Some authors make a name for themselves with a handful of acclaimed and popular stories (Ted Chiang), while others go for sheer volume (Isaac Asimov), and then there’s a couple who are popular for their sheer volume and consistent quality of stories. Theodore Sturgeon was one such author writing during the middle of the science-fiction boom of the 20th century, putting together some of the genre’s best known and beloved works over the course of his long career as an author.
Born Edward Hamilton Waldo on February 26th, 1918, the future science-fiction author came from a troubled household. His father, Edward Molineaux Waldo, was absent for most of his early childhood, and eventually divorced his mother in 1927. With his mother’s remarriage two years later, Edward received a new last name, Sturgeon, and an indifferent stepfather who appears to have been exceptionally cold toward his adopted children. The young Sturgeon faced further difficulties in his teenage years: an exceptional gymnast, he contracted rheumatic fever, which affected his heart and ended his potential career. His stepfather introduced him to some science fiction, even as he forbade pulp magazines: They read stories such as The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne. Over the years, Sturgeon picked up a range of the forbidden pulp magazines and read authors such as Lord Dunsany, William Hope Hodgeson, William Morris and others.
After high school, Sturgeon left for the Penn State Nautical School, where he enrolled for a single term before leaving for the sea, working on a ship’s engine room. It was over the next three years that he began his incredible fiction output. He sold his first story to McClure's Newspaper Syndicate in 1937, and followed up with over 40 others, eventually making his way back to New York City.
It was in 1939 that Sturgeon repatriated himself to the larger world of science fiction and fantasy pulps through a couple he befriended. The husband of a prominent writer for the True Confessional pulp market showed him a copy of Unknown magazine, edited by John W. Campbell Jr. at Street and Smith Publications. “This is the kind of thing you ought to try and write,” he told him. Interested and inspired, he wrote up a story, only to have it rejected by Campbell, and followed up with another, “The God in a Garden,” which Campbell accepted and published in the October 1939 issue of Unknown. The success of the story prompted him to quit his job at sea and focus on writing. Another story, “Ether Breather,” was quickly sold and appeared in the September 1939 issue of Campbell’s other magazine, Astounding Science-Fiction. Over the next couple of years, Sturgeon sold many creative stories to Campbell, ranging from the influential horror short story “It” to one of his best known stories, “The Microcosmic God,” later named one of the best SF stories written by the Science Fiction Writers of America and placed in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology in 1970.
In 1940, Sturgeon married Dorothy Fillingame and ended up working a variety of jobs, ranging from hotel management to operating a bulldozer (the experience would prompt another well-known story, “Killdozer”). He returned to New York City with the intention of obtaining a literary agent, and his stay ran long, prompting a divorce and a bout of depression. It was Campbell who encouraged him to return to writing. He reintegrated into the science-fiction world, becoming friends with authors such as Robert W. Lowndes, Frederik Pohl and Judith Merril. At the same time, he branched out from Campbell’s publications, publishing stories in magazines such as Weird Tales, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Argosy. Over the next two decades, he churned out an incredible number of short stories, alongside the handful of novels for which he received acclaim.
Sturgeon worked some very progressive themes into his fiction over the years. While he got his start with Campbell’s Astounding and Unknown Magazines in the 1940s, he shifted to other publications in the 1950s, most likely due to the content and themes which he was exploring. In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, critic John Clute noted that “In the late 1940s and the 1950s Sturgeon came into his full stride,” as he shifted to newer magazines, such as H.L. Gold’s Galaxy Science Fiction. During this time, he was able to explore controversial and taboo themes on race and sexuality. Doing so allowed Sturgeon to not only write some excellent stories, but also helped to push the science-fiction genre forward, questioning the status quo of his characters and the worlds around them.
While primarily a short fiction author, Sturgeon wrote a handful of novels, too. The first, The Dreaming Jewels, appeared in 1950 and focused on children with psi powers. His next, 1953’s, More Than Human, was a fix-up of three of his stories, “Baby Is Three,” “Morality” and “The Fabulous Idiot.” It’s possibly his most famous story, in which a group of diverse individuals come together in a transcendental-type story. The book earned Sturgeon the 1954 International Fantasy Award, and was nominated in 2004 for a retro Hugo Award losing out to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. He wrote four additional novels: The Cosmic Rape in 1958, Venus Plus X in 1960, a novelization of The Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in 1961 and Godbody, published posthumously in 1986. Sturgeon was never a novelist at heart, however. Looking at his body of work, a fast majority of his fiction appeared in magazines. Toward the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, he began to write less, even as the quality of his fiction improved: His 1971 short story “Slow Sculpture” earned Sturgeon his first and only Hugo and a Nebula awards.
Over the course of his career, Sturgeon wrote over 200 short stories and twice the number of reviews. In 1985, he passed away at the age of 67 due to pulmonary fibrosis. Since his death, an award has been established in his name by James Gunn of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. The Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award is a juried prize that celebrates excellent short fiction each year. Starting in 1994 and going through 2010, Sturgeon’s vast short fiction bibliography has been collected into a series of 13 volumes titled The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon edited by Paul Williams. In 2000, Sturgeon was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Sturgeon’s immense backlog of short fiction allowed him to become a master storyteller and his career as an author provides a good lesson for aspiring writers: If you want to write well, write as much as you can.