Thursday, February 11, 2010

Readings — The Golden Helix

The Golden Helix
by Theodore Sturgeon

I want to start off by saying that this is a good book. That said, this collection of Sturgeon’s favourites among his short stories draws heavily on tales from the 1950s, and to me largely reads that way. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it left me personally cold. I find there’s a specific style and sensibility to American writing in the 1950s, especially commercial writing; there’s an odd balance between a desire for directness of address on the one hand and a tendency to conventionalisation on the other. So, for example, you find attempts to write out of a street argot, but the language lacks obscenities and sounds — to my ears — stilted.

More significantly, there’s an attempt, particularly I think in SF of the era, to depict a humanistic world, in which people overcome their differences through communication and learn how practically to live together. It’s liberalism in a very genial, non-political, form; indeed, it’s a liberalism that tends to undermine politics and political viewpoints — if people end up in agreement the more they communicate, then clearly the differences in ideology were never that significant. I find this liberalism difficult to accept, even when it’s well-written (and Sturgeon does write well); I don’t think people are all fundamentally alike, I don’t think disputes can all be solved by communication, and I do think there are problems in the human psyche with the drive for power.

(To give a concrete example of what I mean: One of the stories, “The Skills of Xanadau”, has to do with a paradisiac society on an alien world. Except, to me, it’s an unconvincing paradise. People are unconcerned with privacy, and go around almost naked; so how does that work with the human sex drive? I dunno. The story’s curiously sexless. Or take “And Now the News”, which ends up being driven by a man’s exasperation with the news presenting a constant parade of “damn foolishness,” which includes “people all the time pushing people around” and “Everybody hungry for a fast buck”. To me, calling these things — examples of the will-to-power, if you like — foolish is simply evading them, dismissing them without understanding them. Without understanding why humans act this way, and considering whether they’re a major part of the human condition. It’s the limit of that liberal viewpoint I’m trying to identify.)

I’m painting here with a broad brush, and I don’t want to say that that’s the only thing going on in these stories. As I say, Sturgeon’s technically a good writer. He writes in a range of different styles; probably the best story in the book, “The Man Who Lost the Sea”, plays with point-of-view and creates a memorable, hard voice. His prose is always readable, and set with memorable images. Notably, Sturgeon most often seems a tale-teller in these stories; there aren’t any obvious oral story-telling tricks, but the sense of a narrator’s personality is very strong even in the third-person stories. They’re good pieces. They happen not to touch me. Your mileage may vary.

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