Christopher Stasheff, the Soothsayer in Spite of Himself

In a recent post on the Essential Authors of SF, more than one reader asks why I did not include Christopher Stasheff on the list of authors who, if one has not read, one cannot boast oneself a well read SF fan.

My answer is that I artificially limited myself to fifty authors, lest the list grow beyond all bounds, and I that listed authors by their influence in the field. In my judgment Mr Stasheff did not exert any more influence on the field than, say, Sterling E Lanier or Jack L Chalker or Lyndon Hardy. All these men are fine writers, and put out a workmanlike product, but I would not rank them in the highest echelon of writers who, if you have not read at least once, you cannot call yourself a true SF fan.

Having said that, let me mention a personal reason why I admire the work of Christopher Stasheff. He has a special place in my heart for exactly one scene in THE WARLOCK UNLOCKED. I remember this scene for a reason that will seem absurd to most of you.

It was the only scene that ever told me the facts of life without lying to me about it.

It is a scene where a priest comes across a nymph by the water side.

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet (thanks, Al Gore!) I can print it word for word:

‘Well met by moonlight, handsome stranger.”

She rose up out of the water, dark hair shimmering over her shoulders to cloak her breasts—and that was all that did. Her eyes were large, and slanted; her nose was small, but her mouth was wide, with full, red lips, and her skin was very pale. “How fortunate am I,” she purred, “that hath found a gentleman to company me.” She waded toward him, up out of the water. As she rose, watercress draped itself about her hips in a token tribute of modesty. Father Al managed to wrench his gaze back to her face, feeling the responses in his body that reminded him that priests are human, too. He swallowed thickly, turned his lips inward to wet them, and muttered. “Greetings, Lady of the Waters.”

“No lady I,” she murmured, “but a wanton, eager to do the bidding of a mortal man.” She twined her arms about his neck and pressed up against him.

It ran counter to every demand his body screamed, but Father Al pulled her arms loose, gently but firmly, and pressed her hands together in front of his chest, forcing her body away from his. She stared at him in surprise. “How now! Do not deny that thou dost want me!”

“I do,” Father Al admitted, “but ‘twould be wrongful.” He glanced down at her fingers, and noticed the tiny, vestigial webs between them.

“Wrongful, because thou art a mortal, and I a nymph?” She laughed, revealing small, perfect, very white teeth. “Come, now! It hath been often done, and always to the man’s delight!”

Delight, yes—but Father Al remembered some old tales, of how a water-maid’s seduction had led to death—or, failing that, to a steadily-worsening despair that had surely torn apart the mortal lover’s soul. He clung to the memory to give him strength, and explained, “It must not be—and the fact that I am human and you are not has little enough to do with it; for see you, lass, if thou dost give out favors of thy body where thou art lusted for, but are not loved, thou dost break thine own integrity.”

“Integrity?” She smiled, amused. “ ‘Tis a word for mortals, not for faery folk.”

“Not so,” Father Al said sternly, “for the word means ‘wholeness,’ the wholeness of thy soul.”

She laughed, a dazzling cascade of sound. “Surely thou dost jest! The faery folk have no immortal souls!”

“Personalities, then.” Father Al was miffed at himself for having forgotten. “Identity. The sum and total of thyself, that which makes thee different, unique, special—not quite like any other water-nymph that ever was.”

She lost her smile. “I think thou dost not jest.”

“Indeed, I do not. Thy identity, lass, thy true self, hidden away and known only to thyself, is what thou really art. ‘Tis founded on those few principles that thou dost truly and most deeply believe in—those beliefs which, when manners and graces and fashions of behaving are all stripped away, do still remain, at the bottom and foundation of thy self.”

“Why, then,” she smiled, “I am a wanton; for in my deepest self, my chiefest principle is pleasure sexual.” And she tried to twine her arms about his neck again.

Well, Father Al had heard that one before, and not just from aquatic women, either. He held her hands firmly, and held her gaze, looking deeply into her eyes. “ ‘Tis an excuse, I trow, and will not serve. Some male hath wronged thee deeply, when thou wast young and tender. Thou didst open thy heart to him, letting him taste thy secret self, and didst therefore open, too, thy body, for it seemed fully natural that the one should follow the other.”

She stared at him, shocked, then suddenly twisted, trying to yank herself free. “I’ll not hear thee more!”

