The whole is other than the sum of the parts

More than human cover

Richard Powers, at the height of his powers, brings the surreal.

On a pleasantly brisk Spring evening, the Beamers came together to examine the coming together of a science fiction classic, More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon.  Built around his story, “Baby is Three”, it tells of how the next step in human evolution is built around a melding of different, somewhat damaged, individuals into a new, unified identity, Homo Gestalt.  Would the Beamers unite around a single opinion on the book?  Or would we find it too damaged to believe?

It takes a household

Published in 1953, More Than Human and its progenitor, “Baby is Three”, garnered acclaim for Sturgeon, who had been steadily writing and selling since the 1930s.  The novel was awarded the International Fantasy Award (which included science fiction, back in the day) and the short story was included in the retro SF Hall of Fame voting which took place when the Nebula Awards were established in 1966.  The idea of an evolutionary “super-human” (Homo Superior) was not new, but the idea of having the next step in evolution be not a single organism but a collective, an adaptation of the psychological construct of a Gestalt mind (a mind that forms a unitary whole out of a chaotic collection of different brain functions), was.  And Sturgeon furthers the contrast of collective whole rising above the individual parts by making the parts very unlikely “super” people.

Yet, for most Beamers, the unlikely characters were strongly engaging, partly as a result of their obvious struggle to be allowed to live life on their own terms.  In some ways, though much of the book is dated (as Nick observed with the comic flustering of an adult male accidentally walking in on a naked female), its key attitudes seem remarkably contemporary.  Donna noted that the idea of integrating people who are differently abled into settings that emphasize their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses was our current approach to situations such as autism, enabling autistic people to function more naturally and fully and not feel stigmatized.  A focus on ability and not on disability, I said.

Why be normal?

Similarly, Sturgeon injects social commentary and criticism in the classic science fiction way, by making the attitudes of “normal” characters seem dangerous and detrimental to the progress of humanity.  We witness a wholesale refusal of the children of the Gestalt to allow themselves to be segregated because some of them are African-American, or to allow their “brain”, Baby, who has Down’s Syndrome, to be “warehoused” in some hospital.  This challenge to the prevailing mores of society struck me as a very natural use of science fiction’s speculative approach, questioning what exists to find out what we can become.

There were some difficulties, though.  Alan was disappointed that our original protagonist, Lone (the character we first meet in the opening section, “The Fabulous Idiot”), does not survive into the later parts of the novel.  I missed him, too, for how can we not like a “halfwit” who triggers the invention of anti-gravity all to keep a farmer’s truck from getting stuck in the mud?  But, the book is fairly rough on many of its characters.  The family who “adopt” Lone, the Prodds, have to endure a series of tragedies.  And Alicia Kew, escaping from a sadistic father, loses her life even as she tries to preserve the new “family” that Lone had created, the Gestalt.

Brevity is the soul of classic SF?

That sense of tragedy mixed with frivolity did not sit well with all Beamers.  Jon, via e-mail, claimed to be unable to find one interesting or admirable character.  Donna, while not negative, would have liked for the characters to be more fully fleshed out, more in line with contemporary sf writing which tends to explore and examine personality and thought a bit deeper.  Still, Liz was satisfied with the sense of mystery that a more concise writing style fosters and was pleased with the lean artistry of the portrayals.  She found that she enjoyed the book more during re-reading, which she took slowly, than on her initial reading, where the brevity of the work led her to go through it too quickly.  And Kathy was charmed by Beanie and Bonnie, the twins who shared a private language, saying only “Ho-ho” and “He-he” to the rest of us as they teleport (sans clothing) all through the book.

Evolving by leaps and bounds

The central conceit of the book, the idea that separate individuals, armed with psychic powers, could meld into a single consciousness, was also a point of debate.  Most Beamers were willing to allow the idea of psychic abilities (telekinesis, telepathy, teleportation) as prerequisites for an evolutionary step forward.  But, does evolution work in separate pathways?  Jon thought not, opining that a symbiosis would take generations to develop to any useful degree, so that the book was really aiming at an idea of transcendence (and a transcendence not earned but merely granted by authorial fiat).  Liz disagreed, arguing that evolution occurs in fits and starts, in ways that are much less neat and tidy, so a new organism (even a collective one) could arise in a single generation.  Given that we have no evidence in either direction, we decided to allow each Beamer to settle at whatever end of the evolutionary spectrum that made them comfortable.

The Super-ego and the Super-man

One development that also perplexed us was the development of the moral sense of the Gestalt being.  The final section of the book, titled “Morality”, is exactly a discussion of how a “super-human” can and should interact with us mere mortals.  We debated the concepts of “morality” (given in the book as social guidelines for proper action by an individual within society) as against “ethics” (which denotes proper individual conduct toward society as a whole).  How does a “super-human” act morally if there is no “super-human” society to establish those guidelines?

The book’s answer is to develop instead the ethical sense of a super-human toward the human society that nurtured them and that will be the source of more super-humans.  Many Beamers commented on the essential idea of education by example, how Lone achieves a moral sense of charity toward the other members of the Gestalt by himself receiving charity from the Prodds.  And the book’s final revelation, that there are other Gestalt beings already at large in human society, came as a bit of a perplexing surprise to us.  Alan wondered why the protocol for new Gestalts was quarantine until they gain a conscience, allowing them to flounder about in a “sink or swim” situation.  And, since our protagonist Gestalt is not alone, as most of the book alleges, then there is a Gestalt society, one which presumably has a moral code, albeit a code not available to either the characters or the readers.  A curious choice by the author, we felt.

Tugging on the Super-man’s cape

In sum, though, the book did carry enough weight for us to award it a plethora of 7s and 8s.  Even Chris, who felt that he perhaps should hold out for a 5, decided that the work sounded like enough of a science fiction classic to make it worthy of at least selective recommendation, bringing his rating up to a 6.  Our holdout, Jon, maintained his tradition of not giving in to sentiment and placed only a ‘3’ on his reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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