Saturday, May 26, 2012

Theodore Sturgeon: "The World Well Lost"

Theodore Sturgeon's "The World Well Lost" is an SF short story.  The title is taken from John Dryden's play, All For Love; or, The World Well Lost.  The subject of  Dryden's play is the same as Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, the love between them that cost one a kingdom and the other an empire.  Love's price is high for them, but the title suggests love is worth it.  Sturgeon's short story is about another love, a different type of love that at that time had to remain hidden, for the consequences of revealing it would result also in the loss of one's position, and very likely one's family and friends.  This story was published in 1953, which makes it remarkable for being written and published at that time.

It is set far in the future when Terra (Earth) had spread its influence throughout the galaxy.  However, there were a few holdouts and the planet Dirbanu was one of them.  When the initial contact had been made by a Terran ship, Dirbanu had surrounded itself in impenetrable force fields, thus preventing any contact until an ambassador could be sent to Terra.  Once there, in spite of numerous and obvious similarities, "the ambassador .  .  . showed a most uncommon disdain of Earth and all its work, curled his lip and went wordlessly home, and ever since then Dirbanu had locked itself tight away from the questing Terrans."

So it remained until the time when Dirbanu finally slipped from Terran concerns and memory.

Then the "loverbirds" arrived.  They landed in a small spaceship, and after disembarking, the taller one of the two threw some powder on the ship, and it immediately dissolved into dust which blew away on the wind.  It was clear they planned to stay on Terra, thus giving up their home planet, possibly forever.

They were so wrapped up in each other that the Earth folk were captivated.  There were loverbird songs, trinkets, hats and pins, and jewelry.  It took a computer, however, loaded with the accumulated knowledge of Terran space exploration to discover where they came from, for they never would say.  It was Dirbanu.  It was at this time that Dirbanu sent a message, the first one in ages, to Earth.  The loverbirds were criminals and the Dirbanu would be most grateful if they were returned.

"So, from the depths of its enchantment, Terra was able to calculate a course of action.  Here at last was an opportunity to consort with Dirbanu on a friendly basis--great Dirbanu which, since it had force fields which Earth could not duplicate, must of necessity, have many other things Earth could use;  mighty Dirbanu before whom we could kneel in supplication (with purely-for-defense bombs hidden in our pockets) with lowered heads (making invisible the knife in our teeth) and ask for crumbs from their table (in order to extrapolate the location of their kitchens)."

Sturgeon does not paint a pleasing picture of the Terrans, or, at least, one that doesn't sound very pleasing to me. And later, one of the characters paints an even more dismal picture of Earth culture, which ostensibly is in the future but can be descriptive of many contemporary human cultures and groups.

"A filthy place, Terra.  There is nothing, he thought, like the conservatism of license.  Given a culture of sybaritics, with an endless choice of mechanical titillations, and you have a people of unbreakable and hidebound formality, a people with few but massive taboos, a shockable, narrow, prissy people obeying the rules--even the rules of their calculated depravities--and protecting their treasured, specialized pruderies.  In such a group there are words one may not use for fear of their fanged laughter, colors one may not wear, gestures and intonations one must forego, on pain of being torn to pieces.  The rules are complex and absolute, and in such a place one's heart may not sing lest, through its warm free joyousness, it betray one."

The subject, a taboo one when this story was written, and although more acceptable today, but still considered with loathing and fear by various groups for various reasons, is homosexual love.   It is one of the first stories I read that portrayed homosexual love as being something other than a perversion or a defiance of natural law.   Though it might be banned by various groups today, it still doesn't have the effect it had when it was first published in the early '50s. 

Highly recommended:  it is a story that makes its point without preaching.

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