CULTURE | Theodore Sturgeon: Dream Up the Future, Ask the Next Question
Theodore Sturgeon was a famous and well-loved author of science-fiction and horror stories who wrote during what some call the Golden Age of science fiction, from 1939 to 1950. He’s been hailed as one of four writers to greatly impact the history of science fiction along with Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and A. E. van Vogt. To memorialize his death in 1985, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award was established two years later. The annual award is given to the year’s best, published, science fiction short story.
Sturgeon was an extremely prolific writer, and during his lifetime he published sixteen volumes of short fiction, five novels, three novelizations, and two novels under pseudonyms. The collection that brings together his last stories, Case and the Dreamer, particularly captures Sturgeon’s masterful wordplay, sardonic voice, and interest in important social issues.
While it does deal with genius, incredible technologies, and alien lifeforms, Case and the Dreamer focuses more on human character and humanity as a whole than on extravagant scientific concepts. Nowadays, science fiction is often typified as anything about aliens and spaceships or the extremes of space. Sturgeon, and other writers of his time, were more concerned with how to use speculation about the future to reveal truths about human nature. Rather than solely exploring the extremes of science and technology, they explored the extremes of humanity. Sturgeon always wore a necklace with the symbol of a Q shot through with an arrow, representing his credo of “ask the next question.”
The following excerpted story shows Sturgeon’s skill in capturing human behavior, thoughts, and actions. Here we bring you “Black Moccasins,” one of the short stories that appears in Case and the Dreamer.
Even though Laughlin had damn well made up his mind, he hesitated, looking up at the fourth-floor front. It was evening, just dark enough to make the lights come on in the apartments, and her light was on all right, and it wasn’t shining through blue drapes anymore.
Blue is for boys; pink is for girls, he thought sardonically, squinting up. Not that he cared if she had any boys up there. That’s what he’d told her, anyway.
And anyway, it wasn’t really pink. Salmon. He walked up to the front entrance and into the foyer with the whole wall full of mail- slots and the two tall rows of pushbuttons with name-tags, one row on each side of the brass speaker grille. Habit twitched his hand toward his pocket, toward the keys he didn’t have anymore.
Salmon, how about that. He reached to thumb the button marked B4, but stopped when he saw the tag. Square white letters on black, it didn’t say just Laughlin anymore. It said M. Svoboda-Laughlin. With a hyphen. Svoboda was her maiden name. A hyphen. How about that.
He thumbed the button. The bars on the speaker grille combed her voice out thin. “Yes?”
She didn’t answer with the words, or a word, but the electric lock buzzed and he pushed the door open. He used to go up the stairs two at a time. Quicker. Keep in shape. Get to the door breathing hard, it always made her laugh, or anyway smile. This time he walked past the stairs and took the elevator. Slower.
Down the corridor to B4. Another button to push. He had an idea that she stood just inside, purposely waiting a little before she opened the door, but why would she do that?
She opened the door. “Maudie.”
“Hello, Flip.” She turned away, hardly looking at him, and walked inside, leaving him to come in and closed the door. He did, and followed her into the living room. With a light on this side, the drapes weren’t salmon. Burnt something. Siena.
She turned to face him, saying, “You’re looking—” at the same time he was saying, “well . . .” so they both stopped. She said, “Sit down. Want coffee?”
“No,” he said and suddenly became aware of that posture, with a small fist pushed into the small palm, the eyes studying the hands, which meant tension, waiting, not knowing what to expect; and he realized that his “no” might have meant about sitting, or about coffee, and she didn’t know which or what that might mean. He sat down. Her hands came apart and she said, “I’ll get coffee.” She went through the archway into the little kitchen and ran water, while he looked around the room. The big chair and the couch were the same. There was a new fuzzy rug, yellow, small, laid right over the wall- to-wall carpet. He thought with some reluctance that it really didn’t look too bad with those drapes. The mantle over the artificial fire- place was empty. He called out, “You could’ve kept the horse.”
