Classic Science Fiction Revisited:Theodore Sturgeon’s "More than Human" by Robert Bee

Robert Bee
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Theodore Sturgeon is one of the most significant figures of the Golden Age movement. He started writing SF for John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction in the late 30s and produced half-a-dozen or so novels, and enough short stories to fill several thick volumes of collected stories. His work influenced writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury and Samuel Delany. Among the Golden Age writers, he was probably the most talented at both writing style and character development. Sturgeon was never the idea factory that Heinlein could be, and at his worse, Sturgeon could be sentimental and mawkish, often relying on pulp ideas and concepts, but he wrote with vigor, humanity, and emotion. SF was often a genre for adolescent boys when Sturgeon was writing, so his three-dimensional characters and fluid prose distinguished his work from his peers.

Sturgeon’s most influential novel is More than Human, a fix-up published in 1953. Sturgeon was primarily a short story writer, and More than Human consists of three long, connected short stories rather than a traditional novel. Sturgeon wrote the novel’s second and strongest section, “Baby is Three” first, and published it in Galaxy, originally intending it to stand alone. Parts One and Three were written for the book publication. The novel depicts the development of a gestalt or group mind formed between several psionic characters. Group minds are often melodramatically portrayed in SF as the worst possible fate (see the Borg in Star Trek or for that matter Swarm in Spidey and His Amazing Friends), but in More than Human the gestalt is the next step in human evolution, superior to the isolated brain of traditional Homo sapiens.

Part One of the novel, “The Fabulous Idiot” consists of several loosely connected episodes in 3rd person point of view, portraying characters such as Lone, a telepathic idiot, Janie, a telekinetic, Bonnie and Beanie, teleports, and Baby, the superintelligent computer. Lone experiences an unconsummated relationship with Evelyn Kew, whose father nearly kills him in retaliation. Characters that become important later such as Hip Barrows, Gerry Thompson, and Alicia Kews, Evelyn’s sister, are also introduced. Part One dramatizes the birth of the Gestalt as its components come together for the first time. The novel’s loose structure in the first section, and throughout the novel demonstrate the theme of gestalt, or disconnected parts creating a greater whole. Sturgeon coined the term bleshing, to describe the coming together of the gestalt’s different parts. Structurally, the novel manages to blesh despite its fixup origins and episodic structure.

Part 2, “Baby is Three,” is a first person tale recounted by Gerry Thompson, Lone’s replacement in the gestalt. Over the course of one afternoon with a therapist, Gerry recovers lost memories as he works through his reasons for killing Alicia Kew, Evelyn’s sister. Miss Kew’s kindness towards the kids after Lone’s death threatened the gestalt. Her smothering love drove the gestalt apart, and was in danger of turning Baby into merely a mongloid baby, Gerry a better-behaved juvenile delinquent, Janie a girl with an artistic bent, and the twins mute Negro children. The Gestalt makes them a greater whole, but the good food, ease, shelter, security, love, and comfort threatens to shatter the combined organism.

As Gerry explains: “the parts would live on: two little colored girls with a speech impediment , one introspective girl with an artistic bent, one mongoloid idiot, and me – ninety per cent short-circuited potentials and ten per cent juvenile delinquent…. She had to be killed. It was self-preservation of the gestalt.” (143).

The central plot of the third part, “Morality,” resembles part 2 as the section’s protagonist, Hip Barrows, recovers his lost memories. Hip is a formerly impressive and successful Army engineer, whose life has been devastated because he stumbled onto the antigravity machine Baby invented earlier in the novel, and Gerry sees him as a threat to expose the group mind. As Janie rebels against Gerry’s sadism and helps Hip recover his memories, part 3 portrays the gestalt’s maturity. Hip becomes the group mind’s conscience, and Homo gestalt becomes a fully realized being with a conscience and consideration for other beings as Gerry learns to feel shame for the harm he caused Hip. The gestalt sublimates the will to power and discovers a sense of obligation toward the human race.

The novel contains a transcendent conclusion as the Gestalt encounters other beings of its kind, and develops into the fulfillment of human potential, accepting its responsibility to protect and guide Homo sapiens rather than destroy or compete with its predecessors, replacing survival of the fittest with a broad concept of humanity.

Growing up, both for the group mind and the individuals that compose it, is an important theme. Alienated adolescents reaching transcendence is a common Sturgeon plot, and reminds me of the X-Men: adolescents harassed by a flawed society discover they have superpowers, then transcend and protect the surrounding society. This common plot runs through Slan, and much of the work of Stan Lee as well as later iterations of Marvel comics. The theme explains some of Sturgeon’s popularity in the 50s-70s. He was, after all, writing at a time when most SF readers were adolescent boys and other geeks, who felt alienated and perhaps more intelligent than the society around them.

Sexuality forms a prominent subtext. The perverted religious man, Kew, represses his daughters and controls them with a whip. Alicia and Lone are the figurative mother and father of the gestalt. When Gerry reads Miss Kew’s mind, he experiences her having sex with Lone and practices a sort of mental incest. Part of the reason he kills her is a reaction to this mental incest.

The novel does have weaknesses. There are some cliched characters, such as the perverted religious man, Mr. Kew, and the mute Negro twins. The first part written, part 2 of the novel, is by far the strongest, a genuine masterpiece. Part One is merely very good, and Part three is overly sentimental near the end.

The novel is certainly not hard SF. The imaginary science includes telekinesis, mind control, telepathy, teleportation, and antigravity. The scientific rationale is sketchy. As Lone explains:

“I’m the central ganglion of a complex organism which is composed of Baby, a computer; Bonnie and Beanie, teleports; Janie, telekineticist; and myself, telepath and central control. There isn’t a single thing about any of us that hasn’t been documented: the teleportation of the Yogi, the telekinetics of some gamblers, the idiotsavant mathematicians, and most of all, the so-called poltergeist, the moving about of household goods through the instrumentation of a young girl. Only in this case every one of my parts delivers at peak performance” (143).

More than Human is a well written novel with tremendous compassion for its lonely and alienated characters, optimistically portraying a group of damaged and alienated individuals reaching transcendence and fulfillment. If these alienated adolescents can fight a repressive world and find a community, then anyone can, a noble view of humanity typical of Sturgeon. Modern readers (including conservatives) should appreciate the novel’s universal themes, its excellent extrapolation of ideas, and its solid characters; all of which prevent it from feeling dated.

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