Sexual Psychology in Theodore Sturgeon’s Fiction

David Layton, DeVry University


Many critics have mentioned the importance of Theodore Sturgeon to the history of science fiction, but his work has not received enough academic critical attention. One probable reason for the praise Sturgeon’s work receives, especially from fellow writers, is his candid portrayal of the psychology of male sexual desire. Sturgeon focuses on three specific aspects of male sexuality: the sexual charge of being needed by a woman, the overwhelming power of male sexual urges, and the importance of chance encounters to create the spark igniting a sexual conflagration in men. Sturgeon’s candor about how male sexual desires feel sets him apart from his contemporaries and provides a major reason for the appreciation he receives as a writer.

Theodore Sturgeon’s name is one of those most cited in lists of the writers of science fiction’s “Golden Age.” Many consider him the best “Golden Age” author, mainly because he concentrated less on scientific hardware and more on character interaction than did his contemporaries. A moralistic and romantic writer, his major themes were tolerance for otherness of all kinds and concern that many social problems were results of repressed sexuality. He was among the first American science fiction writers to write plausibly about sex, homosexuality, race, and religion. Because of this, he has sometimes been accused of writing pornography by those who prefer their science fiction in the standard starched-collar puritan mode. In reality, Sturgeon is among the first to turn American science fiction into a fiction for mature, thinking adults, as his influence on writers including Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Samuel Delany attests.

Indeed, the praise for Sturgeon’s writing is directly proportional to the lack of critical attention paid to his writing. Probably no author so highly regarded has received so little genuine critical assessment. The praise is often effusive, and mostly coming from fellow science-fiction writers. Norman Spinrad(1990) says of Sturgeon that he is “probably the finest short story writer the SF genre has produced, and arguably the finest American short story writer of the post-World War II era” (p. 167). Encomiums nearly this strong have come from Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, and Samuel Delany. Others, such as Brian Aldiss and Barry Malzberg, though not as wowed with Sturgeon’s style, still admit that Sturgeon is essential to understanding the development of science fiction.

What is there precisely in Sturgeon’s writing that garners him such praise and loyalty from other writers in the science fiction field? A key to answering this question may be in the way Sturgeon handles characters, especially male characters. Even when Sturgeon’s characters fit the stereotypes of the markets in which he published, there was usually some dimension beyond the stereotypes, something that made the characters seem like real people and not idealized or cartoon people. Brian Aldiss(1988) has noted Sturgeon’s concern for the underdog, and in particular his rejection of “the dangerous cult of the superman” (p. 226). Aldiss notes Sturgeon’s “interest in the psychology and oddity of human beings” (p. 219), but Sturgeon’s peculiar interest is in the odd psychology of human beings.

An example of this interest in odd psychology is in the way Sturgeon writes about male psychology. Sturgeon’s presentation of sex through the psychology of sex sets him apart from other science-fiction writers of his generation. Sturgeon avoids the “peek-a-boo” prurience of many lesser authors. Other writers of his time often write around the subject even when they try to write about it. Sturgeon also usually avoids the moralizing lecture approach to the subject that Heinlein mistakes for honesty about sex. When Sturgeon writes about sex, he often appears not to be, because titillation, mechanics, and conventional morality in sexual matters do not interest him as a writer. Sturgeon’s subject is the perception and feeling of the man whose mind has been taken over by the sexual imperative.

A running theme in his fiction involves men who find themselves needed by women. Sturgeon twists the “damsel in distress” scenario a little because in his fiction the woman is not the prize. Instead, the psychological driver is being needed. Sturgeon realizes what a potent sexual stimulus being needed by a woman can be. One sees this in “Ghost of a Chance” (1943), in which a man feels compelled to help a woman he has never before met because she proclaims that “something” is after her. She slaps him when he tries to help, and this brings upon him a terrible fascination with her. After a second, humorously painful encounter with her, Gus the protagonist and narrator is hooked. He finds her and finding her cements the sexual bond between them. The driving force for this modern mating dance is that a jealous ghost is smitten with her and attacks any man with whom she becomes even remotely close. Of course, the ghost does terrible things to Gus before he finally figures out how to get rid of it. The question for the reader is this: what drives Gus to emotional extreme and nearly total devotion to a woman with whom he has had only a few brief conversations? It is that he thinks he can do something for her and makes himself determined to do it.

Writing for a popular magazine in the 1940s, Sturgeon could in “Ghost of a Chance” bring the reader only up to a quick view of this aspect of male sexual psychology. Ten years later, Sturgeon had much more room to give the reader a good, hard look at it. In “Bright Segment” (1955), Sturgeon takes a much more graphic and physical approach to this concern. In this story, Sturgeon makes explicit the psychological power of being needed. However, he removes most of the popular fiction-writing encumbrances that prevented a full view of it in “Ghost of a Chance.” In “Bright Segment,” the protagonist is like Gus a man of limited intelligence and no obvious sexual appeal. However, while Gus was just a kind of normal guy, the unnamed protagonist of “Bright Segment” is mentally retarded and physically repulsive, being called an “orangutan.” Like Gus, he encounters an unknown woman in distress late at night. Unlike Iola’s problem in “Ghost of a Chance,” this woman’s problem is neither at a remove nor supernatural – she has been wounded in a mob deal gone badly wrong.

The major and important difference in “Bright Segment” is how this reduction to fundamentals brings out hitherto unknown dimensions to the psychology of male need. Slashed with a razor from groin to throat and dumped out of a car, the woman is insensible and dying when the protagonist first finds her. Sturgeon in this story ups the stakes in terms of desperation, but also carefully avoids explaining the context for what is going on. This has much to do with the protagonist, whose limited intelligence means that he can fix his mind to only one thing at a time.

For the first part of the story, the reader is left bewildered as to what precisely the protagonist is doing with this bleeding woman. Did he attack her? Is he trying to hide the body? After he dumps her onto the bed, is he going to do something perverse? The limited third person point of view works against the reader, who is desperate to find motivation for this man. Yet, it turns out that none of the above questions is true. Instead, this man’s limited intelligence presents a different sort of motivation. He is desperate to be needed, a point driven home several times in the story. He sees in this woman’s situation an opportunity to do the only thing he knows how to do well: “fix it right.” So, he sets out not to abuse the woman, but using nothing other than his handyman skills and the tools in his apartment, to operate on her and save her life.

Sturgeon has freed the issue of “need” from the sexuality of the character, and thus it more intimately reflects on the sexuality of the male reader. That sex is not a motivation for this man is made clear when weeks after the operation, the recuperating woman offers him sex as a “thank you” only to be firmly rejected. His pleasure is not in being wanted, but in being needed. This difference gets revealed late in the story, so that in the earlier parts, the reader fills in what would seem to be “normal” motivation. This technique is particularly strong in the beginning of the story, which describes the operation in quite some detail. The protagonist must undress the woman, must cut away the brassiere and silken panties, must work up close for quite a long time at the open wound in her groin. Sturgeon has brought the matter to the level of touch in this story; whereas, in “Ghost of a Chance” the two principle characters interact mostly through the more distant sense of sight…Access Full Text of the Article

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