“The Other Celia” by Theodore Sturgeon – Classics of Science Fiction


“The Other Celia” by Theodore Sturgeon – Classics of Science Fiction

Group Read 72: The Best Science Fiction Stories of 1957

“The Other Celia” by Theodore Sturgeon #01 of 20 (Read, Listen)

It’s ironic that in the 1960s I grew up reading 1950s science fiction to imagine the future, but now in the 2020s, I’m reading 1950s science fiction to reconstruct the past. We’re now living in yesterday’s future. When we’re young we think science fiction is all about the future, but when we’re old we realize that everything is about the present. My present is figuring out how the past made me at this moment. My brain is like ChatGPT but trained on decades of science fiction. My hallucinogenic output is shaped by that.

How can old science fiction stories reveal anything about the past? And how can that knowledge reveal anything about who I am at this moment? I can offer a comparison that might answer part of that question. My father died when I was eighteen, in 1970, before I got to really know him. Ever since, I’ve been trying to figure out what my father thought from the clues he left behind. It’s not a particularly revealing method because it’s mostly speculation. Reading old science fiction lets us speculate about what science fiction writers and readers were like when the stories were first written, and maybe what we wanted from them, and why.

I vaguely remember 1957. That September I started the first grade. Sputnik, the first satellite, blasted into orbit the following month, but I don’t remember that. I was only five then. I turned six at the end of November, but it made me no wiser or more aware. “The Other Celia” by Theodore Sturgeon had come out in the March issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, which means it was on the stands in February. At the beginning of 1957 I was in kindergarten. I had no idea that science fiction existed. My favorite show then was Topper. I believe this was before I was aware of rockets, robots, and even dinosaurs. In 2024 rockets and robots are everywhere, and we know a whole lot more about dinosaurs.

My guess from reading about Theodore Sturgeon, and reading his stories, is he barely made a living by writing. He had to crank out stories to buy food and pay the rent. I feel he must have been an autodidactic who knew something about everything. Sturgeon’s stories suggest he’d lived all over, seen a lot, and tried his hand at doing most things too. I assumed Sturgeon combined personal experience and took an occult idea, popular with weirdo thinkers in 1956, and turned it into a science fiction story. It may or may not have symbolized certain kinds of real people.

I do remember that the world was quite a different place in 1957 than it is in 2024. I remember the cars, the houses, the clothes, the people. The setting of “The Other Celia” is a boarding house. My grandmother managed an old apartment building where elderly people like herself lived. I remember staying with her at various times and visiting the old folks there. I can even remember the smells. One old lady I met had been on the Titanic as a child. I imagine Sturgeon stayed in boarding houses and meeting countless interesting people. All, grist for the mill of writing.

I also remember boarding houses from television shows in the 1950s. The rooms at my grandmother’s apartment building were very much like the rooms described in “The Other Celia.” We lived in Miami, and my grandmother’s building was on Eighth Avenue, which is now part of Little Havana. The Miami of the 1950s was far different than the Miami of today. The rooms were warm and musty, without air conditioning. The hallways and stairs were covered with ancient carpets that deaden sound. And all the inhabitants were old. There were transoms above the doors, and residents cranked their windows open wide to let in the breezes. The occupants had basic furnishings, few clothes, lots of photos and knickknacks, and little else. The rooms were mostly filled with memories and solitary people. Today, our everyday lives are crammed with junk, so I doubt young people can imagine how the boarding house people of “The Other Celia” lived back then with so little.

All those memories came back while I read Sturgeon’s story. I’m not going to talk much about the story because I don’t want to spoil it. I thought for sure Sturgeon had painted himself into a corner that he couldn’t get out of but does. I loved the story for the setting and characterization. They are very real. Sturgeon’s solution is fantastic and unreal, and only amusing because it reminds me of the popularity of such wild beliefs back then.

