The OF Blog: Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human

This review originally appeared in May 2011 on the SF Masterworks blog.

What am I doing?  What am I doing?  he thought wildly.  Trying and trying like this to find out what I am and what I belong to...Is this another aspect of being outcast, monstrous, different?

"Ask Baby what kind of people are all the time trying to find out what they are and what they belong to."

"He says, every kind."

"What kind," Lone whispered, "am I, then?"

A full minute later he yelled, "What kind?"

"Shut up a while.  He doesn't have a way to say it...uh...Here.  He says he is a figure-outer brain and I am a body and the twins are arms and legs and you are the head.  He says the 'I' is all of us."

"I belong.  I belong.  Part of you, part of you and you too."

"The head, silly."

Lone thought his heart was going to burst.  He looked at them all, every one:  arms to flex and reach, a body to care and repair, a brainless but faultless computer and - the head to direct it.

"And we'll grow, Baby.  We just got born!"

"He says not on your life.  He says not with a head like that.  We can do practically anything but we most likely won't.  He says we're a thing, all right, but the thing is an idiot." (pp. 75-76)

Today, American writer Theodore Sturgeon is known more for his aphoristic "Sturgeon's Law" (90% of everything written is crud, reiterated in various fashions) than he is for his own fiction, but his 1953 fix-up novel, More Than Human was an influential short novel from the Golden Age of SF that incorporated then-en vogue psychiatric elements with a look at a possible world where a diverse group of socially outcast humans with telepathic/telekinetic abilities might find themselves as being part of a greater group-whole, or gestalt.  It is a story that intrigues and yet feels incomplete as well.

The origins of this story lie in the novella "Baby is Three" that appeared in Galaxy magazine.  Here comprising the middle third of the expanded story, it is the core of the story of a band of misfits who don't fit in with normal human society because their own abilities, when taken separately, leave them disconnected from others, often to the point of being viewed as dull or mentally retarded.  The first part introduces four of the six core characters that appear here:  Lone, or the Idiot, a telepath; Janie, an eight year-old with the power of telekinesis; the nearly-mute twins Bonnie and Beanie, who possess the power of teleportation, and the "Mongoloid" Baby, with computer-like processing power.  Separate, each of these four are nigh useless, but as the first part, "The Fabulous Idiot," progresses, the four come to know each other and to realize that each is both complementary and supplementary to the others, creating a new self-consciousness that is greater than the sum of the four.

"Baby is Three" explores the human gestalt's expanding awareness, even as it introduces a new character, Gerry, who possesses his own telepathic powers as well as a sense of ruthlessness that was not previously present.  This section is devoted heavily to psychological themes, such as belonging and the division of the conscious and subconscious.  However, there is some plot and a little character development in this middle section.

The final third, "Morality," is concerned with the gestalt's development of a conscience.  This is seen through the integration of the sixth member, Hip, into the group after initial conflict with Gerry.  This section typifies many of the strengths as well as weaknesses of Sturgeon's work.  The idea of a group consciousness developing a conscience intrigues, but ultimately, the failing of the three sections in regards to developing complex characterizations (or perhaps super-characterization in the case of the gestalt?) dampens the potential power of this story.  The characters rarely are more than sketchy ciphers who serve to fulfill the plot necessities; they do not feel "human," much less "more than human" due to this neglect to develop compelling personalities who are more than just plot vehicles.

In addition, while Sturgeon's prose is never obtuse or opaque, its limpidity is more that of a broad-stroked painting than a carefully crafted work.  The conflicts contained within the three sections rarely excite the desired interest because everything is explicated or brushed over in such a fashion as to leave little room for contemplation of the subtleties of the work.  There are some nuances to the story, but Sturgeon largely fails to develop them adequately, instead leaving a work that promises much that is eventually left unfulfilled. 

1 comment:

FCBertrand said...

Great to see more serious critical attention being given to Theodore Sturgeon. He's very much overlooked by fans and academics. He also wrote quite a bit of non-fiction, in particular book reviews.

Is there any good bibliography that lists all the book reviews he wrote, and what books he reviewed???

 
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