Saturday, January 16, 2010


Those who don't read SF and Fantasy probably have never had the chance to become acquainted with two of the finest short story writers in the English language: Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon. Their tales range from the outright fantastic to horror to everyday life. I've discussed some of Bradbury's tales already, mostly in conjunction with film versions, and there are many others which I want to bring up. Today, though, I want to discuss briefly three of Sturgeon's stories that are favorites of mine. One, not only is a favorite, but it forced me to think about some of my attitudes and eventually changed my way of thinking.

Warning: I will bring up significant plot elements and even the endings for some of the stories.

"Bianca's Hands"

This is a horror story, I think. It might even be a love story. Perhaps it's both. I'm not sure what to call it for it's one of the strangest stories I've ever read, and it has stayed with me ever since I first read it decades ago. See for yourself. I will quote the opening paragraphs and let it speak for itself.

"Bianca's mother was leading her when Ran saw her first. Bianca was squat and small, with dank hair and rotten teeth. Her mouth was crooked and it drooled. Either she was blind or she just didn't care about bumping into things. It didn't really matter because Bianca was an imbecile. Her hands . . ."

This is a strange way to begin a love story, the story of an overwhelming passion that eventually leads to a tragedy. At least, I think it's a tragedy. But it gets stranger when one reads the last words of the paragraph which leads into the second paragraph--"Her hands . . ."

"They were lovely hands, graceful hands, hands as soft and smooth and white as snowflakes, hands whose color was lightly tinged with pink like the glow of Mars on Snow. They lay on the counter side by side, looking at Ran. They lay there half closed and crouching, each pulsing with a movement like the the panting of a field creature, and they looked. Not watched. Later, they watched him. Now they looked. They did, because Ran felt their united gaze , and his heart beat strongly."

Ran rents a room and moves in with Bianca's mother and Bianca, or rather, to be realistic, Bianca's hands. He then begins to court, not Bianca, but her hands. Or, perhaps it was the reverse: they began to court? seduce? him.

"Bianca was alone in the room, and Ran went to her and sat beside her. She did not move, nor did her hands. They rested on a small table before her, preening themselves. This, then, was when they really began watching him. He felt it, right down to the depths of his enchanted heart. The hands kept stroking each other, and yet they knew he was there, they knew of his desire. They stretched themselves before him, archly, languorously, and his blood pounded hot. Before he could stay himself he reached and tried to grasp them. He was strong, and his move was sudden and clumsy. One of the hands seemed to disappear, so swiftly did it drop into Bianca's lap. But the other--"

As I read the story, I gradually realized that this tale could not, would not have a "happy ending"--or, at least an ending that I would call "happy." Ran couldn't see that something here was wrong. The horror increases as Ran becomes more and more infatuated with her hands. Finally, he seals his fate when he asks Bianca's mother for permission to marry Bianca (no, I will not give in and say he asks for her hand.)

Is there a moral here? Perhaps. It does point out the danger of focusing on only one aspect of the beloved and not the whole person.

What makes this story so memorable is Sturgeon's language. He manages to make those hands the real focus of the story. They are alive and independent; Bianca's body is simply the means of transporting those hands. He imbues them with a consciousness that is both real and grotesque at the same time.

Overall Rating: a quiet little horror tale that deserves far more attention than it gets.


"The Silken-Swift"

I guess one could call this one a fantasy, mostly anyway. The title refers to a unicorn, a mythical beast, except that in this story it isn't mythical. This story looks at an obsession, sexual naturally, but one that seems more natural than in the previous tale. It's also the story of the eternal triangle: two women and one man. One woman uses him and abuses him, while the second woman is abused by him. It takes a unicorn to resolve the confusion. However, I'm not too sure about the ending. I have some problems with it, and it would be interesting to hear what others think about it.

Briefly, Rita is the daughter of the richest man in the village. She is beautiful and selfish and skilled in the use of potions that manipulate people's feelings. In this way, she has made fools of many men without ever giving them what they think she promises.

