Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review - More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

Short review: At the edges of society something new is growing, spread through many bodies, blindly searching to find one another and become whole.

An outcast or boy
Three girls, and a strange baby
Need still one more thing

Full review: The 1954 winner for of the International Fantasy Award for Best Fiction Book and a 2004 nominee for a "Retro Hugo", More Than Human is made up of three linked stories detailing the rise of Homo Gestalt, a new form of life that is made up of several individual people who gather together to form a single entity. Because the book does not rely upon the technology of the 1950s to make its story effective, the fact that it is very decidedly set in that era does not detract from the book, even though it is now sixty years old. Like some other Sturgeon stories I have read, More Than Human could be taking place right now, or it might have already happened, and we, living our mundane lives, would never even know it. The story is, at its core, a coming of age story, but it is a coming of age story for a life form that is similar to a human, and yet not a human. And that is also very alone in the world.

Of the three stories that make up the novel, only the middle one Baby Is Three, was not specifically written for this book. The first, The Fabulous Idiot, and the third Morality, were written specifically for publication as part of More Than Human. Although it was fairly common in the early era of science fiction to construct a novel by stringing together preexisting shorter pieces, but in this case, this style of book design was intentional. And perhaps that is part of the point, because that makes the book's form parallel the new entity that the book is about, both constructed of smaller subparts that work together to create a complete whole.

And this is part of the poetry of the book: its structure seems to reflect the development of the entity at the core of the story. In The Fabulous Idiot, the story is told in something of a confused jumble, but that is because it is told from the perspective of Lone, for whom the world is a confusing and jumbled place. Lone's stumbles lead him to Evelyn, a young woman who shared Lone's apparent gift of telepathy, but who lives under the thumb of a domineering ultra-religious father. Their meeting ends in disaster, and Lone finds himself on the Prodds' farm, where he finally is able to stop wandering long enough to make a human connection. Meanwhile, a young girl named Janie and a pair of black twin girls named Bonnie and Beanie form a friendship, although given the mores of 1950s society, their friendship is considered scandalous by those around them. In these sequences, Sturgeon explores the casual racism surrounding him, and also details the difficulties that would be faced by children with the unnerving gifts of telekinesis and teleportation. Although all three of the girls have extraordinary gifts, they are viewed with suspicion and fear by the adults in their lives.

Eventually the three girls find Lone, who left the Prodds when the couple was expecting a baby and is now living alone in the woods near the now abandoned house that Evelyn lived in. The girls and Lone begin to work together, forming the first parts of the gestalt creature. Eventually Lone returns to the Prodd farm and finds his only friend despondent. It seems that the child was not what he ad expected, and the disappointment is made even more bitter due to the child's apparent disability. Prodd recognizes the child, described as a "mongoloid", as properly being part of the gestalt, and takes him back to Evelyn's house, but first using his mental abilities to convince Prodd that his wife didn't die but instead took the child and went to visit Pennsylvania. With the telepathic Lone, the telekinetic Janie, the teleporting Bonnie and Beanie, and finally, the computing Baby, the gestalt is now complete. Lone continues to visit Prodd, and decides to help him with his truck that continually gets stuck in the mud by asking Baby to devise a way to prevent that from happening. Displaying the awesome powers of the new entity, Baby devises an anti-gravity device, which Lone installs on Prodd's truck. The fact that Prodd has left to go find his wife in Pennsylvania makes this something of a futile gesture, but the power and the idiocy, of the new life form is demonstrated. The true revelation is that while at first glance one might think that Lone is the one referred to by the title The Fabulous Idiot, the reference is to the gestalt as a whole: capable of almost accidentally creating and building wondrous items of technology, but not capable of thinking of a use for them better than to install them on a rusting abandoned truck.

