I know exactly when I bought
my first copy of More Than Human. I was a second looey
in the air force, a shavetail, and the book's reputation as one of the
premier achievements of 1950s sf had led me to hunt everywhere for it through
most of a cold Rocky Mountain winter. According to a notation in
green ink on its title page, I bought my copy on March 28, 1969, in Denver,
Colorado, paying fifty cents for a used paperback ("A Ballantine Science
Fiction Classic") cover-priced at seventy-five.
The jacket painting features five human figures
superimposed on a fragile, cloud-threaded sky set above a rolling, green
landscape with low shrubbery of a darker, more ominous green. These
figures resemble ghosts. You can see through their insubstantial
bodies to the blue sky and the green grass behind them.
Never judge a book by its cover.
Sorry, but I guess I did. As an impatient
23 year-old resolved to learn all I could about 20th-century science fiction
as quickly as possible, I convinced myself I'd found a bona fide treasure;
and the uncredited cover painting—which I no longer view as quite so
hauntingly Daliesque—made me believe that a legendary master of the genre
was about to speak, authoritatively, to me. Stupid, eh? Because
I've seen at least three other covers on More Than Human
since 1969, and none of them, no matter how fine or how crude, has added
a jot to, or subtracted a jot from, the intense, lyric prose of the novel
But sometimes, accidents like the weather,
your age, the flux of your sinuses, and, yes, even dubiously mystical cover
paintings can color a breakthrough reading experience, and my introduction
to Theodore Sturgeon's best novel included a visual boost in the form of
that eerie, somehow consciousness-expanding illustration. I was a
serviceman, a long way from Georgia, and the used paperback in my hands
looked—to me—like release, freedom, apotheosis.
In fact, it was.
I read More Than Human in my
cell-like bedroom in a two-man BOQ apartment under the tall, snow-blanketed
ridge of the Rampart Range on the United States Air Force Academy, where
I taught English to cadet candidates at the Preparatory School.
I read about Lone, Janie, Bonnie and Beanie,
Baby, Gerry, and, finally, Hip Barrows, the man who brings to this band
of misfits a talent, allowing it to achieve its potential as an evolutionary
step beyond Homo sapiens. I read about these people, and I
was able to believe, not so much in the oddly original notion of the superman
embodied in More Than Human as in the strength of Sturgeon's
talents and the clarity of his vision. Here was a man who lived,
felt, and wrote with both the cold eye of the mind and the annealing fires
of the heart. A poet. And I was still young enough to fall
under the spell of his poetry.
At almost exactly the same time, I was reading
other good stuff from the sci-fi shelves. In fact, the other classic
novel I always associate with More Than Human is Arthur C.
Clarke's Childhood's End, which first appeared in the same
year—1953—as Sturgeon's masterpiece. But Childhood's End
concludes with the elevation of terrestrial humanity to a kind of star-faring
group spirit, and the grandiosity of this ending, given the somewhat simpler
evolutionary mechanics posited in More Than Human, made me
see Sturgeon's as the more likely—or, anyway, the more immediate—scenario.
Actually, I enjoyed each book on its own
terms, but I still think of the one when I think of the other, and the
similarity of the novels' endings—once you award Clarke the laurel for
epic inventiveness and Sturgeon the trophy for down-home compassion—strongly
hinted that the scientist Clarke and the romantic Sturgeon had snatched
the same mind-boggling concept out of either our racial subconscious or
the charged atmosphere of the early Cold War era. Both writers seemed
to be saying that the only way to survive the menace of screwball ideologies,
and of the Bomb, was to join mentally, bodily, and spiritually in an entity
greater than our finite, stand-alone selves. I'd joined the air force,
but that wasn't the kind of union either Sturgeon or Clarke meant, and
so I was free to go on badmouthing military stupidity and dreaming my sf-assisted
dreams of transcendence.
In the impact it had on me as a young man
dreaming of becoming a writer, More Than Human (along with
Clarke's novel, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le
Guin, and lots of New Wave fiction from either England or Damon Knight's
Orbit anthologies) came to be more than a masterpiece for me. It
was a benchmark, a stop on my secret highway to post-service fulfillment,
and one more piece of evidence that you could write about human beings—not robots, or bug-eyed aliens, or exploding stars—and still be writing powerful, wholly legitimate science fiction.
Before coming into the service, all I had
known of sf was Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, a smattering of paperback Heinlein,
the quirky satirical-philosophical novels of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and a
virtual ton of Ray Bradbury, whom I loved with the glee of a fanatic. But
now, having read Sturgeon, Clarke, Le Guin, Ellison, Russ, Panshin, and
some of the many fine writers publishing books as Ace Science Fiction Specials,
I realized that sf was a good place to be, maybe even the place to be,
and More Than Human played a pivotal role in shaping my realization.
What to say about the novel
itself? First, it became a "novel" by a route often pursued
by genre science-fiction writers in those days, namely, the route of the
"fix-up." A fix-up is a gathering of connected stories,
one or more of which have sold as independent units to the magazines, that
the writer organizes in a sequence hinting at novelistic design and capable
of being read as a single sustained narrative. Other famous fix-ups
from about the same time include The Weapon Shops of Isher
and several others by A. E. van Vogt, who coined the term; The Martian
Chronicles by Ray Bradbury; City by Clifford Simak;
Isaac Asimov's Foundation series; and James Blish's The
I mention this fact because at the heart
of More Than Human is Sturgeon's tour de force novella, "Baby
Is Three," which appeared in Galaxy magazine in 1952. Also,
Sturgeon was a natural short-story writer whose forays into longer lengths
sometimes struck his critics, and even some of his admiring colleagues,
as commercially driven aberrations. I'm not disparaging the novels.
The Dreaming Jewels (1950), Venus Plus X (1960),
and, outside the sf field, Some of Your Blood (1961) show
what snap, sinew, and conviction he could bring to that length, but his
stories - "Microcosmic God," "It," "Bianca's Hands,"
"Thunder and Roses," "Saucer of Loneliness," "The
World Well Lost," "The Other Celia," "And Now the News...,"
"The Man Who Lost the Sea," "Slow Sculpture," and dozens
of others - made his reputation. They continue to be anthologized,
adapted for movies or television, and marveled at.
"Baby Is Three" would have been
one of Sturgeon's most famous stories even if he hadn't later bookended
it with two more stunning novellas to build his second and unquestionably
best novel, More Than Human. After appearing in the
October issue of Galaxy, in the same autumn that Eisenhower first
defeated Adlai Stevenson for the presidency, "Baby Is Three"
provoked a lot of admiring comment; and two decades later it was the fifth
top vote-getter in a polling of the Science Fiction Writers of America
for a Hall of Fame anthology devoted to novelettes and novellas.
Among the top ten stories, it finished behind
only "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell, Jr., the original
novella version of A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M.
Miller, Jr., Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands," and Wells'
The Time Machine. It placed ahead of "Vintage
Season" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, "The Marching Morons"
by C. M. Kornbluth, Robert A. Heinlein's "Universe" and "By
His Bootstraps," and Lester del Rey's "Nerves." And
from this same poll, Ben Bova determined that SFWA's most esteemed writers
they ended up one and two—were Heinlein and Sturgeon. Sturgeon,
I feel, won his place for the kind of insightful ferocity on headlong display
in "Baby Is Three." I'm guessing, but the popularity, along
with the narrative and intellectual richness, of "Baby Is Three"
must have led Sturgeon to believe that an expansion of this story—better,
a cunning fore and aft amplification of both its outcast characters
and its unique ideas about human evolution—would produce a sui generis
wow of a novel. If so, he was right, and the novellas he wrote to
bracket "Baby Is Three"—"The Fabulous Idiot" and
"Morality"—are not only worthy companions, but tales that glisten
and shimmer in ways that make the whole of More Than Human,
like Homo Gestalt itself, a great deal more than the sum of its
parts. The initial paragraph of "The Fabulous Idiot" is
among the most vivid openings in American post-war sf:
The idiot lived in a black
and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering
of fear. His clothes were old and manywindowed. Here peeped a shinbone,
sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers
of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead.
An idiot; a little girl
with telekinetic powers; a pair of even younger, Negro kids who teleport,
naked, from one place to another; a mewling, Down's Syndrome baby who cogitates,
computes, and relays its weirdly profound musings to the little girl; a
murderous eight-year-old orphan whose eyes can pinwheel hypnotically; and,
finally, a grown man, whose talent is . . . something he doesn't suspect,
at least not until the little girl, grown, rescues him from a chilly cellblock
both to fulfill himself and to "blesh" with the group as a kind
of Jimminy Cricket superego. From these elements, Sturgeon creates
high science-fiction art.
No, "high science-fiction art"
isn't necessarily an oxymoron, and Sturgeon demonstrates as much in the
way he places "Baby Is Three" at the heart of his narrative,
then looks backward in "The Fabulous Idiot" to lay down a complex
and engaging prologue to Gerry's visit to Dr. Stern, and then ahead in
"Morality" to show us the means by which Homo Gestalt may not
only attain immortality but also operate in ethical symbiosis with the
mortal creatures from which it has sprung and to which it owes the Old
Testament respect that any human child owes its parents. Respect,
honor, reverence, and love.
More Than Human is remarkable
among post-war sf fix-ups for its literacy (even if Bradbury's The
Martian Chronicles clearly has the greater reputation for stylistic
grace). But (once again like The Martian Chronicles),
it is also sociologically remarkable for the easy candor with which it
presents the idea that Negroes—at that time, the genteel euphemism was
"coloreds"—will be a part of the evolutionary brew that precipitates
a multi-individual entity like Homo Gestalt. And "Baby
Is Three" appeared two years before Brown v. Board of Education of
Topeka, three years before the bus boycott in Montgomery, and more than
a decade before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
became law. Both sociologically and anthropologically, then, Sturgeon was
on the side of the Good Guys long before most Americans had even confessed
to themselves that racial oppression existed here.
Bonnie and Beanie, zipping around like a
pair of skinnydipping hummingbirds, must have shocked the socks off, or
annoyed the hell out of, many of Galaxy's readers, for these girls
are indisputably among the first significant black characters ever to pop
up in an American sf novel. Sturgeon doesn't treat them with much depth
or verisimilitude ("Ho-ho" or "Ooop," says Bonnie;
"Hehee" or "Eep," says Beanie), and nowadays a militant
critic might accuse Sturgeon of unconscious racism or sexism for making
these girls' ability to teleport contingent on shedding their clothes,
as if he'd overdosed on bare-breasted native women in the National Geographics
of his boyhood. ("Why doesn't Janie get naked, huh? For that matter,
why doesn't Lone or Gerry?") But the simple fact that Sturgeon dared
to use black characters in a narrative prophesying the evolutionary transcendence
of our entire species clearly proves that he was both ahead of his time
and uncompromising in his belief that humanity—all of humanity—must, well, blesh.
If Clarke's technological science fiction
stories presaged the space race, then Sturgeon's character-oriented stories
prefigured the sociological ferment of the civil rights struggle. They
didn't cause it, mind, but they held up a glass to American injustice and
let that injustice flicker disturbingly even in the pulp escapism printed
in Galaxy, Astounding, and Fantasy & Science Fiction.
In this sense, More Than Human is a reassuringly human document
and a novel which both mirrors and transcends its era, just as Sturgeon's
amazing Homo Gestalt both mirrors and transcends the confused human
beings of mid-century America.
In my last year at the Prep
School, my fourth and final year in the service, I taught a science-fiction
course of my own design as an elective. I used the first Science
Fiction Hall of Fame volume (containing Sturgeon's "Microcosmic
God") as my primary text, but I also required my cadet candidates
to read novels: The Time Machine, Childhood's End,
A Canticle for Leibowitz, A Case of Conscience
by James Blish, Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (which
Stanley Kubrick had just filmed), Camp Concentration by Thomas
M. Disch (a mordant, experimental antiwar novel that prompted howls of
outrage from some of my more Neanderthal would-be airmen), and, of course,
More Than Human. Was I really teaching science fiction?
Yes and no, for it also seemed to me that I was teaching a hands-on
variety of ethics in a technological age muddied by cold-war fears and
a bloody little war in Southeast Asia. What an exhilarating comfort
to be able to read aloud: ". . . multiplicity is our first characteristic:
unity our second. As your parts know they are parts of you, so must
you know that we are parts of humanity. "
I stayed stateside during the Vietnam
War. I stayed stateside in uniform. I neither ran off to Canada
nor fought in the jungles, and I have ever since carried a shifting backpack
of guilt for not having done the one or the other. But sometimes
I recall the sf elective I designed, and I think—I dampen my half-assed
guilt by assuming—that some of the cadet candidates who read those books
must have become more humane officers as a result. It is probably
utter bunk to think so, but I preserve the hope.
And when I became a civilian again, it was
with a feeling akin to Gerry Thompson's at the end of More Than Human:
"And humbly, he joined their company."
Pine Mountain, Georgia
June 13, 1989
From More Than Human
Published by The Easton Press, © 1989
Reprinted with permission from the author