“Bulkhead,” Theodore Sturgeon, 1955

“Bulkhead,” Theodore Sturgeon, 1955 – A cadet and captain-in-training endures an extended “test run” simulation in a facsimile of a typical ship.  He’s been told that if he presses a button, he can communicate with another cadet, but he resists the temptation to need human contact due to pride.  When he finally presses the button, he finds that a young boy (Skampi) has been sealed inside the bulkhead.  Skampi is miserably lonely, crying, and the cadet is disgusted.  Worse, an irrational fury seizes him when the boy asks to learn more about piloting.  He assumes that the boy is the real candidate and that his role is to train him.  He assembles a diamond-tipped drill to get through the bulkhead and to the boy, with the intent of murdering him.  Slowly, he regains control of his emotions, feels pity for the boy, so pathetic, trapped.  He resolves to teach the boy, despite his reservations.

When the run is complete, months (?) later, the psychodynamics (PD) men explain that the bulkhead was empty.  They reveal that every cadet has his childhood memories suppressed through hypnosis.  The boy in the bulkhead was a version of himself in his youth–weak, pathetic, bullied–with whom he needed to empathize, to prevent childish behavior and unresolved issues from childhood from appearing under the stress and isolation of space travel.  While the cadet seems to accept this explanation, he also earnestly asks after the situation of the boy.  He’d like to be reassigned with the boy on his next mission, he explains. It’s implied that PD has intentionally made him into a schitzophrenic in order to better suit him for space travel.  In the closing lines, he takes his inner child out for ice cream.

Comments: The opening contains an extended musing on loneliness and the act of reflection on the distant past. Themes of psychology, spacers, empathy, madness, split personality, utility/function.  Read in The Best of the Best, ed. Merril.

Author: Wikipedia: “Theodore Sturgeon (born Edward Hamilton Waldo; February 26, 1918 – May 8, 1985) was an American science fiction and horror author…In 1951, Sturgeon coined what is now known as Sturgeon’s Law: ‘Ninety percent of [science fiction] is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.’…Sturgeon was a distant relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson.”


About jennre

Lifelong sf fan, first-time blogger
This entry was posted in 1946-1959, astronauts, dreams/hypnosis, emotions/intimacy/empathy, love/family/children, masculinity, memory, paranoia/schitzophrenia, psych/mind/madness, space exploration, the Other. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “Bulkhead,” Theodore Sturgeon, 1955

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    I just read this one… My favorite Sturgeon novel so far without a doubt.

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      *short story, not novel, oops.

      Yeah, one wonders how much editors added with an author of the stature of Sturgeon. I suspect he had more leeway than others, that’s for sure.

  2. jennre says:

    I agree–a rich text with modern relevance, and a pleasure to read…although I thought the style he adopted at the end felt rushed (?) or out of sync with the rest of the story. I wonder if he didn’t know how to finish it or if the editor suggested the ending.

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