Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.
The knock on 1950s-era science fiction is that it is poorly written, all plot and platitudes (sounds like a Jane Austen title, huh?) with too little sense and sensibility. Characters are as thin as the pulp paper they inhabit; the prose is functional, relentlessly pushing the storyline forward, without elegance or subtlety; and everything in the tale operates at the surface level, with nothing to grapple with beyond the gutsiness of the technological vision.
In truth, there are countless sci-fi novels that fit this depressing description. Theodore Sturgeon put it best in the formulation that has come to be known as “Sturgeon’s Law.” “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap,” he proclaimed. “But then,” he added, “ninety percent of everything is crap.” All the more reason to pity the ten percent of sci-fi writers who aspire to something better, who deliver works of artistic merit, yet find few paying attention. The adolescents, teens and grown-ups with arrested development who (supposedly) make up the core market for these books positively dislike more stylized writing, while the discerning readers who might enjoy these more ambitious sci-fi works never even consider reading them in the first place. The covers alone are enough to warn them off.
Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was clearly a member of the talented tenth, or — to be more fair — the talented tenth of one percent. He wrote genre fiction that could withstand comparison with the better literary fiction of his era. He took chances, and not just with bold story lines, but also with his narrative construction, his style of his writing, and his willingness to incorporate multiple levels of signification into his books. He challenged his readers, in various ways, and rejected the conventional time and time again.
Take for example Sturgeon’s most famous book, More Than Human. The first hundred pages set up a series of puzzles, built around isolated characters with fragmentary personal histories and anomalous behavior patterns. And just when the reader feels that a specific situation is beginning to clarify itself, Sturgeon shifts scenes completely, abandons everything he has already presented, and starts again with another puzzle.
What strange ingredients! An idiot who is destined for greatness no human has previously achieved? A neurotic recluse who commits suicide for no apparent reason? Twin girls who seem to be able to appear anywhere at anytime. An orphan who is eminently forgettable — as long you don’t look into his eyes. An only child so uncanny her mother is afraid of her. At first, each of these characters is presented in isolation — none of them know each other, and the reader is left wondering whether Sturgeon has really written a novel, or simply thrown together random pages from different stories. Where is the connection?
Sturgeon was a prolific writer of short stories in the years leading up to More Than Human — Samuel R. Delany called him “the American short story writer,” and at one point in the 1950s Sturgeon was reportedly the most anthologized living author on the planet. Readers of this novel can see the impact of this focus on shorter forms; Sturgeon’s method of shaping it is atomistic. Each major character possesses a singular story, and the elements of that tale define the personality in question. Eventually the characters and stories do connect, but our author is remarkably patient in constructing his book, and demands equal patience from the reader. Like a skilled poker player, he keeps his hole cards hidden until he is absolutely forced to show them.
One might describe this novel as a type of gestalt — an interpretation that is all the more fitting given the fact that the concept of gestalt comes to play a significant role in the plot. Sturgeon challenges the very concept of individuality in More Than Human and forces us to comprehend the odd alliance of the individual outcasts in his story as a new type of collective, a next stage in human evolution that replaces the person with a pseudo-team. Like many sci-fi writers of this era, Sturgeon was fascinated with socio-psychological models drawn from Darwin, Freud and other grand theorists of the human condition. Yet where his peers were often clumsy and schematic in their adaptation of these ideas, Sturgeon develops his themes with both subtlety and poetry.
Until the final pages, that is. If there is a flaw to More Than Human, it comes from the writer’s desire to achieve more than fiction. If you think that sci-fi books don’t pay attention to deep inner meanings, you will be surprised by the conclusion to this work, in which Sturgeon reaches for something bigger than a story of this scale can deliver. Resolving the plot is not enough for him; he wants to resolve humanity along the way. But you can forgive over-reaching in this situation; especially after you have read the works of so many of Sturgeon contemporaries who hardly dared to reach beyond the rudiments of a story well told. Then again, I guess that is just Sturgeon’s law at work.