Jan 1, 2018

Fictional Chemistry

Original cover art by Walter Popp
Theodore Sturgeon was born in 1918, so I'm starting my 2018 retro-reading with his 1953 science fiction story, "The Wages of Synergy". You can download the August 1953 issue of Startling Stories from this webpage.

The hook
"The Wages of Synergy" begins with a woman who is trying to not make too much noise while having sex. She is just "she", but Sturgeon tells us that the guy is Karl. Poor Karl dies and becomes a dead weight that "she" throws off. "She" runs in horror from dead Karl, leaves the hotel, slinks off into the city. The teaser above the story tells us "Prue had a fatal fascination for important men..." Ya, "she" is Prue.

Dr. Killilea is a chemist with a conscience. He worked long and hard in the laboratory, struggling against nature and obsessively trying to reveal the mysterious hidden biochemical details of sexual climax. Then, with his elusive goal finally in sight: ruin. Realizing that his research was leading to a secret too potent for mere mortals (discovery of a molecule that is "the most ghastly substance this earth has ever known"), Dr. Killilea abandoned his work.

interior artwork for "The Wages of Synergy"
And even worse than the loss of his career, Dr. Killilea also lost the love of his life, Miss Prue. Now he sits in bars, drinking, and waiting for dear Miss Prue to walk into his gin joint.

Eventually we learn that Miss Prue is Dr. Killilea's wife. She is avoiding Killilea ("Killy") because she now believes that she is lethal and Killilea would die from "the love death" if she went back home to live with Killilea.

Original cover art by Edward Valigursky
and Edmund Emshwiller.
Pregnant with Possibility
A story about how Prue is desperately avoiding her husband (Killy) might actually make sense if Prue had been bioengineered to cause her body to produce some chemical (a potent inhibitor of a neurotransmitter receptor in the brain stem) that will kill any man who Prue comes in contact with during sex. But, sadly, that's not the story. I like to imagine that this was the story when the analogue of Sturgeon wrote science fiction in the Ekcolir Reality.

La petite mort
Dr. Killilea's area of scientific expertise is steroid hormone chemistry. The only steroid hormone mentioned by name in the story is progesterone, but, sadly, the story is not really about progesterone. Killy became so engrossed in his chemistry research that he ignored Prue, so Prue left him.

The dastardly hypogun!
After Prue ran off, Killilea awoke from his obsessive scientific pursuit and realized the great danger that could come from his chemistry work, so he gave it up. At the point in time where "The Wages of Synergy" begins, Killilea has spent the past 18 months searching for Prue. He finds her soon after the death of Karl, a famous writer. According to reports in the newspapers, Karl died of heart failure, but Prue insists that she killed him.

And Prue insists that Karl was only the most recent dude to die in her bed. Four months earlier she had killed Roger Landey, a famous philosophy professor. And before that, a round little man who she calls "Koala". So, in order to return to wedded bliss with Prue, Dr. Killilea must prove (scientifically) that he will not die the next time that they have sex together.

Now wearing his private investigator hat, Killilea investigates the cuddly "Koala" and learns that he was actually the crafty Pretorio, a famous scientist who had been the head of the Ethical Science Board. Also, Karl Monck and Landey had both been members of the ES Board before their deaths. The plot thickens!

prize-winning biochemist in an alternate Reality
I'm a sucker for any Sci Fi story that dabbles in biochemistry, but some topics should probably be left for trained scientists such as Isaac Asimov. Sturgeon was a high school dropout, and nobody should expect him to have anything coherent to say about hormones and their role in the human body.

Daddy Issue
Sturgeon's father was a business man, and inserted into "The Wages of Synergy" and even into the Ethical Science Board is a rich business man who enjoys using his money to control and manipulate people. Our hero, the nerdy "Killy" is tempted to punch this slimy business man in the nose, but the prudent Prue restrains Killy and it is discovered that the rich dirty dealing murderous business man isn't such a bad guy after all. Right.

