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November, 2004 : Criticism:

Exploring Theodore Sturgeon Through Analysis of “Die, Maestro, Die”

Theodore Sturgeon (1918–85) was one of many authors under the wing of influential editor John W. Campbell during the "Golden Era" of science fiction—you know, the one that changed everything and helped shape the speculative fiction landscape that exists today. For those not in the know, it might be interesting to hear that in something of a contrast to other authors of his time such as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, Sturgeon was far less concerned with hard science than he was with beautiful prose. In fact, he displayed a mistrust for science and an antipathy for intelligence (Menger 17) in the beginning of his career and, had there been a market for it, Sturgeon may well have been remembered today for his poetry instead of his short fiction. Regardless of artistic medium, however, there is no doubt that he would still have been remembered.

His influence continues today in a myriad of ways: the prestigious Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the literary characters of Kilgore Trout and Michael Valentine Smith (both based on Sturgeon), and perhaps most importantly, his vast body of work including short fiction, novellas, and novels. Aside from these gems of prose, Sturgeon's legacy also includes writing credits for two of the most famous and beloved episodes of the original Star Trek series, Amok Time and Shore Leave, as well as the delightfully misquotable "Sturgeon's Law," loosely represented in spirit at least as, sure ninety percent of science fiction is crap, but then, ninety percent of everything is crap. Currently, the entirety of his short fiction is being reprinted in The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, a massive multi-volume set being put out by North Atlantic Books. Volume 9 has just been published, with more to come.

For those already familiar with Sturgeon, it should come as no surprise when I say that one of the defining characterstics of a Sturgeon story is the attention paid to producing beautiful prose. Isaac Asimov, with no doubt far better than 20/20 hindsight, at one point divided science fiction into four periods, with each period tending to focus on a different aspect of the genre. First, in the '20s and late '30s, most speculative fiction works were plot-driven action and adventure stories. From 1938-50, the field in general attempted to include actual science in their stories. From 1950–65, science fiction began to focus across the board on sociological issues, a trend which gave way to "style" being a primary focus ever after, all the way up to the present day. From this perspective, Sturgeon's consistent emphasis on beautiful language and literary experimentation throughout the entirety of his career (begun in 1931) mark him as one of the more modern writers of his time. Perhaps that is why so many of his stories hold up so well today.

Stylized writing is not, however, the only hallmark of a Sturgeon story. Other trademarks include the recurring theme of gestalt humanity, and exploration of his characters' emotional drives. Throughout his career there are also traces of his struggle to reconcile scientific and artistic intelligences, the eventual tempering of his complete mistrust of science and logical thought, and the slow decline of his once dominant misanthropy. His odd short story "Die, Maestro, Die" (First published in 1949) is one that, above all others, brings these themes together in a unique, compelling, and representative manner.

Sturgeon uses quite a few techniques in the construction of this jazz-infused, larger than life murder mystery: dense and effective use of dialect, poetic prose passages, flashback, unreliable narration, and unexpected genre blurring that defies the boundaries of murder mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy stories (while still effectively utilizing many of those genres' tropes). All of these techniques come together to create a unique vision for the story, one which is uniquely Sturgeon. They also, in tandem, help make up the story's strongest element: the voice of its narrator.

It is through Fluke's voice that "Die, Maestro, Die" gains its jazz-drenched, bebop-era smoothness and instant appeal. The story is rich with slang that current readers who lack any exposure to the jazz scene (like myself) will no doubt still find at least a little bit familiar, such as calling a cool person a "cat," an acquaintance "brother," describing a worthy man with "He rates it," or an not-right conversation as being "jive," and so forth. Similarly, music jargon draws even those readers who have never played an instrument before (like myself) into the descriptions of the band's performances. Some examples are when Fluke talks of a "board-fade on the p.a. system," or the "cap mutes," (used with trumpets) or the "spot," (spotlight) the "skins" (drums), and when he describes a trumpeter who "filliped the stops nervously" (pressing down on the trumpet's stops – the little peg thingies that make the different notes).

