Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) and “Like Young”


Sea Otter, Valdez Arm, Alaska

Sea Otter, Valdez Arm, Alaska

Theodore Sturgeon is nearly forgotten. A part of science fiction’s Golden Age, he was a prolific, very highly regarded author. He wrote a dozen or so novels, but mostly he wrote short stories, more than 200 of them.

Today is the 60th anniversary of WC’s favorite Sturgeon short story, “Like Young.” It’s an unmatched parable on human arrogance.

The premise of the story is that humankind is dying of an incurable, highly contagious form of encephalitis. A group of scientists determines to give humanity’s existence some purpose:

We were, all of us, devoted to a single idea, and that was that Humanity should not perish. Humanity, in the sense of aspiration, generosity—if you like, nobility; that was what we were dedicated to preserve. It was too late for us to use it. We’d only just realized what it was, when the new encephalitis appeared. Perhaps we realized it because the encephalitis appeared. However we came by that understanding, we had it, and we had to pass it on, or it was all too ludicrous a tragedy.

It was a high conceit indeed to assume that the Next One would have an intelligence like ours. Once we were ready to discard that cocky notion, it became clear that the otter, a tool-using animal far earlier in its evolution than we had been, and possessed of a much more durable sense of humor, was logically our successor.

We decided to give it to the otters.

So the scientists engraved their knowledge on indestructible 2-chrome-vanadium-prime plates, and set the plates in a grand monument by the seaside. As the last surviving human watches, an otter comes ashore and inspects mankind’s offering:

The otter, when at last I had crept round the dais and up behind the curtains and could see him, crouched motionless before and between the two valloy plates, the one just recovered, bearing Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s revelations, and the other which had just been fabricated to replace it.

I thought (a very whisper of a thought, lest I think too loudly and ripple this tableau): Are you praying, little one?

After a few minutes, the otter leaves. The scientist visits the monument for the last time:

In the brilliant moonlight I gazed down at the shrine of humanity, all its dignity and its worth, and at all the meanings of this mighty gesture of faith in the life that had been and the life that was to be, when my eyes took in . . . took in what, some unmeasured time later—it might have been an hour—my mind was able to take in . . . just to the right of Einstein’s brief immortal perfect statement of mass-energy conversion, the comment,

WELL, SOMETIMES

written on, written into the alloy plate.

And there were two corrections in the Heisenberg statement, strikeouts and carelessly scribbled figures which seemed to have been scribed deep in the impervious metal by a single small foreclaw . . .

But it was what had been done to the new De Wald plate that dealt me that blinding blow, from which I recovered (was it an hour later?) so slowly. For under that climactic, breathtaking achievement of intuitive mathematics, that most transcendental of all human statements, the De Wald Synthesis, the otter had scrawled:

NONSENSE!

Most of Sturgeon’s work is out of print. “Like Young” is collected in the anthology The Man Who Lost the Sea, and is worth tracking down.

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