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Book cover art by David Stevenson (1st); Derek James (2nd).
Review © 2007 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Theodore Sturgeon had a pendant he wore around his neck that summed up his philosophy of life. It was a letter "Q" with an arrow through it, and it meant, "Ask the next question." Life is nothing less than a quest, where we seek answers to benefit our knowledge or personal fulfillment every single day. Many people stifle that questing urge, either because they're brought up to be innately shallow and narcissistic (one doubts Paris Hilton or the Olsen twins spend much time crinkling their little brows and wondering what it's all about), or by latching on to one or another packaged belief system or philosophy as a means of avoiding the really difficult and frightening questions, because such beliefs are designed expressly to allow adherents to pretend they have all the answers they need. Still, many people — artists, scientists, philanthropists, humanitarians, teachers, or maybe just the guy on the street corner — never stop asking the next question. To Ted Sturgeon, those were the people who got it, and in whose company he wished to be.

More Than Human tackles the immense question, not of why we're here or where we came from, but of where we could end up. It posits a new phase of evolution that may not strictly be realistic under what we currently understand from science. It's hard to conceive of the kind of selection pressures necessary to produce something like Homo gestalt, and indeed, Sturgeon's story here obscures the issue of speciation and development entirely. (I wonder how Sturgeon would tackle this story today, after a refresher in the latest evo-devo.) But for speculative fiction, it's a splendid premise and one which Sturgeon employs in the exploration of what he believes is humanity's most singular and defining trait: that we are moral and ethical beings capable of looking outside of ourselves to consider the greater good.

Tellingly, the "more"-than-human beings who inhabit this novel are something quite less than human as well. In the story, somehow these freaks of nature exist — people with advanced telepathic and telekinetic abilities, who are yet virtual ciphers on their own, unable to function at full strength unless they group together to form their gestalt. Sturgeon is mainly interested in how they survive and adapt in a world which, in theory, they could probably rule with ease. (As a skeptic who loves to do my bit of debunking now and then, I always ask people who tell me they have paranormal powers, "So why aren't you a millionaire?") On their own, the problem is acute. They lack full control of their abilities, and even seem simple-minded or flat-out retarded, incapable of the most basic functions. Together, they pool their strengths. But naturally, with power comes that bewildering mix of arrogance and ennui. The individuals in a Homo gestalt bonding are in conflict with one another as much as the group is with the outside world.

It's over half a century old, but Sturgeon's novel has dated extremely well and, most importantly, retained the relatability of its core themes. The loneliness and isolation the nascent gestalt beings feel is not appreciably different from that felt by most alienated youth. And the necessity of developing a moral compass as a natural part of passage out of childhood into maturity allows the gestalt to function on a metaphorical level as well. After a fashion, More Than Human is a kind of juvenile delinquency story (a well-traveled theme in much of 1950's fiction, I do believe), complete with the revelation of one's place in the scheme of things and the advantages of choosing cooperation over conflict. Impressively and unconventionally structured, Sturgeon's narrative is often punctuated by quiet scenes of shattering emotional power, and just as often of irony and wit. (A key element in the plot is the gestalt's casual invention of an anti-gravity device, thought up by the group's "brain," a malformed genius baby.) In the final analysis, we're reminded that whichever way we might be headed in this quest we call life, we have to grow up sometime. And that there's nothing wrong with being more than human as long as we don't forget the "human" part. Just remember to ask the next question.