Forever Alone: Theodore Sturgeon and the Technopathology of Loneliness
There is an inescapable appeal to mid-20th century science fiction. It's close enough to relate to, but just distant enough to feel a little alien. Looking back, it’s hard not to get the impression that the futures imagined in that golden age of sci-fi were somehow more 'open' than much modern science fiction (in which there often seems to be a tendency to view 'the future' from the perspective of techno-scientific advancement more so than the possibility of socio-cultural change). Of all the authors of that golden age, Theodore Sturgeon is among those whose work seems most often to take on fresh cultural relevance.
Throughout Sturgeon’s work, there is a repeated emphasis on the centrality of the condition of loneliness to our understanding of what it is to be human, as well as the defining effects that different technologies have on our experiences of that loneliness. In many cases, a shared understanding of isolation is all that Sturgeon’s characters have in common. What makes this most interesting is that much of Sturgeon’s defining work has only grown more acutely accurate in the ever more connected world in which his modern audience finds itself.
Perhaps the best known of Sturgeon’s stories, “A Saucer of Loneliness” details the experience of a young woman who is unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight when a small flying saucer appears above her head while she crosses a busy street. First published in 1953, “A Saucer of Loneliness” addresses the strangeness of living in a world that often feels dominated by media.
Even as the woman at the centre of the story first notices the flying saucer, those around her have already begun to speculate on what it could mean and why it has chosen to hover directly above her. As the message spreads, first by word of mouth and later by the technology of the media, the most idle speculation is transmuted into fact.
While there are layers to the experience of isolation in “A Saucer of Loneliness,” the core feeling of loneliness is that experienced by a young woman who realises the depth of her isolation in a moment of clarity,
[…] for two, three clean breaths it no longer mattered that the whole wide world really belonged to images projected on a screen; to gently groomed goddesses in these steel and glass towers; that it belonged, in short, always, always to someone else.
The story was originally written in such a way as to convey the speed with which an individual can become a talked-about-story, a timeline that has only accelerated in an age of constant-connection and the instant content-sharing. All of this serves only to highlight the condition at the centre of the story, that the ease with which information is propagated fails to ameliorate this sense of isolation. Instead, the technology of communication somehow renders us more remote than ever.
Of course, all of this might sound a little bleak, but Sturgeon’s other excellent quality was his ability to describe the unspeakably grim with a sense of wry humour, if not warmth. As a result, we’re introduced to a woman who struggled desperately to live a normal life in spite of the fact that everyone she meets now sees her through the lens of the one moment in her life when she became a media sensation.
Sometimes she’d be all right for months on end, and then someone would ask for a date. Three times out of five, she and the date were followed. Once the man she was with arrested the man who was tailing them. Twice the man who was tailing them arrested the man she was with.
Sturgeon’s use of humour to undercut the harrowing tone of the narrative is delicate, careful always to add a sense of levity, but in a way that simultaneously underscores how truly inescapable this predicament is. It carries something of the self-deprecating-but-sadly-all-too-true observations that have come to dominate the way we describe the experience of being human. It is a hair’s breadth from being the "me irl" of science fiction.
Where “A Saucer of Loneliness” focuses on the strange shifting of focus as a message is passed from one person to the next (and how that emphasises the feeling of being alone at the centre of your own experiences), other stories take this sense to its technological extreme. The spacefaring short story, “Mr. Costello, Hero,” focuses on the gradual collectivisation of a spacefaring society by one man who believes that the urge to be alone is suspicious, at one point explicitly stating that “loneliness is evil.”
In his efforts to explain why having more people present is always preferable, Costello shows members of his ship’s crew a small audio recording device, which he uses to take statements out of context and misrepresent people. Obviously, had there been more people present, there would be witnesses who could testify against the recording…
When I said, “I better not; I don’t want you thinking I take bribes from passengers,” he laughed and put one of those beads in his recorder, and it came out, in my voice, “I take bribes from passengers.” He was a great joker.