Fluke's narration is, however, more than just standard English sprinkled with a few keywords. It is a unique voice that consists of both a powerful narrative style and fully realized dialect. To craft a story around such language is a display of virtuosity by Sturgeon, a demonstration of the depths of his skills as an artist. An example: early on in the text, when he describes himself to the reader, Fluke's trademark style renders what could be banal, sublime. The key in this exemplary passage lies in how Fluke works around the subject, describing not himself but people's reactions to his looks, only giving out the actual description at the end. He says, "[D]on't show them Fluke's face. Fluke has a face that kept him out of the United States Army, didn't you know? Fluke has a mouth only as big as your two thumbnails, and all his teeth are pointed" (168). Aside from being an excellent bit of storytelling, which leaves just the right amount to the imagination, the naturalization of Fluke's propensity to talk about himself in the third person is disturbing and powerful, hinting at the eventual revelation of his weak grasp on reality and his twisted egomania.

Further discussion of Fluke's dialect would be rather complicated, and perhaps beyond me; it is the combination of thousands of subtle changes to standard syntax and diction that are difficult to pin down, coupled with just the right amount of altered spellin'. The best treatment may be to simply let the captivating strength of his words speak for itself:

"There was all kinds of moon," he says on page 170; he "[F]elt the boilermaker seething under my low ribs, and felt but rugged. You know." When introducing the band, his spiel goes, "Top o' the morn from the top o' the heap, Kizd. This the Fluke, the fin of the fish, the tail of the whale, bringin' you much of Lutch and such... Lutch Crawford and his Gone Geese, Ladies and gentlemen."

Part of the strength of Fluke's voice lies in his grasp of metaphor, visible in the previous quotes in phrases such as "the boilermaker" below his ribs, or his reinvention of self as "the fin of the fish, the tail of the whale." At another point in the story, he combines his use of obtuse figures of speech with a more straightforward description to powerfully convey the violence he does to protect Fawn, a female character he falls in love with. He says he gives a man a "spare lip"—and then he reifies the violence: "pushing three teeth out under his nose" (170). He is a barker, a professional talker, and it shows. He knows how to make his words have impact.

As you may have guessed by now, I find Fluke's voice to be one of the most captivating aspects of the story. Is it any wonder? Sturgeon constantly experimented with tone and rhythm in his writing; there is a somewhat famous experiment, much lauded by Damon Knight, where Sturgeon wrote about each character in a story with a different meter, "iambs for one, trochees for another" (372) and so forth. Similarly, his story "The Perfect Host" is an experiment in multiple narrators, each with a a subtly different tone (an approach similar to that of Faulkner in As I Lay Dying, and one which Sturgeon revisits for his final novel, the posthumously published Godbody). However, Fluke's voice is particularly well done even for Sturgeon. Perhaps his voice is so well developed in this story because the plot and characters all revolve around jazz; Sturgeon loved both bebop-era jazz and music in general, and even wrote several songs. One of them, "Thunder and Roses," went on to be the touchstone of a nuclear cautionary tale of the same name, which he wrote the year before "Die, Maestro, Die."

Regardless of its origins, Fluke's voice is so distinct and lifelike that it is almost comparable to other dialect tale greats, such as Charles Chessnutt's The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Unlike those two, however—particularly The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales—this story is filled with the language of jazz-age bebop due simply to Sturgeon's love for the music, the times, and the characters. It does not suffer in comparison due to this difference.

Fluke's voice is at least partially fleshed out by the poetic qualities of the prose in which it is written. In fact Sturgeon is known to have inserted into his prose work works of lyric poetry which would have otherwise been unsellable, simply because there was no market for them, and to experiment with meter-based prose, as mentioned above with the Damon Knight example. In this manner he may seem reminiscent of some of Herman Melville, who inserted passages of blank verse poetry into Moby Dick as an homage to Shakespeare, who himself often embedded the form into his plays for the dialogue of nobility. Lucy Menger explores this propensity of Sturgeon in a part of her well-written and thorough overview of his career, entitled Theodore Sturgeon. She points out several examples, but one of the most straightforward is how the addition of line breaks to a sentence in his story "To Here and the Easel," creates a short and perfect poem—"Giles is my name,/ Paint is my trade,/ If I was a knight,/ I'd have me a blade" (Menger 118).

