“The World Well Lost”
by Theodore Sturgeon
Ruminations by Dick Jenssen
A Saucer of Loneliness book cover
The world which was very well lost
Theodore Sturgeon’s story was an amazing breakthrough in the positive depiction of gays – not only in SF, but in the wider literary world.
The story first appeared in the US – in the first issue of the magazine Universe, June 1953 – and was, immediately, a centre of controversy, largely because of the prevailing attitudes to homosexuality and morals. Australia was very much like the US in these regards, but with an even more inflexible and puritanical approach to moral rectitude and to personal freedoms. It may seem unbelievable to us at the turn of the new century, but fifty years ago Australians were subject to an incredible amount of censorship and thought control. Films were banned or mutilated by the censors’ scissors so that even the totally innocuous The Thing from Another World lost major portions. Books and magazines were banned, and thus no Australian was deemed fit to read, or even see, Weird Tales. These are seemingly trivial examples, but if pieces like these were found unsuitable for the mythical “general public”, imagine how more substantial works (D. H. Lawrence, Leo Tolstoy, for example) suffered by being banned, and how films (by Ingmar Bergman, Henri Clouzot…) were emasculated.
It should be no surprise to learn, then, that homosexuality was anathema to Church, State and Police. In the US, homosexuality was still – officially – a mental illness. Here, gay-bashing was treated as a non-offence (and if a gay reported one, he was considered the criminal rather than the victim), to the extent that it seemed to be routinely practiced by the police themselves. On a more personal note, at least one of my gay friends was forced by his mother to undergo electro-shock treatment to “cure” him of his anti-social illness. Unsuccessfully, of course, but leaving him with life-long emotional scars. Just being gay was a crime, as one of my friends discovered when, in the middle of a lecture at Melbourne University, the police burst in and arrested him because an ex-lover had accused him of being so.
For most gays, then, their lives had to be of a schizophrenic quality – socially straight, privately gay. But if one was discreet, then one survived in a covert, hidden manner. The closet was, for most, a necessity, and self-doubt, even self-hatred, was a common, crushing burden. Strangely enough, though, for someone as unsure of themselves as I was, I was nonetheless always secure in my sexuality (the reasons are another story) and while I was very discreet, I never denied, or tried to hide my gayness. As one wit put it, I “was in the closet with the door wide open”. Anyone who knew me more than just casually would have known, or suspected, that I was gay. But I was lucky, and the bigotry that fell on others seemed to pass me by. I knew that gays were neither all stereotypical, nor perverts preying on the young, nor mentally sick, nor evil – because I knew a lot of gays who were none of these things, and who seemed to be, by and large, much more preferable to the bulk of straights. But, nonetheless, there was always the hope, the need perhaps, that we would eventually be seen by the heterosexual world for what we were – people who loved as well and as deeply and truly as all humanity, but whose objects of affections were not the norm.
As often happened, science fiction gave me hope that my hopes were not totally unrealistic with the appearance of Sturgeon’s story. There were positive gays in literature well before Sturgeon (a great number of the characters in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time were gay, were most definitely not stereotypes, and the majority could be cast as role models), but most novels or stories which were predominantly gay ended in death, or at the very least, in tragedy.
The Earth has been visited by a pair of aliens, beautiful, charismatic, lovable, and very much in love with each other. Humanity is enraptured, partly in love for the pair themselves, but mainly in love for their love. (Should this seem unlikely, just think of how almost everyone responds so positively, and emotionally, to Pandas. And if a pair of Pandas cuddle, well…)
Like a sudden bloom across the face of the world came the peculiar magic of the loverbirds. There were loverbird songs and loverbird trinkets, loverbird hats and pins, bangles and baubles, coins and quaffs and tidbits. For there was that about the loverbirds which made a deep enchantment. No one can be told about a loverbird and feel this curious delight. Many are immune even to a solidograph. But watch loverbirds, only for a moment, and see what happens. It’s the feeling you had when you were twelve, and summer-drenched, and you kissed a girl for the very first time and knew a breathlessness you were sure could never happen again. And indeed it never could- unless you watched loverbirds. Then you are spellbound for four quiet seconds, and suddenly your very heart twists, and incredulous tears sting and stay; and the very first move you make afterward, you make on tiptoe, and your first word is a whisper.