As with “A Saucer of Loneliness,” there is an impression that there is a technological edge to our feeling of isolation. The implication in both is that the means by which we communicate with one another become the same tools with which individuals become cut off from the rest of society at large. To be alone, in Costello’s estimation, is to be unaccounted for.
Costello goes on to attempt to remedy the situation, using the social innovation of an intense and convoluted culture built on what amounts to a complex buddy system. Throughout, the underlying tone is familiar to those who have read “A Saucer of Loneliness,” and that is that the sense of isolation and distrust is facilitated by the very technology one might otherwise expect to be used to dispel it.
What is perhaps strangest is that there is a Sturgeon short story that deliberately introduces the reader to a situation that is almost wholly the opposite, but which carries roughly the same message. In “Slow Sculpture,” a young and remarkably competent man cures a woman of a malignant cancer with technology beyond that available to doctors. Asked why he has kept these things to himself, he describes a world in which his most successful invention (a device designed to reduce emissions from internal combustion engines) was bought by representatives of the petroleum industry, specifically so that they could bury it and ensure that it never saw the light of day, regardless of the manifold improvements it would have led to.
Here it is the "technology" of patent law that frustrates and isolates, damning humanity to live in a pollution-choked world, suffering from otherwise curable illness. Moreover, it seems entirely reasonable to think that these things would be curable if only the ability to cure them were made profitable.
Describing the conditions that humanity lives under, the engineer/doctor comments,
“…but what can you do in a world where people would rather kill each other in a desert even when they’re shown it can turn green and bloom, where they’ll fall all over themselves to pour billions into developing a new oil strike when it’s been proved over and over again that the fossil fuels will kill us all?”
In his efforts to avoid a humanity that he has so thoroughly spurned, he has cast himself into an isolation so total that he turns away even those he has compulsively helped.
Fortunately, Sturgeon wasn’t always so quite so bleak in his rumination on isolation. Where many of his stories communicate a sense of hard-edged loneliness, stories like “The Education of Drusilla Strange” also instills humanity with liveliness and a sense of excitement. Mixed through the loneliness, there is a light-hearted fascination with humanity that is almost always tied to the ramshackle technology.
On seeing a car for the first time, Drusilla Strange observes,
Something rotated at approximately thirty-eight hundred and forty rpm. Something was chain-driven and the chain was not a metal. Something pounded … no, paced—something rolled endless soft cleats on the earth. She heard the straining of coil springs, the labored slide of heavy transverse leaf-springs, the make-and-break in the meniscus of the oil guarding busy pistons.
The utter stupidity of so complex a thing as an automobile was, to her, more wondrous than a rainbow.
Which leads her to a sudden revelation about the Earth and its human inhabitants
The lovely thought, then: It’s a world of clowns.
There is something sweet in the treatment of humanity in the story, a species of blissful idiots. Indeed, the opening third or so takes place in a ramshackle little house by the beach where a young man fusses constantly about the idea that he might seem threatening to the slight-framed girl he found on the beach, Drusilla Strange. This is placed in continuous contrast with Strange herself, who knows that at any moment she could destroy the young man.
That alone provides an interesting grounding for their relationship, but the two are also uniquely lonely, the young man because he has made his home in this secluded place so far from other people, Drusilla Strange because she is an alien creature rendered truly alone in her imprisonment on Earth, a planet she describes as an “uncouth ball of offal.”
That combination might make it sound like rough reading, but again edge is dulled by Sturgeon’s sense of humour as Strange meets new earthlings. Describing a writer of questionable talent in the same story, he wrote,
Osprey Mullings’ head contained a set of baby’s blocks of limited number, with which he constructed his novels by a ritualistic process of rearrangement.
It is that sense of charm-in-spite-of-circumstance that runs through so much of Sturgeon’s writing, an alternative point of view that seems always to find humour in the fact that, when you look at things from just the right angle, they’re even worse than you had previously considered.
Where so much science fiction seems to ask the question “Are we alone in the universe?” Theodore Sturgeon answers with a resounding, “Yes, even if there are aliens out there, we are alone even on Earth.”