More Than Human

by Theodore Sturgeon

Reviewed by Ted Gioia


The knock on 1950s-era science fiction is that it is poorly written, all
plot and platitudes (sounds like a Jane Austen title, huh?) with too little
sense and sensibility. Characters are as thin as the pulp paper they
inhabit; the prose is functional, relentlessly pushing the storyline
forward, without elegance or subtlety; and everything in the tale
operates at the surface level, with nothing to grapple with beyond the
gutsiness of the technological vision.

In truth, there are countless sci-fi novels that fit
this depressing description. Theodore Sturgeon
put it best in the formulation that has come to be
known as “Sturgeon’s Law.” “Ninety percent of
science fiction is crap,” he proclaimed. “But then,”
he added, “ninety percent of everything is crap.”
All the more reason to pity the ten percent of sci-
fi writers who aspire to something better, who
deliver works of artistic merit, yet find few paying
attention. The adolescents, teens and grown-ups
with arrested development who (supposedly)
make up the core market for these books positively
dislike more stylized writing, while the discerning
readers who might enjoy these more ambitious
sci-fi works never even consider reading them in the first place. The
covers alone are enough to warn them off.

Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was clearly a member of the talented
tenth, or—to be more fair—the talented tenth of one percent. He wrote
genre fiction that could withstand comparison with the better literary
fiction of his era. He took chances, and not just with bold story lines,
but also with his narrative construction, his style of his writing, and his
willingness to incorporate multiple levels of signification into his books.
He challenged his readers, in various ways, and rejected the
conventional time and time again.

Take for example Sturgeon's most famous book,
More Than Human.
The first hundred pages set up a series of puzzles, built around isolated
characters with fragmentary personal histories and anomalous
behavior patterns. And just when the reader feels that a specific
situation is beginning to clarify itself, Sturgeon shifts scenes
completely, abandons everything he has already presented, and starts
again with another puzzle.

What strange ingredients! An idiot who is destined for greatness no
human has previously achieved? A neurotic recluse who commits
suicide for no apparent reason? Twin girls who seem to be able to
appear anywhere at anytime. An orphan who is eminently forgettable—
as long you don’t look into his eyes. An only child so uncanny her
mother is afraid of her. At first, each of these characters is presented in
isolation—none of them know each other, and the reader is left
wondering whether Sturgeon has really written a novel, or simply
thrown together random pages from different stories. Where is the
connection?

Sturgeon was a prolific writer of short stories in the years leading up to
More Than Human—Samuel R. Delany called him “the American short
story writer,” and at one point in the 1950s Sturgeon was reportedly the
most anthologized living author on the planet. Readers of this novel can
see the impact of this focus on shorter forms; Sturgeon’s method of
shaping it is atomistic. Each major character possesses a singular story,
and the elements of that tale define the personality in question.
Eventually the characters and stories do connect, but our author is
remarkably patient in constructing his book, and demands equal
patience from the reader. Like a skilled poker player, he keeps his hole
cards hidden until he is absolutely forced to show them.

One might describe this novel as a type of
gestalt—an interpretation
that is all the more fitting given the fact that the concept of
gestalt
comes to play a significant role in the plot. Sturgeon challenges the very
concept of individuality in
More Than Human and forces us to
comprehend the odd alliance of the individual outcasts in his story as a
new type of collective, a next stage in human evolution that replaces
the person with a pseudo-team. Like many sci-fi writers of this era,
Sturgeon was fascinated with socio-psychological models drawn from
Darwin, Freud and other grand theorists of the human condition. Yet
where his peers were often clumsy and schematic in their adaptation of
these ideas, Sturgeon develops his themes with both subtlety and
poetry.

Until the final pages, that is. If there is a flaw to
More Than Human, it
comes from the writer’s desire to achieve more than fiction. If you
think that sci-fi books don’t pay attention to deep inner meanings, you
will be surprised by the conclusion to this work, in which Sturgeon
reaches for something bigger than a story of this scale can deliver.
Resolving the plot is not enough for him; he wants to resolve humanity
along the way. But you can forgive over-reaching in this situation;
especially after you have read the works of so many of Sturgeon
contemporaries who hardly dared to reach beyond the rudiments of a
story well told. Then again, I guess that is just Sturgeon’s law at work.
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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
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The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
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