Between the cover art and the title, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human might first appear to be about cybernetic- or genetically-enhanced human potential, in which the main character, maybe an athlete, is endowed by science to be stronger and smarter than the rest of humanity. At least, that’s what I was expecting. Perhaps something similar to its infamously terrible contemporary, the 1954 Hugo winner They’d Rather Be Right, in which people become perfect after interface with a machine. Instead, Sturgeon gives us something even more quintessentially fifties– an exploration of the paranormal mental powers of humanity.
Lone is a homeless indigent, a feral man who lives in the woods. Too savage to beg or steal, his telepathic abilities aid his survival by beckoning strangers to feed him. After a tragic loss, and through a series of interactions with a simple couple who take him in, he learns to speak and work, and builds a little shelter for himself in the woods. His cave becomes a haven for a group of children who also have paranormal powers (telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, and telecognition—not a real word, but it will suffice) and they combine their powers to survive and live as one unit. Their symbiosis results in the next step of human evolution as they become homo Gestalt (German term for “the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Also a very confrontational style of therapy). Unless they can come to terms with their unlimited powers and live peaceably among other humans, their existence may overwhelm all of humanity.
Sort of like a psychic supertransformer. Homo Gestalt, activate!
Despite the fifties-era content, the story itself feels surprisingly contemporary, with few dated terms and phrases, which may be due to Sturgeon’s fantastical style of storytelling—it’s more fairy tale than sci-fi. In fact, More Than Human reads more like its fictional fantasy predecessor Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) or 1981’s Little, Big by John Crowley, where the characters are a little too fey to be realistic, yet they interact within the real world in fantastically mundane ways. For example, the greatest power of the group comes from Baby, a perpetual infant with Down syndrome and omniscience, who telepathically communicates his computer-like analyses to the other Gestalt children. He helps Lone create a component that prevents the neighbor’s truck from getting stuck in the mud, but it turns out to be a powerful anti-gravity generator. Even with these traditional sci-fi tropes, the characters are too unbelievable to fit into the sub genre. Sure, the story includes an anti-grav machine and esper powers, but the characterization feels straight out of fairyland.
Even though the writing feels timeless, Sturgeon’s weird word choices inhibit its potential. Sometimes his phrasing is awkward, but on purpose, as if he’s trying too hard to be artistic and different. The effect jolts the reader out of the prose. Some examples:
“They lived alone in a heavy house on a wooded knoll” (loc. 93). (Aren’t all houses heavy?)
“… the woods were homogeneously the woods…” (loc. 133).
But, like most writers, that initial pretension wears off after a few chapters, and Sturgeon hits his stride with smoother word choices. And sometimes it’s really good:
“… each reading seemed to add a fresh element to the yeasty seething inside him” (loc. 1104).
“And these lay in some sunlight, giving off a color possible only to marmalade and to stained glass” (loc. 2378).
“Fatigue drifted and grew within him like a fragrant smoke, clouding his eyes and filling his nostrils” (loc. 2871).
One can overlook Sturgeon’s language inconsistencies when considering the social contribution of this novel. Published just a year before the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a controversial dispute over educational segregation, More Than Human tells the story of an integrated, nontraditional family. The teleportable twins are black. The omniscient Baby, mentioned above, has Down syndrome. When Lone dies, the children are adopted by a rich, white lady and her black maid, and the children question the purpose of dining at separate tables. The children are inseparable, interdependent… greater than the sum of their parts.
Hmmm… I wonder if there’s a message in that.
Beyond the social commentary, More Than Human is a more enjoyable read than it probably deserves. Sturgeon’s story is wonderfully odd and unique, with otherworldly, yet sympathetic, characters. However, Sturgeon casts a spell that is much like that “fragrant smoke” he describes above, which clouds the reader’s eyes and nostrils with a pleasant satisfaction that can’t quite be comprehended upon reflection. Thematically unbalanced, Sturgeon dumps his pursuit of the civil rights commentary in favor of more unwieldy topics. By the end, this light and airy story hangs on a heavy allegory of ethics and morality, driven by a clunky vehicle of fifties pop psychology. It all makes sense when the final page is turned—as long as you don’t think about it too hard.
There are parts of the novel that threaten to unravel the entire tapestry if analyzed too deeply. Psychic imposition of fears and memories are uncovered during a short therapy session after a murder. Paranoid resentment after a failed hunt for the anti-grav generator results in total memory loss. Sub-arcs such as these feel completely logical during the reading, yet post-analysis has me going, “WTF? How did I fall for that mumbo-jumbo?” Perhaps that’s Sturgeon’s strength, to cast a spell so enchanting he can convince the reader of anything. But it didn’t hold up in this case.
Despite these hangups, More Than Human is a classic SF must-read, short enough to qualify for a pleasant weekend book, and ideal for mundane fantasists who are looking for something uniquely different. It’s considered a masterpiece within the genre, on many Top SF lists. Although I don’t agree with its masterpiece status, it’s almost there, and it has certainly increased my interest in the rest of Sturgeon’s famously celebrated catalog, which I suspect may include works more worthy of the masterpiece designation.