This magic came over very well on trideo, and everyone had trideo; so for a brief while the earth was enchanted.
There were only two loverbirds. They came down out of the sky in a single brassy flash, and stepped out of their ship, hand in hand. Their eyes were full of wonder, each at the other and together at the world. They seemed frozen in a full-to-bursting moment of discovery; they made way for one another gravely and with courtesy, they looked about them and in the very looking gave each other gifts-the color of the sky, the taste of the air, the pressures of things growing and meeting and changing. They never spoke. They simply were together. To watch them was to know of their awestruck mounting of staircases of bird notes, of how each knew the warmth of the other as their flesh supped silently on sunlight.
And then the aliens’ planetary government contacts Earth, explains that the loverbirds are criminals, demands their extradition, and declares that Earth will forever be shunned as “a world well lost”. The main story then begins and concerns the flight to the aliens’ home of Dirbanu as prisoners. In the course of this journey one of many twists complicates the plot – even though the morphology of the individual aliens is as different one to the other as the morphology of man is to woman, they are revealed to be of the same sex. And hence Dirbanu is depicted as a planet of homophobes. But when the nature of the aliens is exposed, so is human homophobia – even though, for some, the revelation simply increases their appreciation and affection for the aliens.
By initially concentrating on the loverbirds’ emotional immersion in each other, Sturgeon is pointing out that their acceptance by humanity is not based on surface appearance – because, after all, they are aliens – but on what lies beneath.
Dirbanu’s homophobia, on the contrary, is based entirely on surface, and so is seen to be irrational and illogical because it ignores much deeper, more positive and substantive concerns – love itself.
The love of the aliens for each other transcends any trivial accident of surface, and is so powerful that humanity responds in a flood of acceptance and affection.
The homophobic response of humans again illustrates just how perverse their bigoted reaction is, for the aliens have not changed, only the interpretation of their behaviour by small minds fostered by societal hatred.
What is being said, then, is that what is important is love itself and not the object of that affection.
Although it is not made explicit, I believe that Sturgeon’s major theme is that while surface appearance is important for the act of falling in love, it is largely trivial for the state of being in love. Most everyone falls in love for superficial reasons – we have a physical (or erotic) ideal to which we respond, and which triggers feelings of lust and affection. Once we know more deeply the object of our amorous attentions we may, if we are extremely lucky, actually be in love with them – not the surface, which usually is still erotically arousing – but with their person, their inner core, their very soul . In short we fall in love with the form, but are in love with the content – it is the package which attracts, but it is what is inside the package which creates our love.
This is an idea which is found in literature of quality, but not at all often in more popular branches of writing – geared of necessity towards a more general audience and for whom, especially in Hollywood films, falling in love is a euphemism for falling in lust. (Once again, an excellent example of the difference between falling and being in love is to be found in Proust, in The Way by Swann’s which is the first part of his In Search of Lost Time.) In my view this is what real love is all about – even if the object of our love changes physically, we still love them because their innermost being is unchanged. The ravages of time will not, cannot, if our love is true, make our love diminish, but will cause it to grow, vaster than empires and yet more slow (as Marvell would have it).
The story is enhanced by the quality of Sturgeon’s prose, which, for someone who claims that they are not gay themselves, displays a passion and a poetry redolent of approval of all forms of love, appearance notwithstanding. In fact, the story concludes with what I take to be lines of poetry, though I can discover neither the source nor the poet:
Why must we love where the lightning strikes
And not where we choose ?
But I’m glad it’s you, little prince,
I’m glad it’s you.
These lines have stayed with me for the last fifty years, and encapsulate much of the true meaning of being gay. It is love, gay love, straight love, any love which matters, and not the accident of form.
The World Well Lost is one of my favourite SF stories, one of my favourite short stories, and one my favourite romantic stories. We, and science fiction, would be all the less had it never been written.
This story is available in the Sturgeon collection, A Saucer of Loneliness, from amazon.com