While The Fabulous Idiot starts as a confused jumble that works towards coherence, much like the gestalt entity, Baby Is Three is told with a clinical, and almost cynical detachment. This entire section is told as a flashback, with Gerry Thompson, the new head of the gestalt, consulting with a psychiatrist in an effort to recover his lost memory. Thompson replaced Lone when the older man died, becoming the new telepathic "head" of the gestalt. But even though Thompson is much more intelligent than Lone ever could be, he is also a child when he inherits the role, whereas Lone, although an idiot, was an adult. Consequently, they gestalt is forced to seek out Evelyn's sister Alicia and take refuge with her, leading to conflict as their close-knit group offends Alicia's conventional ideas about society. By giving the story a viewpoint character that would be the voice of society at large in the form of Alicia, Sturgeon is able to revisit the questions of racism and the treatment of the handicapped that he touched upon in the first part of the story. Each time Alicia tries to impose her ideas about how society should function upon the gestalt, Gerry and Janie fight back, keeping their little group together. The story features several 1950s era ideas about psychiatry, and in the end the mystery of Gerry's missing memory is solved by finding "recovered memories", a concept that is now regarded as dubious at best. On the other hand, Gerry lost his memory as a result of the use of his telepathic powers, so it is difficult to draw any conclusions about psychiatry in general from his treatment.

The final section of the story is told from yet another amnesiac viewpoint character, this time Air Force Lieutenant Hip Barrows, fresh out of the insane asylum and jail. He is nursed back to health by Janie and slowly recovers his memories that include Gerry's attempts to drive him insane and kill him. This portion of the story illustrates the dangers of the gestalt, as Gerry is unstable, and as a result of his tumultuous upbringing, probably a sociopath. Once he killed Alicia, and realized that he could do such things with impunity to those around him, erasing and altering memories to cover up his actions, his innate paranoia caused him to become a monster. And because he was a monster, the entire gestalt became a monster. But it is the kind of monster that is created when an unreasoning child is gifted with unlimited powers. Because the gestalt is formed of those on the fringes of society and is dreadfully and painfully alone, it never had an opportunity to develop a sense of empathy towards those around it. Lone is almost certainly mentally retarded, and is treated with the disdain that society of the time handed out to those with mental handicaps. Janie was the unwanted child of an alcoholic mother and abandoned by her father. Bonnie and Beannie are impoverished black children living in a society that institutionalized discrimination against them. Gerry is an orphan handed over to the state and raised by adults who were alternatively uncaring and abusive. Alicia's efforts to inculcate the parts of the gestalt with what she believed were proper mores fails, both because she tried to instill in them mores that would have destroyed the gestalt, and because she attempted to pass on human values, and although the gestalt is similar to a human, it is not a human. Janie's efforts in trying to aid Hip are a desperate attempt to avert the growing monster and force the gestalt to grow to maturity. In the end, Hip is healed, and even though it did not know it was sick, so is the gestalt. In the final pages of the book, the gestalt begins to hear from other similar entities, revealing that even though it thought it was alone, it was not.

More Than Human is a sterling example of what science fiction can be when it is at its best. Using the vehicle of the genre, Sturgeon was able to examine delicate issues such as racism and demonstrate just how foolish the notions held by society were. But the book also explores the issue of identity and loneliness. For much of the book, the gestalt believes itself to be the only one of its kind, and as a result it has to grope towards understanding itself. An unanswered question raised by the book is the question of the individual components of the gestalt. As Hip discovers, any part of the gestalt could be replaced, making it an effectively immortal entity. But what of the individual parts? They are both themselves, and part of a greater whole. What if, as is implied might happen, Hip and Janie form a sexual relationship and have a child? Would that child be part of the gestalt too? What if the child had no capabilities that would allow it to join the gestalt? Would it be raised by a collective, but be condemned to be forever outside looking in? More Than Human raises as many questions as it answers, which is a hallmark of truly great science fiction. But it also explores what it means to be human, and what it might mean to be something else, living among humans and blindly groping towards establishing one's own identity. This book is Sturgeon at his most poetic, most insightful, and most brilliant.

1953 International Fantasy Award Winner: City by Clifford D. Simak
1955 International Fantasy Award Winner: A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn

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1954 International Fantasy Award Nominees

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  1. Ah, I was hoping you'd get to this book - one of the best. My son's favorite work of science fiction.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Its been a long time coming. I reviewed City a fair while back. I am now waiting for A Mirror for Observers to be delivered so I can read and review it. In the meantime, I'll be tackling some Hugo-themed short fiction collections next week.