Reading this one was kind of strange, if only for reasons that are highly specific to me and probably won't resonate with anyone else. When I started reading this series years and years ago (in the late nineties as the early volumes were coming out, before I wound up taking an unintended fifteen year hiatus) the one story the biographical blurbs kept referring to was "Slow Sculpture" since it had won the Hugo and Nebula the year it was published. I was at a stage where winning both awards to me meant the very pinnacle of SF reading and so very much looked forward to reading what in my mind had to be the best Sturgeon story ever written because two entirely separate groups of people who also really liked SF thought to give it their highest award at the same time.
Thing was, the blurbs never said what year the story was published and I didn't realize until much later that it came very late in his career. But every time a new volume would come out I would buy it (even when I was filing it to not be read right away) and flip through the table of contents to see if "Slow Sculpture" was there. And invariably as the volumes edged into the double digits, it was never there. When it did finally make an appearance in the penultimate volume of this series, one that bore its name (of course) I felt some kind of strange relief. Like, oh, there is it finally. We must be nearly done. When I finally reached the point where I was plunging through the volumes I had sort of forgotten which volume it was and so as I pulled each one off the stack, I would look at the one below (there were stacked in a way that I couldn't read the spines, which would have made this vastly easier) and not see it and wonder when I was getting to it.
And when I was getting ready to finally read it, after all these years, I felt a weird anticipation, wondering if it could possibly be as good as story as worth waiting all this time to read. After all, he'd written plenty of other stories that were masterpieces or had verged on them. Maybe this time the voters got it wrong, or were merely rewarding him for his past, peak efforts.
Well, you'll have to decide for yourselves but for me it was pretty much what I expected, probably his best late period story and maybe his last excellent story. In it, a woman who believes she's dying of cancer goes to a man that isn't a doctor but thinks maybe he can cure her. But that isn't the story, really, not when you come down to it. To me, the best of Sturgeon's stories maintain a subtle lyricism that sets them apart from the ones that are merely running through a keen idea, there's an emphatic passion to it, a sense of humanity as he sets two people who are isolated and may not want to be against each other and steps back to let the scenario play out while connecting it to a higher sense that we're all in this together and if the planet goes, we go too. A lot of his later stories have this slight element of preachiness to it, as if he'd grown tired of coaching his concerns in metaphor and was more focused on speaking directly to the reader through characters that would seek to lecture us about the perils the world is facing. Here, he puts the characters first and lets their human dramas and concerns take center stage as they air their damages and reveal their desires to be better, tying it into the metaphor put forth by the title. Its not his most bravura set of writing ("The Man Who Lost the Sea" probably takes the cake for that) but its got pretty much what people who describe what to look for in a great Sturgeon story would find, that broader sense that we can better than what we are writ both large and small, that caring about each other makes us better and in turn improves the world. That he's able to do it without being sickly sweet or cloying is a tribute to how real he makes it all feel (there's barely any SF). It's a problem anyone can have, but this is specifically how these particular people would solve it given the tools they have, and no one else.
It's a bittersweet feeling to have, to finally reach the story after a decade and a half knowing it was ahead the whole time (apparently I'm very methodical in my reading habits, before you ask) and while I can still read it again any time I'd like, I can never read it for the first time again.
Compared to that masterpiece, the rest are . . . decent. If not for "Slow Sculpture" we might have been in the same situation as the last story, where there were no real standout stories, just decent ones. Fortunately we have the old "The [Widget], the [Wadget] and Boff" published out of order because it wouldn't have fit anywhere else but a welcome surge of the Sturgeon of old, as he details a series of emotionally damaged people living in a boarding house, taking them in a Dos Passos style cross-section and setting aliens among them to push and prod them into maybe not being as damaged even as he makes it clear that in the end they need to be there for each other. And again, its a striking example of how he could write passionately and humanly without getting weepily sentimental.
There's one more near masterpiece to contend with "The Girl Who Knew What They Meant", one of the "Wina Stories" from around this period of his life, a brief exploration into what we do to each other when we're not completely honest with others and mostly ourselves, and what happens when someone can tell the difference. Brief as it is, it feels like Sturgeon fully engaged in attempting to convey a truth to us in a way that turns the situation around entirely from what we expect.
Meanwhile, the rest are . . . cute, for lack of a better term. A lot of them are short and mostly conventional (the one outlier "The Verity Files" told in a series of memos didn't quite work for me despite my normal predilection for authors who actively try to do something different), either lacking Sturgeon's tendency at his best to hit you straight in the gut at the very end or that aching honest lyricism that set him apart from others and even his more pedestrian efforts. A lot of them seem like set ups for a punchline ("Uncle Fremmis", "Crate" "Suicide", "Necessary and Sufficient") with very little else to latch onto, although generally the setup is competently done (although I will admit to a chuckle at the scatological slant to "Pruzy's Pot"). The rest tend to lapse into the hey-kids-lets-all-save-the-world lecturing that sometimes overcomes his stories at this stage of the game, where he's more interested in conveying an idea than giving us a story with people. None of them are bad but after the last couple volumes its clear that once we were past his fifties peak, the "wow-okay" ratio was definitely skewed more toward the latter.
Still, when he could do stuff like "Slow Sculpture", who cares, since a lot of writers can go their whole lives without writing one story that fantastic. All of these are at the very least entertaining and for us to demand more from a man who has squeezed himself dry for years churning out masterpieces seems both cruel and selfish. I'd love more masterpieces from Sturgeon but I would have loved there to be more stories from Sturgeon from then until today, period. The crime isn't that he wasn't as inspired a writer toward the tailend of his life, the crime isn't that he wasn't allowed more life to gift us with whatever brilliant fragments he wanted to give.
- Hardcover: 312 pages
- Publisher: NORTH ATLANTIC; 1 edition (15 July 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1556438346
- ISBN-13: 978-1556438349
- Product Dimensions: 16 x 2.9 x 23.6 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 780 g
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