More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (1953)
‘All alone – an idiot boy, a runaway girl, a severely retarded baby and twin girls with a vocabulary of two words between them. Yet once they are mysteriously drawn together this collection of misfits becomes something very, very different from the rest of humanity. Add to the group an embittered orphan and it acquires limitless potential – both for good and for evil.
Hailed on first publication as daring and original, this intensely written and moving novel is an extraordinary vision of mankind’s next step.’
Blurb from the Gollancz Classic SF 1986 paperback
It is indeed a daring and original novel, and still stands up – despite an occasional maudlin moment of sentimentality – as one of the classics of SF.
Sturgeon’s poetic and pastoral novel of the emergence of a gestalt Homo Superior (or Homo Gestalt as they term themselves) is redolent of the whimsical and nostalgic novels of Clifford Simak in its depiction of a rural Midwest America.
Sturgeon, however, does not paint so romantic a vision as Simak normally does. He looks behind the picket fences and chintz curtains to expose the nasty underbelly which lies beneath, such as the religious extremist Mr Kew who teaches his daughters that their bodies are intrinsically evil, while secretly reading (as we discover much later) Von Masoch’s ‘Venus in Furs’. Then there is Janie’s mother, a woman who admits quite openly that she hates her own daughter and apologises to her ‘gentleman callers’ for Janie having shamed her by bringing ‘niggers’ into the house.
The characterisation of these grotesques is actually quite subtle and is a beautiful contrast to the ‘freak’ children and adults who come together to form the gestalt.
Structurally the novel is divided into three very different sections, which link to and reference each other in surprising and revealing ways.
‘The Idiot’ tells the story of how Lone first ‘bleshed’ (as the members of the gestalt call the experience of melding into a unit) with another individual, the girl Mary Kew, murdered by her own father whom Lone subsequently compels to commit suicide. Lone is subsequently taken in by a farming couple who give birth to Baby, the mongoloid idiot savant who functions as the gestalt’s memory and processing unit.
The fantastic nature of the related events, however, is never at odds with the all-too human characters and the tragedies in their lives. The huge irony at the heart of this first section is that the Gestalt designs and creates an anti-gravity device simply in order to help Lone’s employer, Mr Prodd, to stop his truck getting stuck in the mud.
In a dramatic change of style and viewpoint, the second section, ‘Baby Is Three’, is told in flashback within the confines of a psychiatrist’s consulting-room. Gerry, who has replaced Lone as ‘the Head’ of the Gestalt since Lone was killed accidentally in the woods, is telling his story.
It’s an interesting device, used later in Frederik Pohl’s ‘Gateway’ to great effect and arguably in Anne Rice’s ‘Interview With The Vampire’; half-narrative, half-confession.
Gerry, like Lone, has the power to influence the minds of others and is seeking to understand himself. We slowly discover that he has murdered Alicia Kew, sister of the girl with whom Lone first bleshed all those years ago. The gestalt, or at least Gerry, has begun to learn that it possesses incredible potential and few restraints.
The restraint finally arrives in the form of Hip, introduced as a child in the first section of the novel and now a disgraced ex-serviceman, jailed and emotionally crippled. He is released into the care of Janie who slowly nurses him back to sanity, piecing his memory together. From this we learn gradually that he has spent his life in search of Lone and the anti-gravity device. We also learn that Janie is now in hiding from Gerry after the murder and fears that if she is discovered, that Hip will be killed.
It’s a daring turn of events, not least because it shows for its time an unusual fallibility and weakness in Homo Superior/ Homo Gestalt. For the gestalt to make mistakes might be expected. For this new human of the future to kill and then have its individual units turn against each other is a surprising and refreshing move.
Despite its perhaps sometimes over-sentimental passages it is a wonderful denouement to a masterful piece of literature, rich with poetic imagery and deft minimal brushstrokes of characterisation.
‘Outside an oriole made a long slender note, broke it, and let the fragments fall through the shining air. A stake-bed truck idled past, busily shaking the string of cowbells on its back, while one hoarse man and one with a viola voice flanked it afoot, chanting. In one window came a spherical sound with a fly at its heart and at the other appeared a white kitten. Out by the kitten went the fly and the kitten reared up and batted at it, twisted and sprang down out of sight as if it had meant all along to leave; only a fool would have thought it had lost its balance.’
The ending is transcendent and optimistic, for Hip, after a showdown with Gerry, becomes in effect the gestalt’s conscience; the architect of its personal ethos. At that moment the group discovers it is not alone and is welcomed into a community of Gestaltia who had been observing the unit to see if it emerged as an ethical gestalt.
Like van Vogt’s ‘Slan’ it is a wish-fulfilment fantasy for those who believe themselves outcast, but it is also a sharply observed portrait of small-town America at a certain point in time.