Michael Bishop
www.michaelbishop-writer.com

 

More Than a Masterpiece
An Introduction to Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human
by Michael Bishop


     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 itself. 
     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 Seedling Stars.
     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