Read Slow Sculpture Online

Authors: Theodore Sturgeon

Slow Sculpture (2 page)

But Sturgeon’s taking us to an entirely different place. Through seemingly random reminiscences and ordinary, familiar details—Sputnik beeping overhead, a pestering kid, that time in gym class
when you fell off the parallel bars, the crash of the surf—he’s leading us straight into the heart of darkness.

No, that’s not right. It’s not a straightforward journey at all. The first time I read “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” I thought of it as an onion, with layers being peeled off one after the other to get to the core, but that’s not right either. It’s more like a plane making passes at a landing field, circling closer and closer each time. Or like a hawk, circling in on its prey.

And it has to be done that way because the direct route won’t work. Circling, veering off at the last minute, taking off on talkative tangents, circling back, are the only way we can get to the secrets inside the story—and inside us. The only way we can bear to face what frightens us, to look at the terrible truth.

And Sturgeon’s merciless. He’s not going to spare us anything. He’s going to make us look squarely at the things we want to avert our gaze from. And he’s not even going to let us hang on to those things that gave us cause for hope along the way—that resourceful problem-solving kid, the trail of Friday-like footprints heading off along the beach, the comforting murmur of the sea in our ears. It’s a brilliant, brutal, beautifully written story, at the same time heartbreaking and soaringly triumphant. The best thing he ever wrote.

I said before that nobody who hasn’t read “The Man Who Lost the Sea” can really understand science fiction. I stand by that, but at the same time the story’s not like any other science fiction story. It’s unique.

So was its author. That’s why it’s an incredible privilege for me to be able to write about the wonderful story and this wonderful storyteller and possibly introduce one or both of them to new readers.

And to say the things I never got the chance to say to tell Theodore Sturgeon in life. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing all your stories and letting me read them. And especially for writing “The Man Who Lost the Sea.”

Your devoted reader,

Connie Willis

[“The Man Who Lost the Sea” is in Volume X of
The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon
.]

The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff

Part One

Throughout the continuum as we know it (and a good deal more, as we don’t know it) there are cultures that fly and cultures that swim; there are boron folk and fluorine fellowships, cuproco-prophages and (roughly speaking) immaterial life-forms which swim and swirl around each other in space like so many pelagic shards of metaphysics. And some organize into superentities like a beehive or a slime-mold so that they live plurally to become singular, and some have even more singular ideas of plurality.

Now, no matter how an organized culture of intelligent beings is put together or where, regardless of what it’s made of or how it lives, there is one thing all cultures have in common, and it is the most obvious of traits. There are as many names for it as there are cultures, of course, but in all it works the same way—the same way the inner ear functions (with its contributory synapses) in a human being when he steps on Junior’s roller skate. He doesn’t think about how far away the wall is, some wires or your wife, or in which direction: he
grabs
, and, more often than not, he
gets
—accurately and without analysis. Just so does an individual reflexively adjust when imbalanced in his socio-cultural matrix: he experiences the reflex of reflexes, a thing as large as the legendary view afforded a drowning man of his entire past, in a single illuminated instant wherein the mind moves, as it were, at right angles to time and travels high and far for its survey.

And this is true of every culture everywhere, the cosmos over. So obvious and necessary a thing is seldom examined: but it was once, by a culture which called this super-reflex “Synapse Beta sub Sixteen.”

What came out of the calculator surprised them. They were, after all, expecting an answer.

Human eyes would never have recognized the device for what it was. Its memory bank was an atomic cloud, each particle of which was sealed away from the others by a self-sustaining envelope of force. Subtle differences in nuclei, in probability shells, and in internal tensions were the coding, and fields of almost infinite variability were used to call up the particles in the desired combinations. These were channeled in a way beyond description in earthly mathematics, detected by a principle as yet unknown to us, and translated into language (or, more accurately, an analog of what we understand as language). Since this happened so far away, temporally, spatially, and culturally, proper nouns are hardly proper; it suffices to say that it yielded results, in this particular setting, which were surprising. These were correlated into a report, the gist of which was this:

Prognosis positive, or prognosis negative, depending upon presence or absence of Synapse Beta sub Sixteen
.

