What Dead Men Tell
by Theodore Sturgeon

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, November 1949

collected in —

The Perfect Host

March 2004

A true puzzle story

"What Dead Men Tell" by Theodore Sturgeon is one of the classic science-fiction puzzle stories.

A distinction: a puzzle story is not simply one of the O. Henry surprise type with a snapper or twist or revealed pun at the end, a type which even Sturgeon fell into sometimes. Nor is it necessarily a dramatic or comedic challenge story where the protagonist faces an ordeal of situation which also tests or builds his character. A shorter fiction doesn't have much room for development, or for more than one of these attributes, but the best puzzle stories likely also involve challenges of character, as does "What Dead Men Tell".

The novelet takes its title from the old proverb that dead men tell no tales. The truth of a matter dies with its participants or witnesses. Sometimes this is uttered as a threat.

I cannot really describe "What Dead Men Tell" without giving it all away, and I'd rather you read it (if you haven't already) and enjoy it directly. But there are a few things I can say.

Light in the corridor

The novelet's atmosphere is scary, tense, even uncanny; as a dark corridor with an unfathomable light may be; but it is by no means a horror story.

In a 1947 letter, quoted in editor Paul Williams' "Story Notes" to the Sturgeon collection The Perfect Host, Sturgeon mentions what he calls a codification:

What is important is basic.
What is basic is by definition simple.
What is complicated is therefore not important.

This idea winds up as part of the verbal background or explicit justification for the puzzle, and the challenge, of "What Dead Men Tell". Certainly this is one of the philosophical ground-problems of the ages. The colorful foreground of the story is built implicitly on this philosophical equation of basic, simple, important.

Yet it is the foreground of this puzzle story that after each reading, perhaps years apart, draws my thinking into another part of the spectrum: imaginative, scientific, philosophical.

An example: my mind, following just one twist out of "What Dead Men Tell", brought me to think of a book full of names and of historiometric analysis of what dead men may tell us: Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. Murray does not quote his great subject names, except incidentally; in his analysis they speak to us without words of what they meant to each other, and what they mean to us.

There are lots of other thoughtful paths through the corridor of "What Dead Men Tell". Quite a good puzzle story, I think.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson


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