"the most ghastly substance
this earth has ever known
in the Ekcolir Reality
Original cover by Rudolph Belarski.
Sturgeon's Law
Right in the middle of "The Wages of Synergy", Sturgeon has a character (Dr. Egmont) say, "...four-fifths of the stories in science fiction magazines are anti-scienctific." Egmont believes that with the deaths of Pretorio, Monck and Landey the Ethical Science Board has been crippled, destroying the world's best chance of developing a way to systematically judge the consequences of new scientific advances on Humanity. Without a functioning Ethical Science Board, the anti-science forces will soon dominate the world!

Suddenly, Killilea realizes that someone else completed his chemistry work and is now using "the most ghastly substance this earth has ever known" to kill important men like Monck and Landey. But Killilea is baffled: who could have completed his chemistry work? He had always worked alone, and he is certain that he had been working VERY far off the beaten path (as any good Sci Fi scientist should, right?) on matters that nobody else should have been able to duplicate.
1976: peak orgasm (data from the Ngram Viewer)

November 1934 Astounding Stories
"The Wages of Synergy" reminds me of a story called "The Hormone" by Milton Kaletsky. In turn, "The Hormone" reminds me of the Star Trek episode "Wink of an Eye" in which Scalosians are "accelerated" and moving much faster than humans. In "The Hormone", an Earthly scientist isolates the hormone "cortin" from the adrenal gland and uses it to "accelerate" himself.

illustration for "The Hormone"
by Marco Marchioni
Ted Sturgeon would have been in his own personal "golden age" of science fiction right when "The Hormone" was published in 1934.

That 1934 issue of Astounding is notable for several reasons, particularly in that it has the story "Twilight", which influenced Arthur C. Clark with its look into the far future of Humanity.

It is also amusing that part of Ed Smith's Skylark Saga is in this issue of Astounding. Smith began the Skylark stories in 1928 with the casual discovery of a nuclear power source and the quick invention of interstellar spaceship in the hero's workshop. In "The Hormone", the versatile Dr. Arnold Breve (shown in the image to the left), now working as an endocrinologist (after having already found a cure for polio), isolates the hormone cortin and begins experimenting with it by injecting large amounts into his own body. What could go wrong? Dr. Breve finds his life processes vastly accelerated and he quickly dies of old age.

The progesterone death!
Detective Killy
In "The Wages of Synergy", Dr. Killilea, the nerdy scientist, must quickly change careers and become a private investigator. Who could possibly have gone ahead and completed the chemical work that Killilea began and abandoned?

Sturgeon's description of the "most ghastly substance this earth has ever known" makes it sound like a chemical inhibitor of orgasm. Killilea realizes that the inhibitor is able to alter the function of the brain stem, triggering heart failure.

Look at the black-and-white image above from "The Hormone". The fancy glass-work looks like some kind of Urey-Muller apparatus. Fancy glass-work is the secret to the mystery of who completed Dr. Killilea's little chemistry project. You'll have to read the story to learn Sturgeon's solution to the mystery.

In the Ekcolir Reality: Progesterone Planet.
Sad to say, you might not enjoy Sturgeon's "solution" to the mystery. I've never been a fan of conventional mystery stories, particularly those that involve an "evil" mastermind who is vastly more clever than everyone else, but who can be brought down because of his overly-complex schemes.

"...some works, such as Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel, foreground the way in which they participate in multiple genres simultaneously." -Brian S. Matzke

In 1953, Isaac Asimov published his Sci Fi mystery, "The Caves of Steel". Science fiction fans are likely to know Asimov's famous characters from that story such as the robot Daneel. When Asimov wanted to create a science fiction murder mystery, he wrote a story about robots. When Sturgeon wrote "The Wages of Synergy" he crafted a murder mystery about death by orgasm.

If only Nixon could go to China, I suppose Sturgeon may have been the only Sci Fi writer who could write about death by orgasm in 1953.

However, things were changing. In 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was published.

Chemical Castration
One of the strangest parts of "The Wages of Synergy" is when a non-scientist character in the story decides to take control of the hero's behavior by injecting him with some progesterone. The amount injected must be tiny, but we are assured that it will inhibit the hero from having sex with his wife.

This brings to mind the attempted "chemical castration" of Alan Turing, and his conviction for "gross indecency" which was finally over-turned by an amnesty in 2017.