One night, she torments a new man, Del, in this way, and left him temporarily blinded by one of her drugs. Barbara, another woman from the village, one who has been quietly in love with him, finds him and attempts to help him. Del, still blind, thinks it's Rita and takes his revenge on her now that he has her within reach. Barbara never tells him of his mistake.

Rita, learning of the presence of the unicorn, has a golden bridle made and gets Barbara to lead them to the pond where the unicorn--the Silken-Swift-- comes to drink. Rita will prove that she is still a virgin for only virgins are able to catch a unicorn.

The pond, even though in the midst of a swamp, was special: "It was a place without hardness or hate, where the aspens trembled only for wonder, and where all contentment was rewarded. Every single rabbit there was the champion nose-twinkler, and every waterbird could stand on one leg the longest, and proud of it. Shelf-fungi hung to the willow-trunks, making that certain, single purple of which the sunset is incapable , and a tanager and a cardinal gravely granted one another his definition of 'red.'"

However, the unicorn ignores the myth and rejects Rita in front of a large crowd of villagers and comes to Barbara. But, there is a price to be paid as the unicorn flips Rita's golden bridle into the pond.

"And the instant it touched the water, the pond was a bog and the birds rose mourning from the trees.

. . .

Barbara said, 'For us, he lost his pool, his beautiful pool.'

And Del said 'He will get another. He must.' With difficulty he added, 'He couldn't be . . . punished . . . for being so gloriously Fair.'"

Strange ending: Rita wrongly is believed to not be a virgin. Del gets the girl whom he raped and the Unicorn loses its beautiful pond. Should Del be rewarded? Why did the Silken-Swift lose its pond? Was it really "for being so gloriously Fair."?

Overall Rating: well-written, as is typical of a Sturgeon tale, but it leaves some disquieting questions unanswered, for Sturgeon has taken a few liberties with the myth.


"Thunder and Roses"

This is the story that caused me to reconsider some of my beliefs many years ago. It didn't change them immediately, but it stayed with me and influenced me so that I no longer think the way I did then. The story was published in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, when many people feared that a nuclear war was imminent. The two most strident reactions were generally all one heard: "Better Red than Dead" shouted one side, while the other side screamed "Better Dead than Red." Sturgeon's story suggested there were other options and other, better ways to think. One way was to see all of us as part of humanity.

In "Thunder and Roses," the horror has happened. A surprise nuclear attack has virtually destroyed the US, wiping out the government and military so quickly that no retaliation could be made. The story is set on a small obscure military post that escaped being wiped out. However, those there know their time is short, days for some, a week or two or maybe even a month for most. The North American continent is uninhabitable.

However, the enemy will not escape either, for the amount of radiation released by the attack is so great that within a year or two, it will blanket the northern hemisphere, and as one of he characters says, "They have killed us, and they have ruined themselves."

One of the survivors discovers that the post has a secret backup control system for launching a retaliatory strike, if the first line system has been knocked out. His immediate reaction is that he now has a chance to destroy those who have destroyed the US.

The issue is not that simple. In the story, there is a level of radiation that would eventually destroy all of humanity and almost all of the other species we share this planet with. It's the scenario set up in Nevil Shute's On the Beach. So far, that limit hasn't been reached, yet. It will be, though, if the US retaliates. This is the conflict: revenge vs a concern for all life.

Sturgeon has one of his characters tell us:

"A disease made other humans our enemies for a time, but as the generations march past, enemies become friends and friends enemies. The enmity of those who have killed us is such a tiny, temporary thing in the long sweep of history!'

. . .

'And even if this is the end of humankind, we dare not take away the chances some other life-form might have to succeed where we failed. If we retaliate, there will not be a dog, a deer, an ape, a bird or fish or lizard to carry the evolutionary torch. In the name of justice, if we must condemn and destroy ourselves, let us not condemn all other life along with us. Mankind is heavy enough with sins. If we must destroy, let us stop with destroying ourselves!'"

