anyone who loves sci-fi owes it to themselves to find and read the work of the man the New York Times called "the conscience of modern science fiction."

Here are nine things you need to know about Theodore Sturgeon:


The Basics

Sturgeon was born on Staten Island, New York and his original name was Edward Hamilton Waldo. After his parents' divorce, his name was legally changed at age 11 to Theodore Sturgeon when his mother Christine (a writer and poet herself) married William Sturgeon. He originally wanted to be a circus acrobat, but childhood illness halted that dream. He sold his first short story in 1938, and his first sci-fi tale, "Ether Breather," was published in the September 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Sturgeon was married three times, was involved in two other longterm relationships, and fathered seven children (his daughter Noel is in charge of his literary trust).


A Colorful Life

Sturgeon held a number of jobs early in his career, including door-to-door refrigerator salesman, sailor in the merchant marine, hotel manager in Jamaica, bulldozer driver in Puerto Rico and gas station operator (both of those for the U.S. Army) and advertising copywriter. In addition to his writing career, he worked as an editor for several publications and even operated his own literary agency for a while. Many of his experiences, particularly from his days in the merchant marine, found their way into his stories. 


The Novels

Sturgeon wrote six original novels under his own name, and perhaps the best known is 1953's More Than Human, an expansion of his novella "Baby is Three" that was published the previous year. More Than Human concerns itself with six people with remarkable powers who come together to form a single organism, "Homo Gestalt," that is the next stage in human evolution. More Than Human is widely considered Sturgeon's masterpiece and regularly included on lists of the greatest sci-fi novels of all time. His other books include The Dreaming Jewels (1950), To Marry Medusa (1958), the gender-bending Venus Plus X (1960), the bizarre vampire novel Some Of Your Blood (1961) and the posthumously published Godbody (1986). Sturgeon also wrote novelizations of three movies, including Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and two novels under different names, including a mystery story written for the Ellery Queen series. 


The Short Stories

He also wrote more than 200 shorter pieces, including short stories and novellas, and this was the form in which he generally excelled. "Baby is Three" is perhaps the standout, but other well-known stories include "Killdozer!" (1944), "Microcosmic God" (1941) -- considered one of the best sci-fi short stories of all time -- "Slow Sculpure," (which won both the Nebula and Hugo Award for 1970) the provocative "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" (1967) and the early, highly influential horror/monster story "It!" (1940), about a plant creature that forms itself around a human skeleton. The story may have influenced the creation of both Marvel's Man-Thing and DC's Swamp Thing.


Sturgeon and Star Trek

Sturgeon was one the first writers that Gene Roddenberry reached out to about writing for the original Star Trek, and while he had difficulty working in the television format, Sturgeon was responsible for two of the show's best and most popular episodes. His first, "Shore Leave," aired during the show's inaugural season and featured the crew of the Enterprise trapped on a "playground" planet where anything they imagine is created for them. His second produced script, "Amok Time," kicked off the second season and is a Trek classic. The show dealt with the mating rituals of Vulcans and introduced both the Vulcan hand symbol and the greeting "Live long and prosper." Sturgeon also pitched two more stories for Star Trek that were never produced: "The Joy Machine," about a planet the population of which is controlled by a device that gives them ultimate pleasure (it was later turned into a novel by James Gunn) and a sequel to "Shore Leave."


Where Else You Might Have Seen His Work

Sadly, none of Sturgeon's novels have ever been filmed, but some of his short stories have been adapted for television. The best known is probably Killdozer!, the 1974 TV movie based on his 1944 story. The plot concerns a construction crew whose bulldozer is possessed by a malevolent alien entity (a 1990s punk band called itself Killdozer as well). Sturgeon, himsel,f also wrote an original episode of the Saturday morning TV series, Land of the Lost, in 1975, titled "The Pylon Express." Two of his stories were adapted for the mid-1980s revival of The Twilight Zone: "A Saucer of Loneliness" and "Yesterday was Monday" (adapted as "A Matter of Minutes"), which both aired in 1986.


Sturgeon and Other Sci-Fi Writers

Sturgeon's work was enormously influential on many of his colleagues and contemporaries. He was lifelong friends with Robert Heinlein, whose name for robots, "waldos," was a tribute to Sturgeon's original last name. Kurt Vonnegut's most famous literary creation, the character Kilgore Trout, was reportedly modeled heavily on Sturgeon. His emphasis on the "social sciences" also played a role in the creation of the New Wave of Science-Fiction, inspiring writers like Harlan Ellison, Samuel R. Delany, James Tiptree, Jr., Connie Willis, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem and Nalo Hopkinson. His ideas on human evolution, particularly the themes expressed in More Than Human, influenced the work of artists like the Grateful Dead and the Blue Man Group as well as scientists like Carl Sagan. 


Sturgeon's Law

In 1951, Sturgeon coined the adage known as "Sturgeon's Law" (originally "Sturgeon's Revelation") which basically boiled down to "90 percent of everything is crap." The phrase was a response to the then-common notion that most sci-fi was garbage, to which Sturgeon asserted that it only followed that most of everything was garbage. He also developed the critical thinking credo "Ask the next question," which posited that one question leads to another and eventually to an answer that moves the human race forward in some way. The credo was symbolized by a Q with an arrow through it, which Sturgeon used in his signature and wore on a necklace.


Weird and Random Facts

1) Theodore Sturgeon was a distant relative of the poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

2) While his family tree contained many clergyman, Sturgeon himself was an atheist.

3) He claimed to have been in the room on the day that sci-fi writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard said, "We're all wasting our time writing this hack science-fiction! You wanna make real money, you gotta start a religion!"

4) He wrote and often performed his own songs at sci-fi conventions.

5) He was a confirmed nudist.

6) He once worked for two weeks with Orson Welles on a screen version of More Than Human, but it was abandoned.

7) He suffered from long bouts of writer's block, with the longest lasting four years.

8) He died of lung fibrosis, thought to have been brought on by exposure to asbestos during his merchant marine days.