Poker Face
by Theodore Sturgeon

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1941

collected in —

Without Sorcery
Alien Cargo
Microcosmic God

February 2011

The face of a stranger

"Poker Face" by Theodore Sturgeon is a short science-fiction story, slight but mildly entertaining. And yet, there are a few points to be noted. The basic idea was noted by Sturgeon himself in his collection Without Sorcery (and reprinted in Microcosmic God):

No one can change my conviction that there are people among us like "Face." Not necessarily people from his strange point of origin, but from many. The reasons these folk have for concealing themselves are more obvious than any they might have for self-advertisement. You do not attempt to alter what you see on your visits to a museum — or to a zoo ...

We may grant this, and of course it's an idea that reverberates through busy realms of science fiction from Eric Frank Russell to Fritz Leiber and many more.

Along the duration

Beyond the theme of guise is a speculation upon time. It hardly can escape any reader of Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars that Sturgeon's far-distant future city has premonitions of Clarke's. But how does Sturgeon get us from then to now?

It is time travel using the concept of time as duration rather than our more common sense of time as passage or succession. This we may credit to Parmenides, and perhaps too little attention has been devoted to it by more recent philosophers.

We conceive of time either as flowing or as enduring. The problem is how to reconcile these concepts. From a purely formalistic point of view there exists no difficulty, as these properties can be reconciled by means of the concept of a duratio successiva. Every unit of time measure has this characteristic of a flowing permanence: an hour streams by while it lasts and so long as it lasts. Its flowing is thus identical with its duration. Time, from this point of view, is transitory; but its passing away lasts.
Friedrich Kummel
"Time as Succession and the Problem of Duration"
  in —
J. T. Fraser, editor
The Voices of Time  (1966)

This theory of duration is narrated, albeit quite interestingly, rather than embodied in the action. Sturgeon's fantasy written nearly contemporaneously with "Poker Face", the fabulous "Yesterday Was Monday", considers some further temporal perplexities of duration, and embodies them. My review of that story continues the Friedrich Kummel quotation above.

Of course there is a poker game, of a sort, in "Poker Face". Poker is one of my lifelong favorites of all games, and thus another good draw for this slight but enjoyable story.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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