Friday, November 02, 2018

FFB Review: E PLURIBUS UNICORN (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon Reviewed by Barry Ergang

We begin November as we ended October… another review by Barry Ergang. After you check out his work below, head on over to Patti’s blog and see what else is recommended. 

E PLURIBUS UNICORN (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon

This collection of thirteen stories of diverse types is introduced by an essay about the author by Groff Conklin. The stories themselves are as follows:—
Mass Market Books--Ballantine 1965

“There’s a village by the Bogs, and in the village is a Great House. In the Great House lived a squire who had land and treasures and, for a daughter, Rita.” So begins “The Silken-Swift,” as offbeat, moving, and as poetically-written a fairy tale as anyone is ever likely to encounter. A villager named Del, “whose voice was thunder…whose corded, cabled body was golden-skinned, and whose hair flung challenges back to the sun” is lured by the secret-eyed Rita into the Great House for a night of passionate promise he’ll never forget, but which turns into a nightmare he wishes he could. The other prominent figure in this story which deals with the nature of love, both giving and receiving, is “a quiet girl whose beauty was so very contained that none of it showed. Her name was Barbara.”  

Jeremy is only four but, urged on by “the monster” that feeds on him regularly, has dreams of the future—dreams in which catastrophic things happen. Readers who have seen and laughed at the movie “Ted” will find that Fuzzy, “The Professor’s Teddy Bear,” has a sense of humor, too. It just isn’t a funny one.

From the moment he first sees Bianca, Ran is obsessed with and virtually possessed by her. Not by her face, with its crooked, drooling mouth full of rotten teeth, nor by her dumpy little body. No, it’s “Bianca’s Hands” that consume his thoughts, and which he determines to have in another bizarre story with a fairy tale-like quality to the telling.

After he saves the unnamed woman from suicide by drowning, which does not provoke a sense of gratitude within her, the nameless narrator persuades her to tell her story. She relates how “The Saucer of Loneliness” appeared in Central Park, drawing a crowd but seeming to settle over and speak to her, and the consequences of that event. Her story is poignant and, at times, sardonically humorous.

When the two “loverbirds” land on Earth, nearly everyone who observes them is enchanted. When the powers at the top of the pyramid learn they’re from a world called Dirbanu, a planet with which Earth desires contact, intergalactic politics take precedence over other considerations and the loverbirds are captured and confined to a spaceship intended to return them to their home planet. Whether Earth or Dirbanu is “The World Well Lost” is debatable in a story which is at least as relevant today as when it was written, and perhaps more so.

Remember “When Harry met Sally”? If no, you’ve missed a great movie. If yes, you’ll be amazed by what happens when Leo meets Gloria. “It Wasn’t Syzygy,” as Leo ultimately learns in one of the more offbeat romantic stories a reader is ever likely to come upon—a story that features a disembodied but quite articulate head, a mouse named Abernathy, an acrobatic squirrel, and a mess of tapioca.  
Mass Market Paperback--Pocket 1979

The term “flash fiction” didn’t exist when this collection was first published, but today “The Music” would be classified as such. Its first-person narrator is confined to a hospital. Since he’s permitted to occasionally go outside to smoke a cigarette without accompaniment, his confinement is clearly not because of a physical ailment. On this particular night, while his music comes to him, so do others.

“A man will tell things, sometimes, things grown into him…and his hearer should be a man who will not mention them after sun-up—perhaps not until his partner is dead—perhaps never.” So it is with Kellet and Powers, as the former relates an incident from his life that has left “Scars” in this short western tale.

Ransome, who “was always in demand as a house guest, purely because of his phenomenal abilities as a raconteur,” doesn’t like cats. Although popular with those hosts and hostesses he takes advantage of by entertaining them with “the terse beauty of his word pictures,” he’s not necessarily fond of them. Mrs. Benedetto, for instance, is one he can’t stand. Her cat can’t stand him, as Ransome learns the hard way from “Fluffy.”

Persistent newspaper reporter Budgie won’t cease questioning her friend Dr. Muhlenberg, “special medical consultant to City and State Police,” about a murder. What she already knows is that a couple was having “a conversation without words in the park when some muggers jumped them and killed them, a little more gruesomely than usual. But instead of being delivered to the city morgue, they were brought straight to you on the orders of the ambulance interne after one quick look.” What was it about the victims that prompted this and the subsequent fire in the morgue adjacent to Muhlenberg’s laboratory? What is it about the man and woman Budgie and Muhlenberg meet soon after? And what in all of these events makes “The Sex Opposite” a different kind of love story?

 Clarinetist Lutch Crawford, leader of the jazz band the Gone Geese, is one of those people for whom everything has come easily: looks, talent, and a successful career. On the other hand, Fluke, the story’s narrator, “has a face that kept him out of the United States Army, didn’t you know?” Not a musician himself, Fluke is a valued member of the band—or “unit,” as Lutch calls it—and serves as a kind of announcer who stays in the shadows lest the audience get a look at him and be repelled. He’s a man who just wants an even break. Despite Lutch’s loyalty to and concern for him, Fluke feels that Lutch must “Die, Maestro, Die.”

The unnamed narrator is a tough specimen, someone who’s been around and experienced the darker side of life. He’s presently in jail for sixty days for an unstated offense, and has been content to have his cell to himself. But then two guards deliver him another prisoner: “Crawley was his name and crawly he was. A middle-sized guy with a brown face. Spindly arms and legs. Stringy neck. But the biggest chest I ever did see on a man his size.” Despite the narrator’s unyielding attitude, he is ultimately stunned by what he discovers about Crawley, not least because he keeps acceding to the wants of his “Cellmate.”

Kelley “was like one of those extra-terrestrials you read about, who can think as well as a human being but not like a human being.” He has “A Way of Thinking” that sets him apart from the average person, as indicated by several anecdotes the nameless narrator who served with him on oil tankers recounts. In the story’s present they reunite via a mutual friend, a doctor, who is treating Kelley’s dying brother for a bizarre condition that apparently has something to do with a doll and voodoo. Kelley deals with the vengeful party responsible in his own unique way.

Theodore Sturgeon was as skilled and versatile a writer when it came to genres as he was a stylist. Although probably best known for his science fiction and fantasy novels (More Than Human  being a masterwork), he also wrote in other fields—e.g., western, as this collection demonstrates, and mystery, as indicated by the pseudonymous The Player On The Other Side, one of many novels published as by Ellery Queen, as well as some horror fiction. He was deserving of the awards he won during his lifetime, and he deserves to be remembered and reread today.  

© 2018 Barry Ergang

Barry Ergang's science fiction spoof of Mike Resnick's novel The Soul Eater is available at Amazon and Smashwords


Todd Mason said...

Sturgeon was one of the most conscious artists fantastic fiction has been lucky enough to have, and his other fiction (including contemporary-mimetic) was as impressive...

E PLURBIUS UNICORN is perhaps his best single collection, till the posthumous COMPLETE STORIES multi-volume set. A great way to be introduced to his work, and one of the best concentrations of his horror fiction (though not that alone).

George said...

I'm a big fan of Theodore Sturgeon's work. E PLURIBUS UNICORN was the first Sturgeon collection I read back in the 1960s. Then I hunted down as many Theodore Sturgeon paperbacks as I could find!

Mathew Paust said...

Haven't read him yet. This is just the nudge I've needed!