Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Theodore Sturgeon's "What Dead Men Tell" (novelette, puzzle, free): Need to pass test to join immortality brigade

Illustration accompanying the original publication in Astounding Science Fiction of short story What Dead Men Tell by Theodore Sturgeon
I've mixed feelings about the works of Sturgeon: while he's given a couple of superb stories for grown ups ("More Than Human", "Microcosmic God" (download comic book adaptation)), most of his work seems to be adventures targeted at 12 year olds: "It!" (download comic book adaptation), "Killdozer" (download text as part of a  larger package), this story ... I could name a half dozen others if I looked up my notes. Nothing wrong with writing for young audiences, only it's difficult to figure out the target profile without actually reading the story!
Note: Original short story version of "More Than Human", "Baby is Three", is also online as part of one of the magazine scans I've linked in the past (I've personally read only the novel version).

Central idea here is a variant of the ancient Sanskrit story of the enchanted pool from Mahabharat: someone vastly more powerful is going to kill the protagonist unless he "correctly" answers certain questions, mostly of a moral nature. In this story, moral questions are mixed with some physics & mathematics questions too.

Story summary.

A group of responsible immortals are out recruiting, & Hulon looks like a likely candidate. So they approach him with the offer: if he passes a test, he joins their ranks; else he'll be killed because he will know too much.

Test comprises lonely walk through a tunnel with curious topological & gravitational properties. Death awaits him here, & when he thinks he's conquered it, he will be asked certain questions that he must correctly answer.


  1. "What is basic is important.

    What is basic is simple.

    So what is complicated isn't important. It might be interesting or exciting--it might even be necessary to something else that's complicated--but it's not important."
  2. "People think if it's bigger, it's better. They think if a little is good, a lot has just got to be wonderful. They can see the sense of balance in a diet or in bridge, but they stop too easily at things like that, & don't try to balance enough other things. Or enough other kinds of things".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astounding, November 1949.
Download full text as part of the scans of Astounding issue it originally appeared in.
Rating: B.
Among the stories from Analog/Astounding issues edited by John Campbell.
Related: Stories of Theodore Sturgeon; immortality fiction.