Monday, August 27, 2007

Get ready: the gestalt is coming!

More Than Human
Theodore Sturgeon

Have you ever heard of science-fiction master Theodore Sturgeon? One of the leading figures of science-fiction’s Golden Age? What, you haven’t? For shame!

Actually, it’s not much of a surprise if you haven’t heard of Sturgeon. Despite being acclaimed as a science-fiction master, Sturgeon receives little to no attention in America—despite the fact that he was an American writer. (I had assumed he was British until reading his biography on wikipedia. Incidentally, he was a distant relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which really isn’t all that interesting I guess.

At any rate, I might have remained ignorant of Sturgeon’s presence in the literary world were it not for Edwin Hesselthwite over at Little Man, What Now?. When he recommended I read some of Sturgeon's work, I was immediately intrigued and I felt instinctively Sturgeon was worth a try. I hunted down a copy of More Than Human and sat back to see what this Sturgeon was all about.

Upon reading the opening of the novel, I was immediately taken with Sturgeon’s style. Unlike many other writers of science-fiction, Sturgeon’s prose is not stark and to the point, like, say, Philip K. Dick. Instead, Sturgeon veers into a poetic prose that competes with his original ideas, and it is difficult to say which of these two characteristics is more important when determining his importance as a science-fiction writer.

And while his prose is definitely beautiful (and rare, for the genre), it was his original ideas set forth in More Than Human that wowed me more. The novel’s focus is the next step in human evolution, and Sturgeon conceives a wildly new human than I’ve ever seen before. Sturgeon’s new human will be Homo Gestalt, a single being composed of individuals who are incomplete alone. As one of the characters remarks, “the I is all of us.”

The novel is composed of three sections; in the first, the group finds one another after being drawn together. The group is made of Lone, a man others believe is an idiot and little better than an animal; Janie, a young girl capable of telekinesis; Bonnie and Beanie, twins who can teleport but who do not speak; and Baby, a severely retarded infant whose mind is like a computer. Alone, these individuals can barely function in society, but together they make a single unit can both survive and finally belong.

The second section picks up several years later; Lone has died and a new Gestalt leader must be found. This time, Gerry is called to the group, only Gerry has been abused and is filled with anger and hate. The group must cope with his emotional handicap just as they dealt with Lone’s. The third section follows the addition of the group’s final member, Hip, who adds morality and completes the group. Of course, this is the most superficial of summaries and does not come close to touching on the myriad capabilities of humanity's new human. You'll just have to read More Than Human to find out exactly what Homo Gestalt is capable of doing.

More Than Human left me wondering: Is Sturgeon’s importance due to the poetic beauty he brought to science-fiction? Or because he conceived of new directions for humanity, directions never before seen in science-fiction? Hardly an expert on the genre, I’m in no position to say. I can, however, state the obvious, that Sturgeon is unduly ignored in this country. Don’t feel bad for Sturgeon, though; dead since 1985, he isn’t much affected by the American public’s ignorance of his work. Instead, it’s readers who may never enjoy this master who are missing out the most. If you’re a fan of science fiction, you owe it to yourself to read him.

In a nutshell: More Than Human is unlike any science fiction you’ve read before. It’s weird, it’s poetic, it’s unforgettable.

Bibliolatry Scale: 5 out of 6 stars


Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Wahey! Two favourable review in the course of a week fort books I pushed you into reading... Excellent stuff.

The reason Sturgeon never made it in to the big leagues can be summed up in a single sentence: the man couldn't write novels. A master wordsmith his attempts to string them out to novel length just never gelled... Even the masterful book you've got here is clearly a kludge of three short stories (he obviously gave up on trying to fully weave them together). And because SF took of in the novel and movie form the greatest short story stylist gets pretty much forgotten.

This is a horrendous pity, because numoerous major SF figures clearly built their careers around emulating him :- Ray Bradbury famously said that he learnt to writer by dissasembling Sturgeon stories and rebuilding them with a different story, Vonnegut based his alter-ego Kilgore Trout on Sturgeon, and the later heroes of the 60's New Wave (Roger Zelazny, Sam Delaney and particularly Harlan Ellison) absolutely worshipped Sturgeon...

He was the first person to break SF as a poetic genre. But I think there is a very strong argument for him as one of the greatest short story writers of the twentieth century (And Graham Greene and Kinglesy Amis always said such). Short stories never really cut it tho, so he is far too often overlooked.

If Bradbury and Vonnegut are two of the most important writers of the post-war era, it is a travesty that their equal, inspiration and predecessor isn't even remembered.

Cheers for a favourable review of one of my heroes.

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

One more slightly more controversial point on this story:

This book was published in 1953 (and the short story Baby Is Three was published in '52), Daniel Keyes's short story Flowers For Algernon was published in '59.

Stylistically they have a hell of a lot in common, and are both extremely human. But where Keyes never wrote another successful story in his life (but was lucky enough to have a movie made, and the novel introduced to high school curriculums), this was just one of Sturgeon's career high points.

I am utterly convinced that there would never have been an Algernon without a Baby Is Three.

Bibliolatrist said...

Yes, now that you mention it, I definitely see a connection between Sturgeon and Keyes. I have also purchased a book of Sturgeon's short stories, although I haven't gotten to it yet. I'm looking forward to it!