Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #34 of 107: “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

Why do we read science fiction? Maybe that’s too big of a question to answer. Why do we love the stories that we do? What’s qualities does a story have that pushes our buttons? That might be getting closer to where I want to go. The last lines of “The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon misted my eyes as I read them. But it wasn’t because our unnamed narrator was dying. I wasn’t moved either in our last story, “The Monster” when Marion and Bernard were about to die.

No, I’m moved because our astronaut protagonist says: “‘God,’ he cries, dying on Mars, ‘God, we made it!'”

That’s one reason I love this story. I believe many of us who read science fiction have an affinity for Mars, and a desire to go there. And subset of those readers would even be happy to die there. Sturgeon knew that and hooked us.

But Sturgeon couldn’t have written just that last line to win us over. There is a long build up that makes that last line work. The dying astronaut is visited by hallucinations of his younger selves. One is a boy playing with a model, a boy like many of us who used to play with models. Those of us who love this story can remember being young and pestering older folks with our enthusiasm for newly acquired knowledge.

The dying astronaut has a vivid memory of skin diving and nearly drowning. I admire the story even more because I can remember skin diving a couple of times when I thought I was drowning. I was always a terrible swimmer and shouldn’t have even been trying the things I did. I remember the first time I used a snorkel, mask, and fins, and how I also swallowed water and thrashed in the water. I can remember trying to swim further than I was capable. I remember what it felt like to make it back to the beach, the relief. Those experiences resonated with Sturgeon’s character, and I imagined they were based on his own experiences. Such embedded connections make a story succeed.

However, we don’t have to have shared experiences with Sturgeon and his fictional character. We all wonder what it’s like to die. Maybe we’ve even been sick enough to think we’re dying. There is something special about that last moment, a moment we wait our whole life to experience. How will we handle it?

The first work of fiction I remember from childhood is about a man’s last thoughts when dying. I didn’t know that then. I was seeing the movie version of High Barbaree when I was about six. Later on, I learned it was based on a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. In the movie, Alec doesn’t die. In the book he does. But I’ve been intrigued by the idea of last thoughts my whole life. That also makes me love “The Man Who Lost the Sea.”

This is the second time this year that I’ve written about “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” I had already forgotten that. I had to use the search feature on my blog to check. The story was even better this second time. I’m not about to die, but I’m old enough that I think about it often. Because I’ve spent so much of my life reading science fiction my last thoughts might be haunted by science-fictional themes. My last thoughts could recall all those far-out ideas I loved by reading science fiction. I might even judge my time on Earth by how many became real?

I do know as I age, what I value in a science fiction story changes. Reading through the stories in The Big Book of Science Fiction is revealing what I still care about and what I don’t. “The Man Who Lost the Sea” still resonates, but so many of the stories don’t. If I was sitting across the table from the stories I’m breaking up with I should tell them, “It’s me, not you.”

I had a friend who died in middle age. His name was Williamson, and before he died he kept rejecting things he once loved. Towards the end, he only cared about two things in life, the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. This dwindling of interests before death I call the Williamson Effect. As I progress through my seventies, and maybe beyond, I imagine I’ll reject most of the science fiction stories I once loved. They will just stop working. I tend to think “The Man Who Lost the Sea” will continue to work for a long time, maybe not to the bitter end, but close.

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James Wallace Harris, 10/25/21

6 thoughts on ““The Man Who Lost the Sea” by Theodore Sturgeon

  1. You should perhaps read “A Dream at Noonday”, by Gardner Dozois, which is also about the central character’s thoughts about life at the point of death.
    Are you familiar with the concept of “terminal drop”? It sounds as if your friend was an example of the phenomenon.

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    1. I had to look up “terminal drop” and this wasn’t Williamson’s issue. As he got older he became more cynical and critical. He just kept jettisoning stuff he didn’t think measured up. His actions were more pronounced but I’ve seen that in other folks as they got older. In people who live a long time, I think they just lose interest or don’t have the energy to carry everything along until the end.

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  2. I should add that I’ll always have a soft spot for this story because it was in the very first anthology I ever bought: Towards Infinity, edited by Damon Knight. (the US edition says “Toward”, not “Towards”.) I bought it off a spinning rack in the convenience store (we called it a “café”) of my childhood.

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  3. This story moved me in a way that few short stories do … I was pulled into the astronaut’s remembrances as he was dying. Sturgeon crafted the story in such a way that the character felt real to me.

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