More than Human by Sturgeon, Theodore, 1953
Written masterpieces of SF come in many forms other than action oriented stories such as Ender's Game and Ringworld. That is certainly to say, action is not always where its at. In my opinion SF is one of the best genres to frame discussions about society and humanity, especially what they are or where they are going. SF tends to view those very important issues in the context of extremes. I think that this is the reason why many so called "mainstream" critics tend to laugh-off the genre as something flawed and not worthy of serious study. That and the fact that SF frequently involves something other than human in some main character role. But to me, those are its unique strengths. Lots of the books I am going to review here are what I consider to be masterpieces of the genre. More than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon is a stark and sometimes confusing examination of otherness, but I consider it to be one of the top 200 SF books ever written.
Published in 1953 More than Human is the story of the next possible phase of evolution from homo sapiens to a collaborative "organism" called homo gestalt. I doubt that you will ever be able to find an odder group of characters than what Sturgeon gives you in this book. Two mute (but not simple) African American twins who can teleport, a Down's Syndrome baby, simply called Baby, who never ages, a beautiful boy named Gerry who can make you forget whatever he wants, a pretty young blond girl who also happens to be a telekinetic, and "The Fabulous Idiot," Lone, who at first does not even have the ability to speak. Sturgeon begins in book one by bringing these horribly abused and misunderstood characters together gradually to live in a cave away from society. All of these characters are throw-aways who apparently are hardly missed after they leave, even though all save Lone are children. As the group makes a home for themselves, they naturally start to "blesh" with each other. That is, each one takes over the role of a part of the body to accomplish the tasks necessary to live. For example, Lone walks to farms and villages to pilfer needed food and tools. The twins teleport in when needed to open doors or search for items. Baby, who is very affected by Down's is a genius who can solve any problem as long as he's given the raw data he needs. Janie, the blond, can communicate with Baby without words, and supplies answers to questions posed to Baby by the others. Gerry, who is also slightly psychotic, fills Lone's role after Lone dies in an accident.
This story is told in three novella length pieces, each of which have a very different focus and hook. The first novella, The Fabulous Idiot, tells how the characters came together in the first place. It is quite well written, and somewhat moving, though not as important to the story as the second novella. Its the story of how these misfits find love and acceptance occasionally in the greater world, but almost absolutely with each other. The story, having so many characters, is a little disjointed, but the main story is Lone's. The novella opens with him rambling in the forest like an animal, where he is beat nearly to death by a fellow hermit. Lone wanders until he is rescued by Prodd. Prodd and his wife nurse Lone back to health, and figure he was attacked by a bear and suffered brain damage. They gradually teach him how to talk and give him a home, but ask him to leave when Mrs. Prodd becomes pregnant. Lone leaves, having been rehabilitated partially and now much more sophisticated, with mixed feelings for the Prodds, and goes out to find the rest of the characters to make their home in the forest. At the end of the novella Lone returns to Prodd's, only to realize that Mrs. Prodd has died in childbirth, and Prodd has lost his mind. Prodd's reaction confuses Lone even further about the true meaning of friendship and love. He goes home and talks to Baby through Janie, who tells him that a friend is someone who loves you even during those times when they don't particularly like you, and that the only kind of person who is capable of this kind of love is an innocent. But Lone, a functional imbecile and innocent to the core, never intellectually realizes that this is the kind of rare love that he is capable of feeling. So the question arises, what is love, and that is what the first book is about, in addition to exploring the idea of acceptance as well. Sturgeon answers it by examining the extreme, and giving us a look at individuals who truly need each other, and absolutely cannot achieve any of the magnificent potential that they have without the others. The cast gradually learn how to live in their roles and come to identify themselves absolutely by them. Sturgeon also examines the nature of disability, how it is caused, and how it leads others to treat the disabled differently, but really goes no further than this. In the end the comfort and family that they all feel for each other transcends the callousness of society, but unfortunately, not enough to really matter outside the walls of their home. Perhaps the most important lesson was learned by Gerry, who had to learn sympathy and empathy. Without that the Blesh would have been doomed, because Gerry became the Blesh's soul after Lone's death.
There are also SF elements to the first book that are very important, such as the various powers that the cast have. There is an anti-gravity device that was invented by Baby and put into Prodd's truck after Prodd's horse dies. The device is found by the US military in book three, Morality, that causes all kinds of problems with Gerry, who plays vicious games to simultaneously stop the potential homo sapiens war that could come from knowledge of this item, while indulging his cruel and self-centered quest for control of others.
The best book in this novel by far is the second, Baby is Three. It is in this novella that the cast of characters really come into their own, and where Sturgeon shows his best writing chops. Its the story of Gerry, who consults with a psychiatrist after murdering the temporary caretaker of the children after Lone's death, and how he comes to realize that he can dominate the gestalt and bend it to his own will. The ramifications of Gerry's desire play out in Morality, the third novella, but this story on its own is excellent. The most obvious implication of Gerry's treachery are that even in an evolved form, were all still just a bunch of battling monkeys. But Sturgeon is too good a writer for that, and Gerry may even redeem himself in the end (but not after causing all kinds of problems for the world and the gestalt).
Sturgeon, in his best days, was a phenomenal writer of short stories. Someone out there is currently publishing his entire back list of short work, and I think they are currently on volume twelve, each volume having at least 400 to 500 pages. Hes so well identified with the format that one of the awards given these days to the best short story of the year is called the Theodore Sturgeon Award. But this is one of the few novels of any consequence that Sturgeon ever put out, the other being a vampire piece called Some of Your Blood. The big problem that I have with More than Human is that the three novellas are essentially short stories from the pulp era that follow all that eras conventions for story writing; that is to say, Sturgeon hides the ball from the reader while developing the plot, then springs some odd twist on the reader at the end. There are also some story elements that make the book slightly tedious. For example, the three main characters of each story spend at least half of the time confused about their pasts, and in Lone's case, confused about everything. Sturgeon also tells each story out of chronological order. As a result of the confusion the bulk of this book, especially Morality, is an exercise in patience. I can easily see why many of the people I have discussed this book have told me that they put it down without finishing. However, if you put the time in, you will be rewarded. Baby is Three may be one of the best novellas I have ever read, but The Fabulous Idiot and Morality only reward the strong. Additionally, this book, being written over 53 years ago, is somewhat dated, especially in its treatment of the twins. For example, Sturgeon himself treats the twins well, and never descends into other ape-like or Uncle Tom style prose in the telling of their story. I think that even having protagonists of African descent in a 1953 book was a milestone, but they are frequently referred to in colloquialisms of the day, and one characters relegates them to the servant's quarters for a time.
Other than the above, which probably matters little in the grand scheme of things, the only real criticism that I have of this book is that Sturgeon really goes nowhere with his creation. Sturgeon only touches briefly on the effect that the gestalt has on the world around it, and thus in my opinion loses a lot of the effect of these beings could create as they evolve into something radically new. Many other books that touch on these themes either present the new being as a threat to homo sapiens, or at least present some sort of new competitive skill. In this book Sturgeon has given us a new form of life, but failed to give it a leg up when dealing with us. So in the end the poor little deformed and simple kids stay the way they are, and the "normal" people around them either abuse them or dismiss them just as they always have. All in all, its kind of depressing.
One thing for sure, though, Sturgeon was a visionary. 1953 was not exactly the year the New Wave of SF started to crash on our shores in force, but as a character piece, this book is pretty much without equal, at least for its day. I recommend this book for those far along the journey SF can provide, and maybe mature beginners. Three out of five stars.
Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell