Never Underestimate
by Theodore Sturgeon

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

If, March 1952

collected in —

Baby Is Three

September 2013

Warning: major plot spoilers in the following review.
But the fun of the story is in Sturgeon's presentation, anyway.


Fixing what ain't broke
Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman
The Ladies' Home Journal
slogan adopted 1941

Theodore Sturgeon's science-fictional speculations about romance and its basis in sexual attraction often take odd turns, and this certainly is true in his short story, "Never Underestimate". Here he takes on what we may call the feminine use of sexual wiles to obtain a specific non-sexual result. As the female protagonist points out to her friend,

Women have always been able to get what they wanted from men by pretending to promise a thing which they know men want but will not or cannot take. Mind you, I'm not talking about situations where this yielding is the main issue. I'm talking abut the infinitely greater number of occasions where yielding has nothing to do with it. Like weaseling out of traffic tickets.

Perennial availability, but without necessity? Since our mutual availability and attractability slipped its seasonal moorings in the dim protohuman prehistory, shifting to nearly year-round voluntary readiness, women have been able to dissimulate the degree of their desire: to hint in any fashion from a pleasant expression through batting eyelashes and flirty talk up to salacious wriggles — and yet choose to not deliver themselves to the man. For the sake of argument we must assume that men always are physically ready and emotionally eager, and thus helpless prey to the designing women. Sturgeon is not the only one to present this thesis; throughout history, many cultures and individuals have believed this, both men and women.

We may see difficulties with the thesis, however, before we go on to Sturgeon's fictional solution, and its one big difficulty. Sturgeon's story claims, "The whole arsenal of womankind is based on her ability to yield or not to yield." But we must remember that the option to yield, and hence the safe use of feminine flirtation (at whatever level, and however we define it), depends on civilization, that is, a presumption of courteous or civil behavior on the part of the targeted man. A man's personal respect for women, adherence to a code of chivalry, responsibility to enlightened laws, or fear of retribution, all encourage this. Throughout much of human history, these factors were not thought of, or were slighted by the powerful or outlaws, or in abeyance because of war or other disaster. Safe flirting requires a safe environment, and Sturgeon unwarrantedly widens some relatively peaceful oases to flood all of human history with benign romanticism.

"Never Underestimate" presumes that female sensual desire is far less important to women than their need and wish to manipulate the sensual desire of men. True for some women some of the time, depending on individuality and circumstances; but as a premise for human fulfillment, this seems not only joyless, but lacking in authorial empathy, and even in generosity, to the other side.

And have women no power of rhetoric unrelated to "yielding"? No ability to reason and persuade? Let alone other talents and material skills. The "whole arsenal" claim makes our suspension of disbelief hard to maintain, even within the compass of a short story.

The universality of feminine designer-flirting, even when and where safe, also is questionable. Many women would consider it beneath their dignity or integrity, or simply not be very good at it — since we began with human mutual availability becoming substantially voluntary rather than instinctive, to a considerable extent "the power of a woman" as Sturgeon narrowly uses it here, is a learned skill.

Utopia or dystopia? So is restoring the protohuman cycle, or otherwise setting calendric boundaries around mutual availability and attraction, a good solution to Sturgeon's problem herein, which I call designer flirting? Creating for our entire species a biochemical "chastity belt. ... With a time-lock on it."

The concept and term chastity belt is not common in works of any era, and surely rare in science fiction of the 1950s. In his stories Theodore Sturgeon constantly pushes the limits of human emotion, flirting with ideas about what makes us tick. Where "Never Underestimate", in its clever and amusing speculation, seems to me to fall off a cliff — is in assuming that anyone except the scientist who beneficently devises the biological retrofit of a universal chastity belt, actually would prefer it to the way we are. Would there be anything of virtue, or of satisfaction, in such a time-lock? Of course, humanity could live with it: other creatures do. Sturgeon's female protagonist says she prefers it, and claims so would all women once they understood its advantages to them — but I wonder.

A puzzle of the ages; yet is it really a problem in search of a solution?


© 2013 Robert Wilfred Franson

Compare R. W. Franson's review of
"Trojan Horse Laugh"
by John D. MacDonald

Romance at Troynovant
dating, romantic love, marriage

Mentality at Troynovant
the mind and mental operation

Utopia at Troynovant
utopia in power, or dystopia


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