Observe the language and syntax Sturgeon uses to try and capture the experience of a bebop unit in full swing during the dénouement of "Die, Maestro, Die":

Crispin gave a silent one-two. Fawn stroked a chord. The brasses swung right: Hoo
And left: Ha
Fawn crowded the beat with her chord. I looked at her.
For the very first time she wasn't looking at that spot on the floor in front of the band. She was looking at Crispin.
Hoo Ha
Moff raised his clarinet, tongued it, laid his lips around the mouth-piece, filliped the stops nervously, and then blew.
And with the first note of the clarinet, shockingly, came the full, vibrato voice of Skid's guitar: Daboo, Dabay, Dabay, Daboo.(197)

Along with the onomatopoeia of Hoo, Ha, Daboo, and Dabay, Sturgeon layers other poetic techniques. One of the more common one is rhyme and near rhyme; "one-two" and "Hoo" and "blew" and "Daboo," the near-rhyme of "chord" and "floor." Alliteration has a strong presence as well; "Crispin" and "chord" and "crowded" and "clarinet" and "came," "laid" and "lips," "vibrato" and "voice," "Daboo" and "Dabay." Words and phrases are repeated—"Fawn stroked a chord"/ "Fawn crowded the beat with her chord," "Hoo" and "Ha," and the closing Daboos and Dabays. One of the more powerful and subtle reworkings of standard prose present in this passage is the absence of punctuation at the ends of line 2, 3, and 7. This passage screams of its poetic origins, and it is intriguing to imagine how it would be presented as poetry—where would Sturgeon, freed from the chains of prose, have chosen to enjamb? What subtle changes in diction would he have been allowed to make, to increase its already powerful aural presence? Visually it is interesting too, mirroring the swinging of the trumpet section from left to right to left.

"Die Maestro, Die" has, like much of Sturgeon's work, reworked poetry incorporated into the text, on top of beautifully overdetermined and poetic prose.

Flashback, unreliable narration, and genre blurring are some of the more ‘big picture' tools that I mentioned earlier as being used by Sturgeon to create this singular story. The use of flashback, coupled with the unreliable narration of an insane man, and Fluke's tendency to speak in sometimes obtuse metaphors around his subjects, all work together to create a chillingly untrustworthy tale. This sense of uncertainty is created from the very first paragraph:

I finally killed Lutch Crawford with a pair of bolt-cutters. And there was Lutch—all of him, all his music, his jump, his public and his pride, in the palm of my hand. Literally in the palm of my hand – three pinkish slugs with horn at one end and blood at the other. I tossed ‘em, caught ‘em, put ‘em in my pocket and walked off whistling Daboo Dabay, which had been Lutch's theme. (167)

Two things are put forward here that take a long time to get resolved—how can Lutch be both a complete human being and small enough to fit in Fluke's hand? And what exactly are those "three pinkish slugs with horn at one end and blood at the other" (167)?1 Reworking the standard murder mystery, it is not "who dunit" that is the concern of "Die, Maestro, Die," but how dunit and who dunit too – not to mention why dunit, and even (when it comes to the existence of the gestalt), if dunit in at all the way that Fluke thinks he has.

Science fiction and fantasy get all jumbled together in this story as well. One of the tools in the "scientification" trade is the neat, technological gadget. Skid's guitar is a perfect example —almost hyperbolically so. Crispin, the band's drum player, has a degree in electrical engineering and he works hard on Skid's guitar over the years. Eventually Skid is left with "an instrument that would sit up and typewrite" (173). It had a "warble-vibrato," a "trick tailpiece that... would raise a six-string chord a halftone" and an "attenuator that let him hit a note that wouldn't fade," all controlled by a panel "with more buttons, switches, and controls on it than a custom-built accordion has stops" (173).

Although tempting to dismiss this as a mere nod to his work as a science fiction writer, the import of such a device becomes much more pronounced when observed through the lens of what Sturgeon held to be the definition of a good science fiction story2: "A good story is good science fiction... when it deals with human beings with a human problem which is resolved in terms of their humanity, cast in a narrative which could not occur without the science element" (Saucer 376). This definition seems to apply directly to "Die, Maestro, Die." The story is extremely human and personal, resolved in terms of Fluke's and the band's humanity, and none of it could have happened were it not for Skid and his tricked-out guitar, which must operate together in order to summon Lutch's essence.3 So it is at once a fully realized fantasy story, science fiction tale, and murder mystery.

