Essay

How One SF Writer’s Motto Can Help Authors Draft, Redraft, and (Gasp!) Even Change the Real World

Theodore Sturgeon's motto "Ask the next question"

Theodore Sturgeon, who would have turned 97 this Thursday, February 26, had a motto that inspired his writing and his outlook.

In fact, it was such a part of his oeuvre that it’s been turned into a physical symbol in the Theodore Sturgeon Award.

“Ask the next question.”

The “Q” with the arrow through it is handed out each year as the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, an award that recognizes exceptional short science fiction writing. But what does this mantra entail?

As Sturgeon himself explained:

“This guy is sitting in a cave and he says, ‘Why can’t man fly?’ Well, that’s the question. The answer may not help him, but the question now has been asked. The next question is what? How? And so all through the ages, people have been trying to find out the answer to that question. We’ve found the answer, and we do fly. This is true of every accomplishment, whether it’s technology or literature, poetry, political systems or anything else. That’s it. Ask the next question. And the one after that.”



We asked Theodore Sturgeon’s family and fans what this special motto means to them. Read on to see how this simple phrase has inspired historical fiction, apocalyptic fiction, and yes, real world change.


Noël Sturgeon (Theodore Sturgeon’s daughter) on social change

“While it was, to Ted, about the human drive to innovate through questioning, I think it was more centrally about critical…

questioning about social conventions, particularly those that limited sexual expression or legitimated social inequalities.

One example of Ted’s use of this technique is woven through the novel Venus Plus X, where he questions both gender and sexual conventions (particularly around expectations for women but also for men and about the “naturalness” of heterosexuality). The two stories “The World Well Lost” and “Affair With A Green Monkey” are other examples of asking the next question to challenge homophobia. More disturbing is the use of the technique, demonstrated rather didactically, to trouble accepted ideas about incest in the story “If All Men Were Brothers.” To me, the technique in that story is not taken far enough, as important questions of unequal power between parents and children go unrecognized. In general, Ted’s view of the efficacy of asking the next question was often naive about relations of power, as though simply asking tough questions could bring about change. Yet, this technique, which in academia is called “critical thinking” and in movements is called “consciousness-raising,” is undeniably a powerful tool of change. Certainly, those reading Sturgeon stories in the 1960s and 1970s along these lines were…

inspired not just to think differently, but to act as well.”


James Morrow (Author of This Is the Way the World Ends) on apocalyptic fiction

“Although I tend to wield my satirist’s scalpel on behalf of blasphemy, heresy, and atheism, hoping somehow to ablate the tumor of theocratic thought from the minds of people who should know better, a secondary obsession runs through my oeuvre. I speak of the atomic bomb—a menace to which Theodore Sturgeon was likewise alive, as he demonstrated in such chilling and disturbing stories as “Thunder and Roses” and “Memorial.” Thus far my contribution to this discourse has included three Sturgeonesque thought-experiments. My novel This Is the Way the World Ends asks,

“What if those hypothetical humans whose existences were canceled by Armageddon decided to put the perpetrators on trial for crimes against humanity?”

My novelette “Martyrs of the Upshot Knothole” (collected in The Cat’s Pajamas and Other Stories) asks, “What if John Wayne, the quintessential Cold Warrior, was fatally—and ironically—poisoned by radioactive fallout while shooting The Conqueror in Utah (near the Yucca Flat proving ground)?” My novella “Shambling Towards Hiroshima,” which incidentally won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, asks, “What if the U.S. Navy had developed a Godzilla-like biological weapon in tandem with the Army’s Manhattan Project?” Even today, with the Cold War on hiatus, the threat posed by thermonuclear weapons is real and implacable, and I can think of no phenomenon more worthy of perpetual and impassioned conversation.

If we do not relentlessly critique the legitimacy of such arsenals, whether in our own hands or those of our presumed enemies, we shall reach a point where people, being extinct, are no longer asking questions at all.”


Timothy Zahn (Author of A Coming of Age) on plotting a novel using questions

“Asking questions can be hazardous. You never know where you might end up going.

For example: Many years ago, my wife and I were driving down I-24 in Kentucky on our way to a convention. Anna was in the back seat, trying to get our five-month-old to settle down to eat. He was being fussy, and I got to wondering,

“What would happen if children were physically stronger than their parents?”

Hmm…

Okay, how could that happen? Well, children’s muscles are typically smaller and weaker than those of adults, so it has to be something else? Telekinesis, maybe?

Okay—telekinesis. So how come the adults don’t have it? What if it appears at, say, age five, and then disappears forever at puberty?

So how do we control these kids?

Well, what if the power grows in strength all the way through childhood? Then the older kids would be stronger than the younger ones and could keep them in line.

In fact, what if during the last couple of years of power the kids are strong enough to lift themselves and actually fly?

Cool!

Now, what kind of society would you get from that?

Well, the kids are a source of free power. They would do all the heavy lifting, and turn the flywheels that create electricity for their towns and cities. Maybe cops don’t carry guns, but have a preteen partner who provides the muscle when necessary.

Of course, it’s not safe for the kids to live with their parents, not when they’re so much stronger. They would have to be raised under the supervision of the older kids, like in a combination boarding school/workhouse, with adults supervising the whole thing.

But how do the adults control the older kids?

Maybe by keeping a monopoly on learning and knowledge? Sure—scratch the “boarding school” aspect. The kids don’t go to school, of any kind, until they lose their power. They aren’t taught to read; in fact, they probably aren’t even allowed to learn to read. Reading is knowledge, and the adults need to keep that monopoly.

Besides, the kids are too busy turning those flywheels and unloading trucks to waste time on books.

And finally, what if there was a charismatic Fagin-type criminal who’s using kidnapped kids to commit crimes for him? What if there’s a scientist who thinks he may have found a way to prolong the power through adulthood, and needs a child to experiment on? And what if there’s a preteen girl who decides she wants to learn to read before she loses her power?

No, you never know where asking questions will lead you.

In this case, they led to my second novel: A Coming of Age.”


Ian MacLeod (Author of The Light Ages) on historical fiction

“Rather than asking the next question, a lot of my fiction seems to be…

challenging questions we like to imagine we’ve already found the answers to.

Did science really have to triumph over magic, for instance, in The Light Ages, and, much more specifically in Wake Up and Dream? What if the seemingly promising research being undertaken into telepathy in the early Twentieth Century turned out to be right? Even The Great Wheel, which is set in an imagined future, runs back the clock to a kind of Roman Catholic supremacy over Europe, while The Summer Isles asks how Britain would have responded to the stresses which caused Hitler’s rise in Germany. By looking at the way things didn’t or couldn’t turn out, by twisting the past or the future into surprising new shapes, it’s possible to question whether we really have the answers we think we have in this real, present world.”

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