“Assuredly, thou wilt,” he said sternly, holding her wrists fast, “for this young swain, when he had had his fill of thee, tore himself away, and tore a part of thy secret self with him. Then went he on his merry way, whistling, and sneering at thee—and thou wast lost in sorrow and in pain, for he had ripped away a part of thine inner self that never could be brought and mended back.”

“Mortal,” she fairly shrieked, “art thou crazed? I am a nymph!”

Father Al had heard that one before, too. “It matters not. There was never a thinking creature made to tear her secret self to bits, and toss the pieces out to passers-by; thus thou wouldst slowly shred thy secret self away, till nought was left, and thou didst not truly exist—only a walking shell would then be left. And this doth happen whenever thou dost open thy body to one who loves thee not, and whom thou dost not love. That breaks the wholeness of thy secret self, for we are made in such a wise that our inner selves and bodies are joined as one, and when the one doth open, the other should. So if thou dost open thy body while keeping thy secret self enclosed, thou dost break the wholeness of thy self.”

“A thousand times have I so done,” she sneered, “yet I am whole within!”

“Nay, thou’it not. Each time, a tiny piece of thee hast gone, though thou didst strive to know it not.”

“Nay, not so—for ‘tis my nature to give my body and retain my self untouched! I am a nymph!”

“This is a thin excuse that thou didst first concoct, when first thy secret self was torn. Thou then didst say, ‘It matters not; I am untouched. This is my nature, to give of my body and not of my soul; mine only true desire is pleasure.’ And to prove it to thyself, thou didst seek to couple with every male that happened by—yet each time, thou wast more torn, and didst need to prove it more—so thou didst seek out more to pleasure thee, quite frantically—though in thy depths, thou knew it pleasured thee not at all. For in truth, ‘twas only an excuse.”

“And what of thee?” she demanded angrily. “Why dost thou rant thus at me? Why dost thou make me stay to listen, when I would turn away? Is not this thine own excuse, for the hot lust that doth throb within thee at the sight of me?”

Touché, Father Al thought. “It is indeed. Yet hath mine excuse done harm to thee? Or me?”

She frowned prettily, searching his eyes. “Nay…none to me. Yet I think that it doth harm to thee—for what is natural to thyself would be to grapple me, and couple here in wildness and in frenzy.”

‘Thou dost read me shrewdly,” Father Al admitted. “Yet though ‘tis ‘natural,’ lass, it is not right—for thereby would a part of me be ripped away, even as a part of thee would.” He sighed. “It is a male conceit that a woman’s self may be rended by a one-night’s coupling, while the man’s is not—but ‘tis only a conceit. We, too, are made all of one piece, body and soul so shrewdly welded together that we cannot give of the one without giving of the other. And we, too, can be rended by a first coupling with a one who loves us not, and may seek to deny that hurt by seeking to lie with every maid we may. Thus is the legend born of prowess male, and many a young man’s soul is rended by the promiscuity that comes of thus attempting to prove himself a legend”—which is to say, a ghost. But if young men would speak the truth, they would own that there is little enough pleasure in it—for loveless coupling, at the moment when pleasure should transform itself to ecstasy, truly turns itself to ashes, and the taste of gall.”

“I think,” she said slowly, “that thou dost speak from hurt that thou hast known.”

He smiled ruefully. “All young men commit the same mistakes; all step upon the brush that covers o’er the pitfall, no matter how loudly their seniors blare the warnings in their ears. I was once young; and I was not always of the Cloth.”

Her eyes widened in horror. She leaped back, looking him up and down in one quick glance, and pressed her hands to her mouth. “Thou art a monk!”

This is from what seems to be a pirate site:

This is the first and only scene I ever read in any book in my youth — and I read a myriad of books, sometimes two a day — which told me the truth about sex.

To understand why this scene impressed itself so deeply in my memory (I recalled the basic outline of the conversation four decades later) let me first reveal an unsightly personal bitterness and anger against another author, namely, Robert Heinlein.

Heinlein told me that anything any two or more people of either sex and their dog did in the privacy of their own bedroom, or on the rooftop in view of the neighbor’s kids, was licit, and that the only illicit act in the universe was to express disapproval of the customs of others.