Giving the engineer such a vital roll in creating the band's gestalt-self is something both new and old for Sturgeon, and stands as a marker for one of the new directions he was heading both in his work and in his life. One of the primary examples of Sturgeon's aforementioned "antipathy to intelligence" (Menger 17) is the inhuman monster in the story "It," which commits the most despicable and inhuman atrocities due to its dispassionate desire to investigate the world around it. Intellectual curiosity, quite literally, is the monster. Menger cites other examples as well, such as "Poker Face" (human-built machines controlling humanity with their inhuman logic), and "The Artnan Process" (humanity becomes enslaved to technologically advanced Mars due to greed and immaturity) (Menger 15). She notes how this is in stark contrast to works such as Heinlein's "Blow Ups Happen" and Van Vogt's "The Weapon Shop," both of which show science saving humanity and are representative of the philosophy that Campbell and his writers most often championed.

In tandem with Sturgeon's growing acceptance of intelligence and science in general comes his reconciliation of art and science as complimentary instead of opposing. This story demonstrates that transformation in its infancy; just a year earlier, he wrote "Maturity," in which the two types of thought are in binary opposition to each other. Now, however, we find a situation where the gestalt unit of the band can exist only when two elements—the technological guitar and the artistic power of Skid—operate together.

The shift away from Sturgeon's misanthropy similarly takes its first baby steps here in "Die, Maestro, Die." Much like how the joining of left and right brain thinking takes longer to completely gel, Sturgeon's reappraisal of the viability of humanity is still in a transitional phase at this point, not fully gelling until his stories of the 1950s such as "Make Room for Me" (Menger 54). As in "Thunder and Roses," a story written a year earlier, the message in "Die, Maestro, Die" seems to be one skirting the edges of despair and hope. The main character is an insane murderer—in contrast, Lutch (his arch-rival, murder victim, and best friend) was a genuinely caring, successful man, a golden boy who used his abilities to better others as well as himself. At the end of the story, the band—instead of choosing to murder Fluke, or punish him in some way—shows their attempted understanding and forgiveness by paying for his face to be ‘fixed' with plastic surgery. So when Fluke jumps out of the window to commit suicide, the reader is left to wonder: "Is Fluke the fluke?"

Fluke would certainly say that most people are like him (seeing Lutch as the aberration), but then, his is a highly flawed perspective. In many ways Fluke and Lutch's approaches to life, their two understandings of reality and humanity, are the true conflict of the story. Fluke's narration, while biased, manages to lend great power and eloquence to both sides. While the story has nowhere near the pronounced humanism and optimism that would hold sway towards the end of Sturgeon's career, it is still a powerful statement of faith (or at least potential faith) when Sturgeon writes through Fluke, "Who was the downy-clown, the wise-eyes, the smarty-party, the gook with a book and his jaws full of saws, who said, ‘The evil that men do lives after them...?' He didn't know Lutch Crawford. Lutch did good" (200).

This idea of gestalt identity is one that appears constantly throughout Sturgeon's career. Often, earlier in his career, his depiction of the gestalt is one that is questioning and probing its potential worth—is it a good or bad thing to be More Than Human?4 Although stories like "The Perfect Host" leave the reader feeling distaste for any sort of insidious, parasitic, controlling overmind, and "Die, Maestro, Die" does not fully embrace the possibility of salvation it hints at in Lutch's life after death through gestalt, Sturgeon's final story involving the idea of the gestalt ("The Cosmic Rape") is a strong statement of belief that the group mind, that human cooperation, could be an incredibly strong and positive thing.

There is one last element to Sturgeon of which "Die, Maestro, Die" is an excellent representative: fascination with the basic emotional drives of human beings. Although often misconstrued as a writer who always wrote about "love," Sturgeon's emotional interests were much broader than that. In particular there is often, as there is in "Die, Maestro, Die," an element of hatred, or twisted love, which acts as motivation for his characters. In "Maturity," the doctors who change Robin are weak human beings, who are not attempting to fix him so much as alter him to compensate for their own weakness, insecurities, and shortsightedness. In "The Perfect Host" the story's catalyst forces the psychic parasite out into the open through acts of unabashed cruelty and intense, controlling, psychotic jealousy. In the infamous "Bianca's Hands" the narrator falls in love—true—but the end result is a gothic story of horror which stimulates and depicts a wide range of emotions far (very far) from "love." In short, greed, envy, immaturity, shortsightedness, lust, hatred, obsession and love, generosity, forgiveness, etc., all take turns in Sturgeon's stories.

