More Than Human: A Book Review: Part Three
This is part three of a series of reviews of science fiction novels, from the volume American Science Fiction (Four Classic Novels): 1953-1956, edited by Gary K. Wolfe. Today we're going to take a look at More Than Human(1953) by Theodore Sturgeon.
For those of you who have never read one of my reviews before, there is something I should tell you before we begin. I said these things before but I think they bear repeating.
This will not be a review concerned with my personal opinion about the novel. I am not going to go into talking about things I consider to be esthetic matters. What I mean by that are things like: "character development," "plot," and so forth.
Question: If that is the case, what is left for me to talk about in a "review"?
Answer: I do not see it as my task to give my personal opinion about a work. My goal is to try to lay out the schematics of a book, to try to show you how the book works, what it is trying to do, what it has succeeded in doing. Basically, then, I am attempting to "reverse engineer," if you will, a book, so that you---whoever 'you' may be---can decide for yourself if you think the book is worth buying or borrowing from your local library and reading it.
I should say, however, that if I am writing about a book here, on Hub Pages, I probably found some merit in it; that is to say, it is likely that I felt good about the book.
I thought I should say a word or two about my particular perspective on evolution before we get started. That will be relevant; it will enable you to judge the quality of the analysis I bring to bear on the novel before us. You may think my conception is flawed and then find my review suspect, and that may tell you something. Or, you may find my conception, if not "accurate," then at least congenial, something worth thinking about---and this, in turn, might suggest something else to you. But my own thoughts on the subject of evolution are relevant to the way I "reverse engineer" what you will be looking at, should you decide to read "More Than Human."
As you can probably tell from the title---More Than Human---this book concerns evolution. This book concerns people who have powers that we ordinary humans do not have; and we are, therefore, supposed to acknowledge them to be "the next step" up the evolutionary ladder. They are like us in their origins but not like us in what they can do. They can do everything we can do and more, of course.
Please put the X-Men out of your mind as you approach this novel. More Than Human (1953) is much more sophisticated than that. This novel does not do the whole angst-ridden "the whole world hates and fear us," and "whatever shall we do about it" thing. Charles Xavier and his followers, the "good guys" answer the question with: more love and understanding and long-suffering patience, yada, yada, yada. Magneto and his followers answer the question with: utter domination and enslavement with the old fashioned Homo Sapiens by we, the much improved model Homo Superior; at very least, complete segregation of the "species."
If you're reading this, you know how that goes.
This novel does something different and more interesting, in my opinion. Even so, whether we're dealing with the "X-Men" paradigm or the way evolution is treated here(or the way evolution is usually treated in fiction), it is contrary to the way I understand the way evolution works (especially in human beings).
The way evolution usually works in fiction is to give us the erroneous, in my opinion, suggestion that time alone brings about "evolution."
Evolution: Adaptation: Modification: Refinement
As a matter of fact, that is a problem we run into even in relatively more academic, reality-based discussions about evolution. By the way, I'm going to be talking about that when I "review" an article from Discover magazine, sometime in the future.
There are a couple of points I want to make:
1. We use the word 'evolution' when we mean 'adaptation' or 'modification.'
2. We should appreciate, from a kind of historical perspective, that human evolution is different from the evolution of other biological species, because of the fact that we have culture. I'll explain what that means.
3. It is culture that prevents us, as a species, from allowing mere adaptations or modifications---contrary, surprisingly, to even, apparent scientific opinion---to cause people who have them from spinning off into their own species-subgroups. Instead, what actually happens is that we, as a society, always find ways to harness these adaptations to generalized social use.
There are people in this world who are extremely tall. Some of them play in the National Basketball Association(NBA) in the United States. Are they "different" from us? Do "we," of average height, think of them that way? Do we allow "them," the extremely tall people to think of themselves that way in relation to "us," in spite of some difficulty they often report in finding properly fitting clothes? Are these gentlemen in the NBA only marrying and having children with women from the WNBA (Women's National Basketball Association)?
