“And Now the News…” by Theodore Sturgeon – Classics of Science Fiction

Story


“And Now the News…” was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 1956. You can read it on Archive.org. It is story #19 of 22 for The Best SF Stories of 1956 group read. “And Now the News…” was a selection in Asimov/Greenberg 1988 anthology devoted to the best SF of 1956. It’s often reprinted. This is my second reading of the story.

This story has quite a punch, so go read it. Be warned. I’m going to give away the ending.

“And Now the News…” isn’t really science fiction, nor fantasy. It’s about a man named MacLyle who was addicted to the news. To break that addiction, his wife sabotaged the radios and televisions, and destroyed his newspaper. MacLyle divorced his wife, moved out into the woods, and forgot how to use language. His wife hired a psychiatrist who tracked him down and “cured” him. On the way home, he went berserk, killed four people before he was killed himself.

For a story that came out in 1956, it feels quite relevant to 2024. I haven’t read much by Sturgeon, a couple of novels, maybe a dozen stories. He wrote much more. I’d love to read a biography about him. Wikipedia says Sturgeon wrote a bit of an autobiography, Argyll: A Memoir, which was an 80-page pamphlet. Abebooks.com and eBay.com list no copies for sale.

Wikipedia said Sturgeon was married three times and had two other long-term relationships and fathered seven children. He worked at many kinds of jobs. And his stories reflect a certain strangeness. Sometimes I wondered if he led a Beat life or was some kind of bohemian. Other times, because psychiatry is so often mentioned in his stories, I wonder if Sturgeon didn’t have mental problems.

If you read “And Now the News…” I think you’ll also wonder about his mental state. The story seems to be an attack on psychiatry, and even mundane life. Go read it, to see what I mean.

My friend Mike had a lot to say about the story. He hoped I had answers. I don’t. Mike summarizes stories much better than I do, so I won’t repeat what Mike gave me. I’m trying to get Mike to become a blogger because he’s good at reviewing fiction.

I might as well come clean and admit that I don't understand "And Now the News..." I can't fit the pieces together.

The story can be divided into three acts.

Act One

In the first act, we are introduced to MacLyle:

"He had habits and he had hobbies, like everybody else and (like everybody else) his were a little different from anybody's. The one that annoyed his wife the most, until she got used to it, was the news habit, or maybe hobby."

It seems that MacLyle is obsessed with the news and justifies his preoccupation by quoting Donne: "...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind..."

Sturgeon takes pains to emphasize that "...MacLyle was, outside his peculiarity, a friendly and easygoing character. He liked people and invited them and visited them..." At this point, it feels a little like a Clifford D. Simak story.

Then MacLyle's wife Esther decides to sabotage the radios and tv sets so MacLyle can't access the news. When he asks for the newspaper, Esther confesses that she "...hadn't ordered it and wouldn't again." She reveals what she has done and "...realized too late that the news was so inextricably part of her husband that in casting it out she cast him out too."

So the end of Act One results in MacLyle leaving home and going to an attorney to arrange support for his wife and children. The lawyer "...might have entertained fears for MacLyle except for the fact that he was jovial and loquacious throughout, behaving like a happy man..."

Act Two

MacLyle is now on his own. Suddenly, when he tries to read the morning paper, he realizes that he can no longer read. Soon, he realizes he can't speak and can't understand speech. What are we to make of this? Is this a metaphorical transformation? Is it an actual physical manifestation? Why?

MacLyle retreats to a remote cabin and builds a new life.

Act Three

Esther's psychiatrist tracks down MacLyle. He finds him playing his ophicleide, "...the craziest-looking man he had ever seen." Before long however "...the warm good humor and genuine welcome on MacLyle's sunburned face drove away fright and even caution..." MacLyle shows the psychiatrist his cabin, replete with his paintings and sculptures. It's obvious that MacLyle has worked very hard to build a new life in this remote setting.

"Watching him, the psychiatrist reflected suddenly that this withdrawn and wordless individual was a happy one, in his own matrix..."

The psychiatrist is appalled and realizes that he must "...find a way to communicate with MacLyle, and when he had found it, he must communicate to him the error of his ways." Is the psychiatrist a straw man? Is society the real force that cannot tolerate difference, cannot abide alternatives? Is this a commentary on psychiatry or society?

Eventually, the psychiatrist secretly drugs MacLyle and then injects him with a cornucopia of drugs. In a drugged haze, MacLyle is spirited away by the psychiatrist. MacLyle regains the ability to read and speak.

MacLyle tells that psychiatrist that "Damn foolishness diminishes me because I am involved. People all the time pushing people around diminishes me. Everybody for a fast buck diminishes me...I just had to get uninvolved with mankind before I got diminished altogether, everything mankind did was my fault. So I did and now here I am involved again." Why did MacLyle think that what mankind did was his fault? What led him to that conclusion? Why is he diminished by the actions of others?

Finally, MacLyle reveals "Why, I'm going out there and diminish mankind right back." We learn that "He killed four people before they got him." How do we connect the dots? Throughout the story MacLyle has been described as kind and easygoing and genuine. Now he's suddenly a rampaging murderer? Is Sturgeon trying to make a broader statement about societal forces that warp perceptions? Does MacLyle represent nonconformity, while the psychiatrist represents the hidebound cultural norms that constrict our lives?

Too many questions. Not enough answers. I'm hoping Jim has some answers.

Theodore Sturgeon has something philosophical to say in “And Now the News…” but I’m not sure what it is. At first, we think of the title referring to MacLyle’s early addiction to the news, but what if the story we’re reading is the news Sturgeon is tell us?

What if Theodore Sturgeon felt like I do now when I look out at the world? When I was young, I read several biographies of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and I was troubled by how bitter Clemens became in old age. I told myself back then that I didn’t want to become embittered by life like Clemens. However, now that I’m old I realize my attitude toward humanity is far from positive. I can only assume “And Now the News…” is Sturgeon having a Mark Twain moment, and this story could be included in Sturgeon’s own collection of stories that could also be titled Letters From the Earth. Maybe the John Donne quote was written when Donne was young, and Sturgeon was sneering at it. I don’t know.

I have a tremendous interest in Philip K. Dick because he was a tortured soul. There’s not enough written about Sturgeon to really say, but I get the feeling that Sturgeon and Dick had a lot in common. I’ve lost count of the number of biographies written about PKD. I think if serious biographies were written about Sturgeon, he might be more famous, and his fiction would get more attention.

James Wallace Harris, 1/10/24

p.s. Sorry for slowing down on reviewing these stories. I’m just running out of energy. However, we’re almost done. Just three more to go.

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