So what does all this mean? It means that not only does "Die, Maestro, Die" serve as an example of Sturgeon's artistry and concern with pushing the aesthetics of writing at a moment where he is very near the top of his game, but also that nearly every fundamental change or growth which Sturgeon undergoes in his career is hinted at here, within this one work. It demonstrates his desire to break boundaries—be it of prose and poetry, or of the genre classifications of murder mystery, science fiction story, and fantasy story. "You can go absolutely anywhere in poetry, and you can go absolutely anywhere in science fiction. This is its tremendous appeal to me" (Menger 11). Contained within its pages are also some of the earliest signs of his later conviction that rational (logical/scientific) and irrational (associative/artistic) thought processes are not, in fact, opposed, but complementary. It is similarly an excellent example of his shift away from misanthropy and towards a belief in the (perhaps unrealized) potential of humanity as a group. Furthermore, in this story the reader gets to see a wide gamut of human emotions—envy, lust, hatred, love, fear, and more—in a way that is totally Sturgeon. All of this, presented through the eyes of a freak—a type that he would continue to write about and validate until the very last, particularly in works such as his novel, The Dreaming Jewels.

What more can I add, except that while to understand "Die, Maestro, Die," is to understand much of Sturgeon, to simply read it is enough to know one is witnessing a master at work.

Recommended sites about Theodore Sturgeon's life and works

Theodore Sturgeon Literary Trust

Theodore Sturgeon, Storyteller (essay by Paul Williams)

Notes

  1. The slugs are fingers from the band's bass player, who cannot play his guitar without them. It was his playing that was a vital component to the gestalt band-unit that kept Lutch "alive;" with that ability severed, Lutch—killed many years earlier—is finally, truly dead.
  2. Sturgeon quotes this definition in a letter to J. Donald Adams at The New York Times Book Review, but does not cite a source for it—at least in the excerpt provided in the "A Saucer of Loneliness" story notes.
  3. Some might argue that Skid is the important element, and not the guitar—that is incorrect. Both are vital. The necessity of Skid simply highlights the human element that Sturgeon found so necessary in Science Fiction; the guitar, of course, simply resonates with his understanding of what makes SF, SF. They work together, not separately.
  4. I insert this title clumsily in the text at least in part to mention that although this fascination may seem odd today, Sturgeon was an intelligent man and excellent writer who strongly questioned the idea in his works. His novel, More Than Human, is a wonderful depiction of the possibility of human gestalt, and an attempt to work out a very real possibility; "…members of the Grateful Dead and the Byrds have said… [that MTH's description of "bleshing"] was to them the best… description they encountered anywhere of what they were experiencing by working as a musical/creative/social group or unit or entity" (375).

Works Referenced

Menger, Lucy. Theodore Sturgeon. United States: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1981. [Cited as (Menger page #).]

Sturgeon, Theodore. A Saucer of Loneliness: Volume VII: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon. Ed. Paul Williams. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2000. [Cited as (Saucer page #).]

Sturgeon, Theodore. The Perfect Host: Volume V: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon. Ed. Paul Williams. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1998. [Cited as (page #).]


Copyright © 2004, Jeremiah Sturgill. All Rights Reserved.

About Jeremiah Sturgill

Jeremiah Sturgill is a senior at the University of Mary Washington located in historic Fredericksburg, Virginia. He has been trying to get his short fiction published for just over five months now, and has been delighted to receive rejections from the best in the industry. Perhaps the tide is turning, or perhaps he writes better articles than stories, but regardless he has made it known that the IROSF will always be remembered and cherished as his first sale. Please drop him a line at jstur8jv@umw.edu and let him know what you thought.

COMMENTS!

Oct 25, 23:05 by John Frost
Discussion of Sturgeon, or Sturgill's essay, or the strange coincidence of their respective last names.

(For the article itself: click here.)
Oct 27, 10:13 by Robert Richardson
Very nice overview. Makes me realize how little Sturgeon I've actually read and makes me think I should do something about it.
Oct 27, 14:33 by Jeremiah Sturgill
RBR,
I'm glad you liked it! And, of course, please do read up on your Sturgeon. It might help to find the short stories that people consistently refer back to ("Mr. Costello, Hero," "Die, Maestro, Die," of course, "Saucer of Loneliness," "Bianca's Hands," "To Here and Easel," and so on) to whet your appetite. Once you've tasted his best, you should be filled with an insatiable desire to read everything he's ever written.

Or that's how it seemed to work with me.

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