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Posts Tagged ‘theodore sturgeon

‘Occam’s Scalpel’ by Theodore Sturgeon

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Not much of a story and not at all hard SF, as the introduction makes clear:

Although his stories made clever use of science, he was never known as an hard sf writer, but rather as the finest literary craftsman of his day in the genre… “Occam’s Scalpel” is on the edge of being not sf at all. There is no better example herein of what the writers of the fifties and later meant by “speculative fiction.” Strict Constructionists would rule it out.

This evasion and wriggle is symptomatic of the anthology. I am also pretty sure this is the first time the editors have used the term “Constructionist”. Anyway, ‘Occam’s Scalpel’ has a simple three act structure that we might describe as i) Planning The Job, ii) The Heist and iii) Post-Match Analysis. Each act is shorter than the one before and also provides diminishing returns to the reader.

A man (a doctor) visits his brother (another doctor) in the middle of the night. Their re-union and the lapsing back into the old, familar relationship is nicely done but can’t really compensate for the fact the first act is one great chunk of exposition taking up most of the story. We are then told the life story of one Cleveland Wheeler, a masterpiece of contrivance that spans the extremes of good and bad luck and makes clear that Wheeler could never be a real person. This is a shame after the deft characterisation of the brothers. We are being told all this because he is about to take over as boss at the company where the doctor currently works as personal physician to the existing (dying) boss. This company just happens to be the most powerful corporation on Earth and so – out of some stange sense of superiority? – this pair take it upon themselves make sure Wheeler will govern justly.

The doctor is now with Wheeler at the old boss’s cremation, deep in the second sub-basement of corporate HQ. Afterwards, he takes Wheeler aside and leads him through a secret passage to a chamber behind the furnace. Here he informs the new boss that the old boss was in fact an alien and then performs an autopsy to prove it. Again, the relationship between the two men is skillfully and economically sketched out by Sturgeon. This would be unremarkable in normal literary fiction but is unfortunately noteworthy in SF. However, the literary craftsmanship the editors refer to does not extend beyond dialogue and characterisation; obviously the old boss is not an alien, this is clear from the beginning. This leaves the only dramatic tension whether or not Wheeler will fall for the plan. Obviously he does.

The reason for the alien hoax is to convince Wheeler that the standard climate-changing pollution of the megacorp is actually a campaign of terraforming to make the planet more suitable for alien invasion and settlement. This is half nicely prescient, half traditional cobblers. If I was Wheeler, I suspect I would apply Ockham’s Razor rather different when considering the relative likelihood of this being evidence of a secret alien plan or a put up job as part of an internal power struggle.

Finally, we are back to the two brothers, toasting a job well done. Sturgeon starts by telling us that the second brother is a manufacturer of medical training dummies. Really? Oh, thanks for spelling that out. If the second act is telegraphed, the third is completely redundant.

Quality: **
Hardness: *

Written by Martin

20 July 2010 at 10:34

A Public Service Announcement Regarding Sturgeon’s Revelation

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Sturgeon’s Revelation is not actually a natural law. Just because Theodore Sturgeon once remarked that ninety percent of everything is crud does not make it so. It is true that excellence is rare in all fields. However, that does not mean that ninety percent of everything is crud; we might just as plausibly claim that any field follows a bell curve and the majority is not crud but – worse – the mediocre or the adequate. Equally, there is no reason not to believe that these internal ratios of quality might vary between fields. It is not at all implausible to suggest that some fields are more likely to produce crud than other.

If you quote Sturgeon’s Revelation, you have not played a trump card. You have not stated anything profound or even meaningful, nor have you provided any sort of rebuttal. Think twice.

Written by Martin

10 March 2010 at 09:12

Posted in genre wars, sf

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