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GODBODY by Theodore Sturgeon (Donald I. Fine: $14.95; Limited Collector's Edition, $50; 156 pp.)

April 13, 1986|Ben Bova | Bova, former editor of Analog and Omni magazines, is the author of more than 67 books. His latest novel is "Voyagers II: The Alien Within." and

If Ted Sturgeon were to paraphrase Harlan Ellison's famous line, it would come out, "Sex ain't nothing but love misspelled."

"Godbody" is Theodore Sturgeon's last testament to his readers. Like all his other works, the theme of this short novel is human love.

Sturgeon was well beloved within the science-fiction community. His work stood out from all the rest, partly because so much of it was set not in the distant future on some faraway planet, but here and now, on the Earth, peopled by very real, and very human, human beings.

His best-known work, and perhaps his best, was "More Than Human" (1953), which dealt with a superior being consisting of several humans who can link their minds telepathically to become the first "homogestalt."

For more than five decades, right down to his death in 1985 at age 67, Sturgeon wrote stories that explored the various kinds of relationships that human beings can undertake with one another. Inevitably, his stories dealt with various forms of human love. Inexorably, his final story deals with three forms of this emotion: sexual love, love of life and love of God.

"Godbody" is nothing less than an attempt to retell the fundamental myth of Christ: God in a human body, showing the way to benighted people, being killed, and rising from the dead. It is no more science fiction than the Gospel according to St. Luke. That will not deter Sturgeon's legions of science-fiction followers; they have come to expect Sturgeon's stories to be uniquely Sturgeon, not standard science fiction.

Would a reader who is not interested in science fiction, who does not know of Sturgeon's place in the field, enjoy "Godbody"? Certainly. This story contains the kind of tale we all want to believe in, written in a relaxed naturalistic style that makes the miraculous seem quite plausible.

Will "Godbody" take its place as the capstone to Sturgeon's long career? Probably not. When the sentiment engendered by his death fades away, this slim novel will be seen as a good first draft, perhaps a very good first draft, of what could have been a truly beautiful novel if only the author had lived to finish the task.

The flaws in "Godbody" are not in what Sturgeon has written, but in what he did not have the chance to write. The story is too slim, too lacking in conflict, and worst of all, too predictable. Once the reader realizes this is a retelling of the Christ mythos, all suspense evaporates. Had Sturgeon lived to polish this draft, undoubtedly he would have strengthened the basic plot, added depth and brought in more characters, pulled a few surprises that would keep the reader guessing--and turning pages.

For once a writer begins dealing with God, the ordinary worries about human strivings pale into pettiness. In the face of resurrection, even death loses its sting.

Then there is the matter of sex and its relation to love and religion. Psychologists claim that as people age, their thoughts turn increasingly to religion and sex. Sturgeon makes a major point of his idea that organized religion has turned normal human sexual desires into a guilt trip for the express purpose of forcing people to support their church.

"It was Paul . . . who put the onus on sex, not Jesus," says Sturgeon's minister in his farewell sermon at the height of the story. "And it was a whole series of his (Paul's) successors who set up controls on the two most powerful motivations we have--to procreate and to worship." They did this, says Rev. Currier, to "control the worldly aspects of church organization--money and power. . . ."

Sturgeon is trying to tell us that Christ's basic prescription, that we should love one another, is meant to be taken in every aspect of the verb, including sexual love.

Yet, the sex in "Godbody" is rather distant from reality. In this age of feminism and equal opportunity, Sturgeon writes strictly from the male point of view. His sex scenes are concerned with erections and penetrations. The women always are not merely willing, but fully lubricated even without foreplay. There is no thought about the most important consequence of sex--children. In fact, none of the joyous couples in this story have children to worry about.

Several decades ago, Kurt Vonnegut pointed out that one of the troubles with science fiction as a literature is that its characters all behave like teen-agers. Sturgeon is on the edge of this trap in "Godbody." He repeatedly says that sex without love is mean and debasing, but with love, it is spiritual and fulfilling. He tells us that it is guilt that makes us angry, fearful and less than human.

But there is a big difference between an author's telling things like this to the reader, and the reader learning them by watching the author's characters living out their lives. That is the difference between good writing and great writing. Unfortunately, Sturgeon did not have the time to make this book a great piece of writing.

Still, it is the last piece of Sturgeon's work that any of us will see. As unfinished as Michelangelo's final sculptures, it is a sweet and gentle tale told by a sweet and gentle man.

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