All of that sounds absurd, doesn't it? I hope so. However, let me not be ambiguous in saying that the answer to all of those questions is no. If we were dealing with moths, fruit flies, or butterflies, and the like, we might very well expect a different answer to those questions.
However, isn't it the truth that we, as a society, have harnessed that characteristic---the extreme height and frequently correlating jumping ability to dunk a basketball---to serve a broad social purpose of mass entertainment and diversion(in the game of basketball, for one thing) at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels---in addition to all that comes with it in terms of fandom?
Yes, and for that reason it remains that "they" are "us" and "we" are "them;" and not to get poetic about it, but there is no "we" and "them," only all of "us."
At any rate, I will talk more about that when we look at a certain Discover magazine article that still irritates me, six years later after it was published and after I read it.
In this novel, More Than Human, we are dealing with evolutionary pioneers who have amazing psychic powers: telepathy and mind control, telekinesis, teleportation, and what I will call "universal consciousness," for lack of a better word.
Interestingly, there is at least one other way of dealing with "adaptation," even of a psychic nature.
As you know, Minority Report is a film starring Tom Cruise. You may not know that it is based on a science fiction short story by a chap called Philip K. Dick, who wrote it and saw it published in the 1950s. Anyway, I know you know the story; and if not, you can always Google it.
I bring that up because psychically gifted people are featured. These people can do things with their mind, "predict the future," and so forth. But in this story and film, they are NOT seen as anything superior to the rest. Their abilities are simply harnessed---like the motive power of oxen pulling a plow---to make certain crime prediction technology work. Actually, there is some concern stimulated about how these psychically gifted people are treated.
The point is that these psychically-powered people are never seen as "superior" to the rest of us in anyway; indeed, like an ox, it is almost as if they were inferior to us, psychically-conventional people precisely BECAUSE they could do those things. Their talents were harnessed to serve the broad social use---a distorted one, as it turns out---of preventing crime.
What we're looking at in this story is a very special community of five, who think of themselves as Homo Gestalt, "a new kind of human being." This is how they think of themselves together, as a unit, a "family," you might even say. As I said before, the leader or "head," is a telepath with the additional power of mind control(a young man named Gerry); then there is one with telekinesis named Janie(she also has some telepathic power and is the only one who can communicate with "Baby"); there are two, virtually mute twin sisters who have the power of teleportation(they cannot bring any object along with them when they teleport, not even their clothes); and then there is Baby(a literal infant, who, strangely never ages, grows, or physically develops in any way; nevertheless he is the "universal consciousness," he "knows everything," ask him anything and he can figure it out and communicate the results of his computations to Janie, who tells the rest of the gang. You see, its always "Ask Baby" this and "Ask Baby" that).
This novel is, ultimately, animated by this question: What is the right way for Homo Gestalt to behave under the circumstances of being evolutionary frontrunners, in a world where, at present, these five individuals are the only ones with anything like their abilities?
What the story is asking is: What should the moral system of Homo Gestalt be in relation to regular Homo Sapien? Will that moral system change once the whole world has made that evolutionary transition?
Now, the story does go through some wordplay about "moral system," "ethical system." Is it a 'moral' system that the Five need or, rather, a 'ethical' system, and so forth. But, again, the bottom line is that they are searching for the correct way to behave in the world as it is right now.
1. Should the group take the "Bewitched" approach? There is a sitcom from the 1960s called Bewitched starring Elizabeth Montgomery, who plays a witch, who comes from a long line of witches with all kinds of powers. Her name is Samantha and she is married to a "mortal" named Darren (usually played by Dick York).
a. The question is: How should Samantha(and her kind, I suppose) behave in a world that appears to be majority "mortal"? Samantha's husband, Darren, is a guy whose wound pretty tight and we see him constantly admonishing Samantha NOT to use her power---NOT EVER. We understand that he is ferociously fearful of any embarrassment and so forth. Of course, if Samantha followed Darren's orders, there would be no basis for a show... So, for Samantha, not using her powers is simply not an option.
