Monday, 12 August 2013

Memorial by Theodore Sturgeon

First published in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1946.
Sturgeon is immediately to the left of the spine, in the top row in a blue jacket.*

Six months or so after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, Astounding SF published this dark and bitter story of human folly. Ashley highlights this several times as one of the key stories in his narrative of the history of SF. For him, it signifies a moment when SF stopped being playful conjecture and began to engage with the forces that shape the world.

I wrote in my review of the introduction about how Ashley regards this period as the years when science fiction grew up, and clearly this is the sort of story that he’s talking about. It’s a well-written story, that makes its point with careful force. It’s angry and outraged and at the same time helpless, addressing all colours of atomic-age angst.

For all that though, it still relies on some hoary SF cliches that have have become overly familiar over the course of these volumes.

For a start, the protagonist Grenfell is a classic mad scientist. He’s quit his university post to build a super-bomb that he plans to detonate and create a massive split in the Earth that will act as a warning to humanity about the destructive power of the bomb. The story opens with a description of his ambition.
To go near the pit was slow, certain death, and it was respected and feared, and would be for centuries more. It winked and blinked redly at night, and was surrounded by a bald and broken tract stretching out and away over the horizon; and around it flickered a ghostly blue glow. Nothing lived there, nothing could.

With such a war memorial, there could only be peace. The Earth could never forget the horror loosed by war.

That was Grenfell’s dream.
He's clearly bonkers. It sounds like the plan of the villain in a Batman movie.

Grenfell's delusions are encouraged by his cynical pal, Jack Roway. Jack claims to be a shallow, world-weary aesthete who’s convinced that mankind is doomed.
I quarrel with your term pessimist I am nothing of the kind. Since I have resolved for myself the fact that humanity, as we know it, is finished, I’m quite resigned to it. Pessimism, from me, under the circumstances, would be the pessimism of the photophobiac that the sun will rise tomorrow.
It’s never really made clear how these characters met or the basis of their friendship. They are simply their points of view. The entire story turns on the most basic personality types – idealistic versus cynic.

Without giving it away, it all goes horribly wrong of course, and in many ways this is a classic ‘things man was not meant to know’ story. What makes it such a departure from what has gone before, is that previous stories (Ashley quotes The Power and The Glory from volume one at that start of his introduction to volume three) have stopped short of apocalypse. In this story, the deadly power is unleashed and the world is destroyed.

Sturgeon doesn’t waste time dealing with the consequences of the detonation of Grenfell’s bomb but quickly outlines the complete and possibly permanent collapse of human civilization in terse, uninflected statements. The story ends with a repeat Grenfell’s dream from the start, providing a neat bit of grim irony.

It’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s black humour or real drama that’s being attempted. This grim tome is new, I think, the warning is harsher and the threat is more palpable. It doesn’t, lecture, like The Power and The Glory, but instead shows us what ‘man was not meant to know’ looks like and lets us make up our own mind.

Themes: nuclear apocalypse, idealism versus cynicism, no nukes, grimdark.

* Header image: you can find a complete guide to who's who at the Potrzebie blog, right here. I didn't swipe Potrzebie's version by the way... I swiped it from elsewhere.

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