More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

When I read More Than Human during my teenage years over forty years ago it was a murky novel too adult for me to understand.  I’ve just finished listening to the Blackstone Audiobooks edition read by Stefan Rudnicki and Harlan Ellison, and at age 57, the story now feels crystal clear.  There’s a reason why More Than Human shares the #1 spot with Dune and The Demolished Man on the Classics of Science Fiction list.  The book is powerful and deeply psychological and reminds me more of Faulker than science fiction.  Theodore Sturgeon wasn’t you typical science fiction writer, he explored inner space rather than outer space.

More Than Human is a fix-up novel comprised of three related novelettes that cover several years of action.  They are “The Fabulous Idiot,” “Baby is Three” and “Morality.”  The novel is about several abnormal kids with paranormal talents that struggle to form a single being which they call homo gestalt.  I don’t want to describe the novel in detail, those can be found through the links I provide, instead I want to analyze the novel for what it says.

Theodore Sturgeon was interested in psychiatry and the inner landscape of the human mind when he wrote this book.  More Than Human came out in 1953 at a time when literature and film were obsessed with psychotherapy.   We had just gotten over a monstrous world war that killed tens of millions of people and left us with technology that could end mankind.  I think a lot of people were afraid of the future.  This is also the time of Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunt for reds, the Korean War, A and H bomb testing, the Rosenberg trial, childhood diseases, birth defects, polio scares, juvenile delinquency and other troubling stories filling the news.

The early 1950s represented a shift in science fiction publishing from the golden age pulps to the higher status of hardback and paperback publication, and Hollywood movie productions, pushing science fiction into the public eye just when everyone was thinking about the end of the world and hoping for a brighter future.  This time also coincided with the rise of many superhero comics, an interesting psychological expression of the times in itself.

From these influences, Sturgeon works to imagine what the next stage of homo sapiens will be like, but he comes up with the most bizarre origin for his new homo gestalt: damaged and rejected children.  Instead of a handsome Übermensch, Sturgeon assembles a group body made up of kids with wild talents and its head from a supercomputer like brain housed in a baby with severe birth defects.  The children’s group mind is tied together with ESP powers.

This is another reflection of the 1950s, when concepts of psi-powers thrilled the public and even overwhelmed the science fiction magazines.  Why was the generation just before the baby boomers so into psychic powers?  I think More Than Human is a very impressive novel, but hugely flawed philosophically.  The desire to be Slans begs for psychoanalysis.  I think all of 1940s and 1950s science fiction that dwelt on this topic culminated in 1961 with the publication of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein.

Why does every imagined homo superior have psychic powers?  And are not psychic powers the same powers that gods have in myths and religion?  And in many books about Human 2.0 they also predict an indifference to killing members of Human 1.0 species, another god-like power.

Sturgeon leaves us thinking we need homo gestalt to solve the problems of homo sapiens, but the one specific example that occurs in More Than Human of homo gestalt helping a single poor man goes neglected.  I admire this novel for its writing, but I don’t like what it says.  I just don’t believe the next stage of human development involves gaining psychic powers.  Decades of science has shown there is actually zero ESP ability in human beings.  Nor is there any reason to believe we will evolve ESP abilities.  About the closest we’ll ever get to telepathy is the cell-phone and look what people do with that ability.

I think there’s a reason why Slan and More Than Human are not well known novels, and why Stranger in a Strange Land caused a lot of controversy.  I think the average person doesn’t believe in psychic powers and they don’t want to live in a world where those powers exist. 

The TV show Heroes is exploring this topic now, but the writers and producers don’t know how to deal with it topic philosophically.  They understand that the general public would probably want to exterminate those with abilities, but they want to make their Heroes acceptable, but their Heroes are like the crazy Greek gods fighting amongst themselves, seeming capricious and petty.  They save themselves and not humans.

I can’t think of any novel that explores homo superior ever coming up with a believable future in which psychic powers makes things better.  In the over half-century since More Than Human was published we have made the world much better.  Sure, we have mountains of problems, but we don’t have many of the terrible problems we used to have.  And none of these problems were solved with psychic powers.  Supermen can’t stop war, they can only oppress us.  Sturgeon knew this at the end of More Than Human.

JWH – 3/15/9   

One thought on “More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon”

  1. Hmm,… well, I’ve got a few (minor) disagreements, Jim. First – unfortunately – I think that the “average person” does believe in psychic powers. You’re right, it’s completely implausible, but come on, “More Than Human” was first published – as a fix-up, so the novelettes were published even earlier – in 1953. It doesn’t bother me, no more than Barsoom does, though I wouldn’t accept either in a modern book.

    Frankly, the whole idea of a “next stage in homo sapiens” is implausible and unscientific, but if you were going to imagine a fictional homo superior, you would need some new abilities, don’t you think? And the Rhine Experiments were big news back then. I don’t think they’d been discredited by 1953 (certainly not in the public mind, since I think most people are fooled by this stuff even today).

    Classic SF was filled with ESP. It was probably more believable back then, and fiction has fads, like everything else. Sure, maybe it was a sign of the times, in a psychological sense. That wouldn’t be surprising. (But an indifference to killing people who are different from you is VERY human, indeed. It’s hardly a sign of a god-like power, except as we naturally create gods who think the same way we do.)

    No, Jim, I think you’re giving “More Than Human” a bad rap here. But I WILL admit to a profound distaste for what I call the “superman” theme in science fiction. However, I don’t necessarily mean literal superheroes (which I find rather childish), but something more basic than that. To my mind, Gordon R. Dickson was a good (bad) example. He wrote some entertaining books, no doubt, but his heroes knew more than anyone else (often despite a complete lack of experience), refused to share knowledge or cooperate in any way, expected blind allegiance from the followers they kept completely ignorant, and risked the fate of all mankind on their own personal survival.

    In some cases (“Wolfling”), his superman was even genetically endowed as superior to everyone else. You couldn’t hope to compete, because you had to be born perfect. That kind of thing really rubs me the wrong way. In contrast, I prefer SF where teamwork, cooperation, and hard work prove to be the route to success, and any egomaniacs are the enemy. (Sorry, I’m getting off the topic, aren’t I?)

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