To disapprove of indecent customs was the only sin. Heinlein used the example of cannibalism in STRANGER IN A STRANGE land by doing a ‘Dan Quayle’ the one man decent enough to object to it — that is, he does not discuss the issue, the author merely has the decent man portrayed as a fool and bigot. Heinlein also used the example of an orgy with another man’s wife and daughters in GLORY ROAD and polygamy in THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. In each case, the topic was not discussed, merely Danquayled (if I may coin the term) by having the characters on the side of decency be either innocent fools or stubborn fools. The point was made again in SPACE CADET by showing the contrast between human and Venusian customs, and again in BETWEEN PLANETS and again in PODKAYNE OF MARS.

In no case was the cost of obedience to the customs of strangers mentioned: no heroine was asked to honor the Bedouin custom of veiling women, for example. “When in Rome, do as the Romans” was the whole of the law, but no character is ever shown bowing to the Pope in Rome, which is what Romans do.

Heinlein is not the only one. Ayn Rand, along similar lines, told me and taught me that whatever two people wish to do in the privacy of their bedroom is licit, provided only that each is the manifestation of the highest values of the other, and that their heroic love is true. Marriage is treated as an inconvenience: John Galt not only poaches Dagny from Reardon (and from Frisco D’Anconia), he has the gall to tell him that it is rational for him to like it.

And I believed them.

These authors, and countless others, preached this gospel of self-indulgence to me, and I believed them. Of course, my youthful heat and innate selfishness made me want to believe them, and so I do not blame them for my gullibility. That fault is mine.

But I do blame them for lying to a child. That fault is theirs.

So Christopher Stasheff stands out in my memory as the one man in a world of liars who was kind enough to tell the child the truth. He is, whether he meant to be or not, a soothsayer.

Many, many years would pass, and I would be a father with children, before I realized how I had been lied to. During all those years, that one scene by Stasheff clung in my memory, shockingly nonconformist, bizarre in how unusual it was.

The scene was so startling to me because the monk character promoting chastity is not the Nehemiah Scudder type monstrosity nor the Foster type huckster that all other men of the cloth were portrayed to be in all other books and stories (with the lonely exceptions of Friar Tuck and Aramis the Musketeer). It was also the first time I had ever heard anyone, anywhere, utter any argument of any kind in favor of chastity. The argument against chastity which I heard repeated ad nauseam  was nothing but ad hominem — namely, the unsupported assertion that the motive of those who promoted chastity was either fear of sex or lust to oppress women.

To me, the scene was as startling as INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE must have seemed when it first appeared. The writer was daring enough to portray the dark monster of a thousand tales of nightmare, i.e. a priest, as a good guy. How odd. How original.

Ironically, I did not know the end of the story.

A reader with the vinous name of Dionysus writes:

I doubt I’d have read much science fiction without the influence of Stasheff. He goes way back to–1969–and has continued to be popular into the 21st century. What is more, I think that his popularity helped to put Harold Shea back on the map for many later readers. Also, he is one of the few writers I can think of that openly includes Catholic characters in the far future. He’s also a literate author who brings the Medieval and Renaissance periods alive in a way far superior to the likes of Anderson, Miller, Herbert, and in some ways, even Wolfe. These latter authors give us the Middle Ages and Renaissance as we moderns see those ages (IMO influenced a great deal by Howard and Burroughs); however, Stasheff presents them like the educated of the Middle Ages (especially late-Middle Ages) and the Renaissance would have understood them. That’s important because science fiction can find its origins in those ages. However, I will not labor the argument. I just figured that if Alan Moore is on there, Stasheff should certainly be.

I would say Mike Flynn in Eifelheim pulls off the act of presenting the Middle Ages as an educated medieval would have seen them.

Naturally, as a Roman Catholic myself, I should promote any works that portray the Church in a good light, and throw business toward my follow RC author, and, as a guy who works daily on a computer, I should pray to St. Vidicon of Cathode. (He was martyred in AD 2020 when he was electrocuted in order to keep the Vatican broadcast equipment working so that Pope Clement could send his message to the world.)

Also, had I known that Stasheff collaborated with L Sprague de Camp on the later Harold Shea books, he might have made my list of top fifty essential authors: but, alas, he is not more highly ranked in SF history than de Camp himself, not to mention Murray Leinster or Peirs Anthony or Orson Scott Card or Stanislaw Lem or James Blish or Andre Norton or Bertram Chandler or Brian Aldiss or Harry Harrison or Frederik Pohl or Spider Robinson or George RR Martin (whose excellent SF is overlooked now due to the success of his fantasy) or Somtow Sucharitkul or James White or Connie Willis.

Please read and support my work on Patreon!