The pertinent catalog listed the synapse in question as “indetectible except by field survey.” Therefore an expedition was sent.

All of which may seem fairly remote until one realizes that the prognosis was being drawn for that youthful and dangerous aggregate of bubbling yeasts called “human culture,” and that when the term “prognosis negative” was used it meant
finis
, the end, zero,
ne plus ultra
altogether.

It must be understood that the possessors of the calculator, the personnel of the expedition to Earth, were not Watchers in the Sky and Arbiters of Our Fate. Living in our midst, here and now, is a man who occupies himself with the weight-gain of amoebæ from their natal instant to the moment they fission. There is a man who, having produced neurosis in cats, turns them into alcoholics for study. Someone has at long last settled the matter of the camel’s capacity for, and retention of, water. People like these are innocent of designs on the destinies of
all
amoebæ, cats, camels and cultures; there are simply certain things they want to
know
. This is the case no matter how unusual, elaborate, or ingenious their methods might be. So—an expedition came here for information.

EXCERPT FROM FIELD EXPEDITION [NOTEBOOK] [VOLUME] I:

CONCLUSION … to restate the obvious, [we] have been on Earth long enough and more than long enough to have discovered anything and everything [we] [wished] about any [sensible-predictable-readable] culture anywhere. This one, however, is quite beyond [understanding-accounting-for]. At first sight, [one] was tempted to conclude immediately that it possesses the Synapse, because no previously known culture has advanced to this degree without it, ergo.… And then [we] checked it with [our] [instruments] [! ! !] [Our] [gimmick] and our [kickshaw] gave [us] absolutely negative readings, so [we] activated a high-sensitivity [snivvy] and got results which approximate nonsense: the Synapse is scattered through the population randomly, here non-existent or dormant, there in brief full activity at [unheard-of] high levels. [I] thought [Smith] would go [out of (his) mind] and as for [myself], [I] had a crippling attack of the [      ]s at the very concept. More for [our] own protection than for the furtherance of the Expedition, [we] submitted all our data to [our] [ship]’s [computer] and got what appeared to be even further nonsense: the conclusion that this species possesses the Synapse but to all intents and purposes does not use it.

How can a species possess Synapse Beta sub Sixteen and not use it? Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense!

So complex and contradictory are [our] data that [we] can only fall back on a microcosmic analysis and proceed by its guidance. [We] shall therefore isolate a group of specimens under [laboratory] control, even though it means using a [miserable] [primitive] [battery]-powered [wadget]. [We]’ll put our new-model [widget] on the job, too. [We]’ve had enough of this [uncanny, uncomfortable] feeling of standing in the presence of [apology-for-obscenity] paradox.
1

I

The town was old enough to have slums, large enough to have no specific “tracks” with a right and a wrong side. Its nature was such that a boarding house could, without being unusual, contain such varied rungs on the social ladder as a young, widowed night-club hostess and her three-year-old son; a very good vocational guidance expert; a young law clerk; the librarian from the high school; and a stage-struck maiden from a very small small town. They said Sam Bittelman, who nominally owned and operated the boarding house, could have been an engineer, and if he had been, a marine architect as well, but instead he had never risen higher than shop foreman. Whether this constituted failure or success is speculative; apply to a chief petty officer or top sergeant who won’t accept a commission, and to the president of your local bank, and take your pick of their arguments. It probably never occurred to Sam to examine the matter. He had other things to amuse him. Tolerant, curious, intensely alive, old Sam had apparently never retired from anything but his job at the shipyards back east.