Her voice drifted out to him, “Oh no . . . you always, well, I mean, it was really yours, the horse. Unicorn.”
Which brought back the anger-pain, the tender-anger, the there’s- really-no-name for it two hours they had spent separating their stuff, each of them determined to take this, too willing to yield that. It had been pretty awful. And anyway, once he’d taken the unicorn, he’d found no real room for it at his place. He opened his mouth to suggest that he bring it back some time but closed it again. The one thing he was really sure about in this awkward moment was that she wouldn’t get the idea he had come here to initiate a series of visits. What he should do is just pick up his box and go. It was right there waiting for him at the bottom of the oh.
He discovered that he had half risen; that he had actually begun to get up to go back there into the bedroom to pick up the one thing she’d agreed to keep for him. He sank back down, hot-faced. Not that he cared one way or the other, but what would she think, com- ing back in here to find him gone, rummaging around in the . . . “
Flip—I—” She was standing in the archway to the kitchen. “Maude, I was thinking, why don’t I just—” and again they spoke simultaneously and stopped. At which point the whistling teakettle began to scream, and she ducked back out of his sight.
This is just too stupid, he thought in sudden indignation. Hadn’t he already said he didn’t want coffee? So all right, she was tense, well, so was he; perfectly understandable. All he wanted was the box of junk she was keeping for him; so take it and go.
“Here’s your coffee,” she said, coming out of the kitchen with the tray, the oval one with the butterfly wings under its glass floor. That had been his mother’s; he never had been crazy about it but Maude just loved it. She’d made herb tea herself too. She never drank coffee. She set the tray down on the coffee table. It had the cream in it already, and for sure, honey. He never took sugar. She sat down, not beside him, but in the occasional chair across from him.
Oh, well. . . . “I came for my box.” “You said,” she replied briefly. “When you called.” He picked up his cup. Mug. A pedestal mug, blue and white, with a thick handle. It felt good to his hand. It felt good against his mouth and the coffee against his tongue was just right, which for some rea- son infuriated him. He looked across at her. She had not touched her tea. She was looking intently at him, pressing one fist into her other palm, and when she met his eyes, dropped her gaze.
He said, “I’ve been thinking . . . if it’s all the same to you, that box is full of just junk. I mean, the stamp catalog is way out of date and I’ve really got no more use for the magazines. That tool set, well, there’s no way to get another lens for it.” It was a kind of flashlight with a transparent dome with a chuck on it, which could hold a variety of tools and a screw-starter; the very first time he had used it with a screwdriver the dome had cracked. He’d never seen another like it; he’d had it for years. “And the chinchilla book, well, let’s face it, I’m never going to have a chinchilla farm. I’m sorry it all took up so much sp—so much of your space, Maudie. All I really want out of it is the black moccasins.”
The black moccasins. . . . A long time before he met and married Maud Svoboda he’d worn those moccasins—and worn them and worn them. In the years before he’d acquired the dealership, he had at times been very poor; there had been long stretches when the black moccasins were the only shoes he had. Sometimes he couldn’t even afford the liquid scuff polish that suited them so well, especially when they creased and developed little breaks in the high points of the cracks. And although he kept them glossy, age and usage took their toll. There were times when he was careful not to elevate his feet or to sit on the grass or a bleacher in such a way that the holes in the soles might show. For all that, they were the most comfort- able footwear he ever had; and they were more than that; they were trusted old companions.
For a while he drove an ancient VW, and the hole in the sole of his left shoe grew so large that once in a while it would capture the little clutch pedal on the left shoe. And one day, crossing a parking lot, he walked carelessly through the remnants of a broken bottle, ground almost to its original sand by repeated crushing by auto- mobile tires. But a sliver of glass—no more, really, than a thorn or splinter, ran into his foot—a sharp reminder that measures should be taken.
