Sturgeon reveals his talent
The excellent fantasy short-story "A God in a Garden" was Theodore Sturgeon's first sale — after a requested rewrite — to editor John W.Campbell, and his first sale of any kind to the genre science-fiction and fantasy magazines. Since the previous year, while still in the merchant marine, he had been selling short fiction to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate; he was now twenty-one years old. A couple of dozen more stories with the distinct Sturgeon touch would follow in short order to Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown.
"A God in a Garden" begins with a simple premise: a man is digging out what will become a lily pond for his well-planned backyard garden, and he uncovers a massy brown stone. This is an idol, Rakna by name as it will appear, which has been buried there a very long time, far longer than humanity has existed. The finding may have been nudged, for Kenneth Courtney has an artistic flair for small-scale landscaping, and he had been intending to acquire a visual focus for his garden:
The sunken rockery, well out of sight, was the hidden theme of the whole; you stumbled on it, that rock garden, and yet because of the subtle placing of the trees and plants around it, you knew that it had been there all the time. There was a miniature bridge, and a huge pottery teapot — all the fixings. And once you were in the rock garden, you and your eye were led to the shrinelike niche by the lily pool.
For months Kenneth had been searching for an old idol ugly enough for that niche; he wanted it there so that it would frighten people. Something nice and hideous, to be a perfect and jarring foil for the quiet and beautiful effect of all that surrounded it. Kenneth determined to leave that niche empty until he found a stone face ugly enough to turn an average stomach — not wrench it, exactly; Kenneth was not altogether fiendish in his humorous moments! — but plumb ugly.
He went into the back kitchen — it served as a tool shed as well — and took down a crowbar. His wife came to the door when she heard him.
"How's it going?" she asked in the dutifully interested tone of a wife whose most recent words to her husband were violent ones.
"Swell," he said, his casualness equally forced.
There are a number of stylistic strengths to notice in just this extract. Sturgeon's care for artistic design is evident, with particular application to the backyard garden. The narrative voice is perfectly natural, and Sturgeon is confident enough to speak an aside directly to the reader. In a handful of paragraphs, the author manages to balance:
- surprise with expectation
- beautiful with ugly
- the fantastic with the domestic everyday
- past time with ordinary physical actions
- pleasant feelings with grating ones
- emotions with thought
- good and bad aspects of man and woman as individuals and in relation.
What strikes me most forcefully, looking at the above list, is Theodore Sturgeon's innate sense of agonistic wholeness: not good versus evil, but good and bad blended and even welded together. He sees the conflict in opposites, which is not so hard for most of us, but also a complementary polarity where we may not expect it at all: "A God in a Garden", indeed.