Saturday, January 21, 2017

Short Fiction Month: If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? - Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon is a man with a reputation for writing excellent short fiction. He also wrote a lot of it. His collected short stories have been published in 13 volumes. A lot of his output was published in the 1940s and 1950s, well before the major science fiction awards were created. He did win a few with his later work. He even has a prize for short fiction, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, named after him. I don't doubt he has deserved his reputation but it can't possibly have been based on this story. To be blunt: this was the most disappointing read in Short Fiction Month so far. Why this novella was nominated for a Nebula is a complete mystery to me.

The story is set in a future were the sun went supernova. Fortunately, there was plenty of warning, and everybody who wanted to leave Earth could do so with time to spare. Many planets have been colonized and a record is created to keep in touch with each of these worlds. The main character of the story, find one that isn't listed. When the reason for this becomes apparent he has a difficult choice to make.

If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? was originally published in Harlan Ellison's anthology Dangerous Visions (1967). To stick with the theme of the anthology, Sturgeon tackled one of the most widely spread of all human taboos: incest. There is a lot of progressive  ideas in the novella. The society of the planet the main character visits is utopia. Its inhabitants are wealthy, healthy and happy. They are free to do pretty much anything they please and as a result are able to satisfy all their natural (read: sexual) needs. In the afterword Sturgeon says he aimed to take a logical argument and a conviction based on it, one step further and see if it encourages people to reconsider their conviction. Which would have been fine if Sturgeon's reasoning was not so obviously flawed.

The character doing the explaining starts of reasonable. Human misery is not caused by sex or arousal but by the guilt attached to it. The link between sex and guilt has caused more suffering than I care to think about. Sturgeon certainly has a point there. Then he takes his step beyond and pins his whole case for ultimate sexual freedom on the question whether or not incest is morally wrong. What follows is a bunch of biological half-truths and falsehoods, mixed up with some dubious psychology that must have been derived from some of Freud's more questionable theories. The effect of unequal relationships and parental authority, and the potential to abuse these is entirely ignored. Jealousy and break-ups seem to be unheard of. The whole thing is so illogical, it is bullshit almost from start to finish. And yet the main character buys it.

Is it at least a well written story then? Not really. I like the prose well enough, but I came away with the feeling it was a bit padded. It takes the main character quite a long time to get to the point. Most of the first half of the story serves to show us how upset he really is, without actually moving the plot forward much. If I compare this to the way in which Samuel R. Delany deals with sexual taboos in Aye, and Gomorrah . . ., published in the same anthology, and the way that story triggers people to think about things like exclusion of people with sexual preferences outside the norm, I can only conclude Delany is vastly more effective. This story did not work for me at all.

Story Details
Title: If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?
Author: Theodore Sturgeon
Language: English
Originally published: Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison (1967)
Read in: Dangerous Visions, Gollancz SF Masterworks edition (2011)
Story length: Novella
Awards: Nebula Award nominated
Available online: Not that I'm aware of

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