This was a philosophy that I hadn't heard before. It argues that we look beyond our family, our clan, our city, our nation, even beyond our own species. Of course, today, while this is not accepted by even a sizable minority, it is prevalent, even if only to be derided by the "wise" and the practical. In 1947, at least in my immediate universe, it was a radical thought, and one I had to struggle with. What's unfortunate is that I can't tell Theodore Sturgeon that he succeeded in convincing me and, possibly, many others also.

Who knows? Maybe in a century or two, someone will read this story and wonder why it was necessary to argue such an obvious way of thinking about our place here.

Any thoughts?


  1. Dear Fred,

    These and "A Saucerful of Loneliness" (may have the title a little off). When Sturgeon was on, he was on; when he was off, he still exceeded the law he is famous for articulating.



  2. Great post, Fred. I haven't read those Sturgeon stories, but I highly recommend his "And Now the News" (1956).

  3. Steven,

    Just a tad off--"A Saucer of Loneliness." Actually it was one of the stories I was thinking about discussing, but I found the entry was already quite long with just the three. I'll probably include it with the next Sturgeon entry.

    I agree: Sturgeon's writing were always in the 10% category.

  4. WCG,

    Thanks for the title. I'll take a look at it.

  5. Strange ending: Rita wrongly is believed to not be a virgin. Del gets the girl whom he raped and the Unicorn loses its beautiful pond. Should Del be rewarded? Why did the Silken-Swift lose its pond? Was it really "for being so gloriously Fair."?

    I know I'm coming to your post over a year after you wrote it, but maybe you'll see this comment :) A few points that came to mind when I read the story:

    - Rita was wrongly believed to not be a virgin because the unicorn I think was making a distinction between virginity and purity and how the two are not the same thing (Rita was a virgin but quite a corrupted person; Barbara was not a virgin by the end, but kind and pure in motive and deed). One of the things that makes Barbara pure is that she doesn't participate in all the games of power/deception/revenge that the other characters are caught up in.

    - I don't know if Del "gets the girl" at the end or is rewarded. I thought that was ambiguous. He fully recognizes Barbara for the first time and sees her beauty, but there's a moment where he tries to touch the unicorn (who had looked at him with compassion and anger) and it bounds away from him. He then says that the unicorn will get another pool, it must, and it's almost like Del is speaking about himself and Barbara (there must be a way that he himself can be uncorrupted and for what he did to Barbara to be undone... but is there a way? Can he take away her hurt from that night? Can he raise himself from the more debased state that Rita and his own actions put him in?)

    In an ideal world the unicorn wouldn't have been needed as a judge of character or purity. People would have been able to recognize that Rita is rotten in spite of her virginity, instead of being blinded by her beauty and witchcraft and the assumption that virginity automatically equals goodness. And people would be able to see what a gem Barbara was. But once human society with its blindness descends on the bog the unicorn has to leave it behind. And by the end people still don't get why Rita failed the "purity test."

    Del was close to being a good man and failed in weakness, blindness and a need for vengeance. Whatever he does have with Barbara in the future (and it's not clear if he'll have anything) seems like it will always be tainted by what he did. Interestingly, earlier in the story Barbara sees Del everywhere (the trees remind her of his height, etc.). What does Barbara feel for Del in the end, after his actions - and Rita's - effectively took away the one place in the world, in the bogs, that was truly pure and without hate?

    I agree that the story raises difficult and disturbing questions. (And sorry if I've gone on and on for too long...)

  6. HKatz,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. No problem with the length of time since it was posted or the length of the comment. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on one of Sturgeon's most interesting stories, once one really looks closely at it.

    I agree that the nature of any future relationship between Del and Barbara is ambiguous, but the hint is still there, which is disturbing, as is much of the story.

    The issue overall is the nature of virginity, which frequently, as you state, quite different from purity. The physical aspect is take as a sign of the internal state of mine. Sturgeon here is suggesting that too many times the two are confused.

    Sturgeon has taken a simple black-and-white tale and turned it into something else.