He in turn was owned and operated by his wife, whom everyone called “Bitty” and who possessed the harshest countenance and the most acid idiom ever found in a charter member of the Suckers for Sick Kittens and Sob Stories Society. Between them they took care of their roomers in that special way possible only in boarding houses which feature a big dining table and a place set for everyone.
Such places are less than a family, or more if you value your freedom. They are more than a hotel, or less if you like formality. To Mary Haunt, who claimed to be twenty-two and lied, the place was the most forgettable and soon-to-be-forgotten of stepping stones; to Robin it was home and more; it was the world and the universe, an environment as ubiquitous, unnoticed, and unquestioned as the water around a fish; but Robin would, of course, feel differently later. He was only three. The only other one of the Bittelmans’ boarders who breathed what was uniquely the Bittelman quality as if it were air was Phil Halvorsen, a thoughtful young man in the vocational guidance field, whose mind was on food and housing only when they annoyed him, and since the Bittelmans made him quite comfortable, in effect they were invisible. Reta Schmidt appreciated the Bittelmans for a number of things, prime among which was the lengths to which her dollar went with them, for Miss Schmidt’s employers were a Board of Education. Mr. Anthony O’Banion permitted himself a genuine admiration of almost nothing in these parts. So it remained for Sue Martin to be the only one in the place who respected and admired them, right from the start, with something approaching their due. Sue was Robin’s widowed mother and worked in a night club as hostess and sometime entertainer. She had done, in the past, both better and worse. She still might do better for herself, but only that which would be worse for Robin. The Bittelmans were her godsend. Robin adored them, and the only thing they would not do for him was to spoil him. The Bittelmans were there to give him breakfast in the mornings, to dress him when he went out to play, to watch over him and keep him amused and content until Sue rose at 11. The rest of the day was for Sue and Robin together, right up to his bedtime, when she tucked him in and storied him to sleep. And when she left for work at 9
P.M.
, the Bittelmans were there, safe and certain, ready and willing to cope with anything from a bladder to a blaze. They were like insurance and fire extinguishers, hardly ever used but comforting by their presence. So she valued them … but then, Sue Martin was different from most people. So was Robin; however this is a truism when speaking of three-year-olds.

Such was the population of Bittelman’s boarding house, and if they seem too many and too varied to sort out all at once, have patience and remember that each of them felt the same way on meeting all the others.

II

A pawnshop is a dismal place.

A pawnshop in the rain. A closed pawnshop in the rain, on a Sunday.

Philip Halvorsen did not object. He had a liking for harmony, and the atmosphere suited him well just now, his thoughts, his feelings. A sunbeam would have been an intrusion. A flower shop could not have contributed so much. People, just now, would have been intolerable.

He leaned his forehead against the wet black steel of the burglar-proof gate and idly inventoried the contents of the window and his thoughts about them. Like the window and its contents, and the dark recesses inside, his thoughts were miscellaneous, cluttered, captured in that purgatory of uselessness wherein things are not dead, only finished with what they have been and uncaring of what will happen to them and when. His thoughts were binoculars without eyes, cameras without film, silent guitars and unwound watches.

He found himself approving more of the guitars than the two dirty violins hanging in the window. He almost wondered why this should be, almost let the question disappear into lethargy, and at last sighed and ran the matter down because he knew it would bother him otherwise and he was in no mood to be bothered. He looked at the instruments lazily, one, the other, analyzing and comparing. They had a great deal in common, and some significant differences. Having a somewhat sticky mind, to which windblown oddments of fact had been adhering for nearly thirty years now, he knew of the trial-and-error evolution of those resonance-chambers and of the high degree of perfection they had come to. Given that design followed function in both the violin and the guitar, and aside from any preference in the sounds they made (actually Halvorsen was completely indifferent to music anyway), then why should he intuitively prefer
the guitars he saw over the violins? Size, proportion, number of strings, design of bridge, frets or lack of them, finish, peg and tailpiece mechanics—all these had their differences and all were perfect for the work they did.

Suddenly, then, he saw it, and his mind swiftly thumbed through the mental pictures of all the violins he had ever seen. They all checked out. One flickering glance at the guitars in the window settled the matter.

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