Flip Laughlin, in those early days, was a connoisseur of the “day- old”—his name not only for past-date baked goods, but that basket in the rear corner of supermarkets where dwelt bent cans, broken cartons, punctured and taped bags of rice and flour, and the like, all at very reduced prices. The preoccupation extended to special sales, “cents-off” offers, double coupons, and rebates. He always felt triumphant, a beater of the system, when he had taken advantage of these tattered temptations and generous gifts from the loss-leading fraternity.
And so it came about that on the very day he felt the bee-sting of glass in the ball of his foot, he parked his old car and saw, in the gutter, a discarded pair of shoes. The uppers were worn and torn, but the bottoms of one-piece, superfirm sole and heel, had well out- worn the uppers, and were in fine condition. Flip Laughlin, grinning, snapped open the Buck knife he always carried on his belt, and sliced off the ruined tops. He had in his secret hoard a three-dollar refund from a motor-oil company, and just that morning he’d noticed an advertisement for a $16 glue gun, which applied heated glue which cooled into firmness in less than a minute—and it was on sale for three days for nine dollars. He bought one, applying the rebate check to the deal, and therefore wound up with his shoes renewed sufficiently to double their already long life, and had a glue gun to boot. Judicious application of his liquid scuff polish and a touch of the hot glue to the occasionally reappearing holes and cracks in the worn uppers kept the old moccasins fitting and friendly for years.
Maud had hated them from the day she saw them, but she quickly became aware of what they meant to Flip, to whom they were a pride and a badge of thrift and ingenuity, even after he became prosperous, and he wore them often.
All of this, with a charge of affection and pride for himself and the treasured old shoes, were in his voice now as he said . . .“All I really want out of the box is the black moccasins.”
He lifted the pedestaled mug to his lips and sipped on the good coffee, and looked over the rim at Maud, who sat pressuring her hands, who dropped her eyes, who said, “But you didn’t put them in the box, Flip.”
“I thought I did.”
“Really you didn’t. You packed the box yourself, and you said . . .”
Her voice dropped almost a whisper. “. . . you said to throw everything else out.”
Her silence, her rounded eyes, answered him. He put his mug down with a bang. A little brown tongue of coffee jeered up at him and collapsed back into the cup. “But you know what they meant to me!”
She said, still fearfully but with a certain asperity, “Flip Laughlin, you threw out quite a lot of things that meant a lot to you that day!”
He shook his head slowly side to side. “My mocs. My old black mocs. . . .” He was too shocked even to feel anger.
“Flip . . . I’m as sorry as I can be.” She put out a hand as if to touch him, then left it extended, as if forgotten. Speechless, he sim-ply looked at her for a long moment, and then stood up.
She rose to, briefly flicking her gaze right and left, looking for something, looking for some way to —“Flip, wait. Wait! Don’t. . . .”
“I shouldn’t ask you, I . . . guess. The box. It’s awful heavy. Would you . . .”
A twisted thing rose in Flip Laughlin at that; something like, if he did her a favor at this point it would be a punishment for her— although you certainly could not have expressed it that way. But he said, “Where is it?”
She turned and he followed her into the bedroom. The bedroom. The bedroom. The same old granny crazy-quilt. She opened the closet door and he stepped past her, backhanding a long skirt of that turquoise dress she wore that time at the. . . . There was the box. He bent to get his fingers under it and saw, gleaming beside it, the black moccasins. Dumbfounded, he stood up, holding them.
They were new black moccasins, glove-soft, hand-stitched, smooth as a woman’s cheek inside. He turned to stare at her.
She said with difficulty, “Just exactly your size.”
He looked from her to the moccasins. All he could say was “Years. It would take years.”
“Yes,” she whispered. “And you can wear them every single day. You can wear them wherever we go.”
Something happened to Flip Laughlin then that had never happened in all his life, and was not to happen ever again in all his years. He uttered a long bleat, and burst into terrible tears, and when he came to himself he was lying on the crazy-quilt in his wife’s arms with a shoe in each hand.
- Theodore Sturgeon