Double fun the Ekcolir Reality.
There are progesterone receptors in the brain, but the idea that a tiny amount of progesterone could inhibit male sexual behavior for a week (as described in Sturgeon's fiction) is absurd.

So, if science fiction fans are not going to get anything but absurd fantasy science in "The Wages of Synergy", what is the attraction? Right in the middle of the story, the Startling Stories editor inserted a blurb, praising the story for giving readers more than just cardboard characters who get moved around willy-nilly. I understand what this means, but I don't agree that Sturgeon avoided willy-nilliness in this story.
and now, a word from our sponsor editor....
Lost in Space
It is a common trick of writers to start in the middle of a story, without telling readers anything about the setting. The reader has to solve a little puzzle: where am I? In "The Wages of Synergy", Sturgeon avoids telling us anything about where the story takes place.

Yes, there are some vague clues: we are in an unnamed land where someone speaking British English is recognized instantly as a foreigner. We are in an unnamed city with no streets, but anyone in town can quickly get across town when the plot calls for it.

The center of the universe: Rudy's.
There are many drinking holes in this city, places where Killy spends 18 months searching for his wife. One of these, Rudy's, is the Nexus of the Universe. Rudy's has a teleporter in the back office, so anyone who is needed on stage in the next scene can appear just when they are needed.

No cardboard characters
in the Ekcolir Reality.
Original cover art by Earle Bergey
and ? (see this)
Rudy's is where all the Superscientists hang out. Everyone knows this except Killy, because he's just a socially inept nerd who never joined the cool kid's club, the Ethical Science Board. Prue knows that Rudy's is the place to go if you want to meet and seduce more Superscientists.

The only problem with Rudy's is that Jules Croy hangs out there. Nobody likes Croy. His only distinguishing feature is that he has lots of money. Prue does not like Croy. Egmont really does not like Croy and calls him a "damned jackal, a corpse-eater". So when Egmont sees Killy speaking to Croy at Rudy's, Egmont immediately decides that Killy is also a skunk.

However, Killy is able to make Egmont calm down and soon it is revealed that Croy is the obvious suspect in this murder mystery. Except, how could a non-scientist like Croy ever have made the deadly drug that kills men who have an orgasm?

Croy describes himself as having been diagnosed with "Haroun al-Raschid pattern", meaning that he likes to secretly spend and invest his money just to create drama and intrigue. He got more than he expected and ended up helping an "evil" mastermind commit murder.
H. L. Gold in Galaxy, Jan. 1952

A sequel in the Ekcolir Reality
original cover art by Rudolph Belarski
H-bombs get mention in "The Wages of Synergy" among several discussions of morals and ethics, but we never learn why the "evil" mastermind was playing around with the hormonal love death. We get a casual suggestion of "maybe he snapped". I get the feeling that Sturgeon was writing to specifications, and when he reached the word limit, he stopped writing.

Beyond the silly pseudo-endocrinology, running through "The Wages of Synergy" is the romance between Killy and Prue, which takes us back to the teaser at the top of the story. "Prue had a fatal fascination for important men..." She ends up in bed with Killilea, Pretorio, Monck and Landey because from her perspective they are all similar men: her type of guy.

Still, we must wonder why it took a third man dying in her bed before Prue finally noticed that something was amiss and decided she should curb her obsessive odyssey of sleeping her way through the ranks of the Ethical Science Board.

"The Wages of Synergy" is about obsessive people who single-mindedly pursue their muses. In the end, the "evil" mastermind dies, injected with the poison he had intended to use to kill Killy. The ending suggests that Killy and Prue survive their personal obsessions and live together happily ever after.

I put evil in quotes because Sturgeon suggests that it is really only the synergy of everyone's individual obsessions in "The Wages of Synergy" that creates a problem.

I feel like there should be a sequel to "The Wages of Synergy"... does obsession ever really end? What new mischief can Killy and Prue get into?
by Telly Sturgeon

Related reading:
- my comments on Sturgeon's short stories "The Perfect Host" and 'Rule of Three'
- commentary about Theodore Sturgeon's short stories by Lahna F. Diskin
- more commentary on "The Wages of Synergy" without the progesterone
- Sturgeon's 1954 story "The Golden Helix"
Next: The X-Files Season 11, Episode 1
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