The other thing, though, is: Why should Samantha not be allowed to use her powers; her witch-powers are who she is and all that....
Anyway, that approach is rejected in More Than Human.
2. Should the group take the standard "superhero" approach? Should they "only use their powers for good and the pursuit of "peace, justice, and the American Way"?
b. The problem with that is that we are not dealing with straightforward "superhero" type powers that are simply and directly applicable to protecting the weak. We are not talking about flight, superhuman strength, energy-blasting powers, super speed, the ability to transform the body into living, titanium armor, and so on. If a safe threatens to fall on someone's head from a window, such powers can used to: swoop over and whisk the would-be victim away; a similar option presents itself with super speed; perhaps the safe can be blasted into smithereens with a well-focused energy blast. And so on and so forth.
Now then, at first pass it would appear that there really isn't a way for the Five help humanity very much. Maybe they should merely keep their heads down and go about their lives quietly. But then again...
I. Telepathy and Mind Control:
If you are a person---in possession of such abilities---happen to be walking down the street and you see, out of the corner of your eye into an alley, where a woman is about to be viciously raped by a hulking brute of a man. You, with you mental powers could stop him before he starts. If you like, you might simply make him walk into the street, directly into the path of a swiftly moving vehicle. Or, you might simply make him turn himself into the police(no doubt he has already successfully victimized other women).
Think of what this power might do for prisoner rehabilitation. What if, instead of indefinitely warehousing of killing serially violent offenders, we could quite literally change who they are. In this way, this telepathic "adaptation" could, indeed, be harnessed for the broader social good of regular humanity, Homo Sapiens. In this way, the social health of humanity would be very greatly enhanced, which would, in fact, ensure that more and more people like the Five come into the world.
Mind you, I am speculating, here, based on my interpretation of what the internal logic of the novel is.
With the power of telekinesis, the scenario of the falling safe becomes instantly solvable, of course.
There are broader implications for the generalized utility of the power of telekinesis. Just think how much safer construction sites could be if this power were harnessed. Workers, potentially, might never again fear falling to their deaths from great heights. With such security in place, who knows just where architecture and construction could go?
Remember, the twin teleporting girls cannot bring anyone or anything---not even their clothes---with them when they move at the speed of thought.
Still, the military and spy craft applications are so obvious that we don't have to talk about them.
But consider this: What if somebody figured out a way to make clothing that could bond with the twins' skin at the molecular level? That way teleportation would no longer render them nude. Not only that, but we might make the technological leap of making special uniforms with that property. Can you imagine what such an astounding thing would do for public safety?
Imagine being in a car; something happens and the bridge you're traveling over suddenly drops to the sea. Imagine you and every passenger in the car(wearing this safety uniform) being able to simply teleport to safety.
What would such derived technology mean for crime? Imagine being able to simply teleport out of danger of being: mugged, raped, shot, stabbed, car jacked, and the like.
What if, somehow, from the special clothing the teleportation technology could be transferred to large vehicles. Think of what this would do for undersea and space exploration!
There might even be medical uses for such technology, if it could be so derived. Imagine being able to do away with chemotherapy and radiation for the treatment of cancer. Imagine the technology to simply transport cancerous growths out of the body....
So, we have just seen how it would be possible to harness the gifts of the Five in such a way that accrued to the broader social good of Homo Sapiens, thereby actually creating the optimal conditions enabling the continued and perhaps accelerated emergence of such gifted individuals; and this would simply mean that, perhaps, the evolutionary transition of the human species would be accelerated. That is the ultimate outcome of the logic of this novel, which points to the direction I have just indicated.
IV. "Universal Consciousness"
If you read the novel More Than Human and bear in mind that it was published in 1953, it may occur to you that the way "Baby's" gift might be harnessed would be in the way of inspiring the invention of the personal computer.
The Bottom Line
Good science fiction, like all good fiction of whatever genre makes you think. This novel did that for me; and I believe that Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human will do that for you. So, go read this novel. To quote WWE star Stone Cold Steve Austin, "And that's the bottom line!"
Thank you for reading.