I can’t help but wonder if people who lived in 1950s boarding houses, or old apartment buildings like the one my grandmother managed, read magazines like Galaxy and F&SF? Or only weird kids like me, who became crap artists. I was in high school before I met another science fiction fan. SF readers were rare. Did normal folks back then think about the future or aliens or the supernatural? As I got a little older, I remember chattering away about science fictional stories and concepts. I’m sure the old folks at my grandmother’s apartment thought I was one strange little man.

“The Other Celia” is not really a science fiction story as I think of science fiction today, yet its two citations in CSFquery were One Hundred Years of Science Fiction (1968) edited by Damon Knight and Modern Classics of Science Fiction (1992) edited by Gardner Dozois. The story has been frequently reprinted, lastly in 2023, in the anthology Atomic Werewolves and Man-Eating Plants: When Men’s Adventure Magazines Got Weird. That’s another clue in describing how 1957 was different from today, and how science fiction was different too. Those men’s magazines of the 1950s and 1960s were another strange subculture and model of reality. If you want to get closer to what I’m getting at read Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick. It’s a mainstream novel PKD wrote in 1959, and my favorite of all his novels. To me, it captures the 1950s I remember.

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I don’t know why “The Other Celia” was published in Galaxy when it should have been in The Magazines of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Back in the 1950s people were still reading old books and paperbacks by Charles Fort. “The Other Celia” is a Fortean tale. My uncles loved to talk about woo-woo shit like that. The 1950s were when the uneducated found transcendence in UFOs, Edgar Cayce, and Bridey Murphy.

Although, “The Other Celia” isn’t about the future, space travel, robots, it might be about aliens, and it might not. I highly recommend taking the time to read this story. The issue of Galaxy that it’s in, is online, in case you want the whole context.

Theodore Sturgeon does a beautiful job of sucking the reader into a strange mystery by describing the habits of a peculiar character, Slim Walsh. Walsh is a nosy guy, the kind who checks out the medicine cabinet when he uses other people’s bathrooms. He sneaks into other people’s rooms at the rooming house when they are gone. Not to steal, but to just see the secret side of how other people live. The story is about him discovering the very strange lifestyle of Celia Barton.

What’s great about this story is the writing. Sturgeon slowly mesmerizes us with savory details. I would have loved the story even if it didn’t have its fantastic element. “The Other Celia” could have been a literary story, but it didn’t go in that direction. As the story unfolded, I kept wondering where Sturgeon was going to take us. His story was so down to earth that I couldn’t imagine it turning into science fiction or fantasy. Yet, it does, eventually arriving smack dab in Rod Sterling’s territory. “The Other Celia” would have made a classic episode of The Twilight Zone; one Charles Beaumont could have written. Or it could have been a comic strip illustrated by Gahan Wilson or Charles Adams.

“The Other Celia” is a delightful story to begin our group reading of the best science fiction of 1957, not because it’s great science fiction, but because it’s a well-written work by a consummate crap artist. That’s another thing young people today don’t understand. Being a science fiction fan back then made you an outcast, a weirdo, a nerd, a zero. But stories like “The Other Celia” appealed to a certain kind of person, people who loved to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965) or read EC Comics.

I’m not surprised that Dikty, Merril, nor Asimov and Greenberg left “The Other Celia” out of their anthologies. Yet, it works perfectly for my contention that 1957 was so much different from today. Everyday life in America keeps mutating and transforming. I want the group reading all these 1957 sci-fi stories to help us remember the strange world of science fiction fans back then. But try to reverse the view. Just imagine what the people of 1957 would think about 2024 if we could send a 65″ HDTV to them and let them watch Netflix, Max, Apple TV, and Hulu. We’d scare the bejeezus out of them. They’d think The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch a reasonably normal picture of reality.

We now live in a time when almost everyone is a crap artist, of one kind or another.

Just think of all the speculative theories people of 1957 would produce to understand how America turned into what they see in our 2024 television shows. What I want to do is speculate about what life was like in 1957 from reading twenty science fiction stories from that year. It could explain a lot about how we arrived at this present. It’s stranger than The Twilight Zone.

James Wallace Harris, 3/11/24

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