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Picking up Sturgeon again

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In 2001, I bought and read and enjoyed the first five volumes in North Atlantic Books's Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon series, in trade paperback. Then I waited for the rest of the series to come out in trade paperback, so I could get a matching set. And waited. And waited. Eventually, in late 2002, volume VII showed up, but volume VI was still available only in hardcover.

I bought volume VII and read it. And waited some more. At some point I had a semi-contentious email exchange with someone from the press, who explained to me that the softcover volumes would only be published when stock of the hardcovers ran low. I waited for several more years; finally, in 2008, I decided to get the rest of the series in hardcover—but volume VIII was unavailable by that point. So I went and bought the hardcovers of volumes IX through XII, but I still wanted to read the series more or less in order, and I had of course lost momentum by then.

But two weeks ago, I decided it was time to get over my need for matching covers (at least in this instance). So I bought volumes VI, VIII (which is now available again), and XIII (the last in the series) in hardcover, and over the past couple of weeks, I read through volume VI, Baby Is Three, featuring stories published in 1951 and 1952, including a couple of stories that've never before appeared in a Sturgeon collection.

The quality of the stories in this volume is uneven, but it's a really interesting collection, especially for Sturgeon fans. There's a fair degree of thematic unity: most of the stories have male/female relations as a major focus, and several of them involve attempts to get two or more (usually more) people to mesh into a coherent social/emotional unit. There are some fascinating observations about gender and gender relations, and some wince-inducing sexism, sometimes in the same story. (Sometimes in the same paragraph!)

I haven't read Sturgeon's novel Venus Plus X, but series editor Paul Williams mentions, in his story notes, that some of the stories here are thematic precursors to that book, which makes me think maybe I should read it.

But the thing that was more obvious to me is that some of these stories are thematic precursors to More Than Human. And, indeed, the volume concludes with “Baby Is Three,” the novella that later formed the middle third of the novel.

And it's superb. I've mentioned before, in my posts about Sturgeon, coming across really good or really interesting stories of his while reading these volumes; it's been a while since I read the previous volumes, but I'm pretty sure this is my favorite story of his so far.

I imagine part of my reaction is remembering that it blew me away when I first read it as a kid. (I'm almost certain that I read the story before I read More Than Human.) But I liked plenty of these other stories as a kid, too, and I don't think they've had quite the same effect on me. In this one, everything comes together; it's like all the stuff that's been tumbling around messily in Sturgeon's fiction for the previous couple of years finally bleshes into what it was trying to be.

It's not a perfect story. For example, Miss Kew is treated very badly indeed; and the characters demonstrate no understanding of the ways in which telepathy can be a violation of the person whose mind is being read. (IIrc, moral consequences are more fully explored in the final third of More Than Human.) And I have no idea whether the therapy portrayed in the story is plausible; in a note about it, Sturgeon said that the psychiatrist is the one he wishes he'd had in real life, and is based on ideas he got from Dianetics (in the early pre-Scientology days). But still, overall I think the story is really good and really well done, and head and shoulders above the other stories he'd been writing in the previous couple of years.

Apparently Sturgeon had no idea he'd written something that would resonate so well with readers. In a postcard to Judith Merrill after writing it, he said “It's okay I wrote one and omigod it's fine. [...] I think maybe if I do more and like doing it as much I won't have to worry about who I'm: I'll find out.” But he was nonetheless surprised at just how much people liked it.

If you haven't read Sturgeon before, there are better introductions to his work than these Complete Stories volumes. (I guess I would say More Than Human is probably the best introduction to his work.) But for those of us who are already fans, they do a remarkable job of tracing the development of one of the masters of the field; I'm grateful to everyone involved in putting these volumes together. (Hi, Debbie!) I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series, though I think first I'll take a break and read some things published in 2013 so I can nominate for the Hugos.

If any of you don't have these books and want them, the easiest way to get them now is to buy the ebook editions. They're available on iBooks for $19 each (here's volume 1 to get you started), or on Kindle for $10 (volume 1); not sure why the huge price discrepancy.

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