Copper Cylinders: More Than Human

I’ve read a few sci-fi books over the years, but really only a few. I read widely generally, but sci-fi is to me what non-fiction and hard-boiled are to me—I know so little that I don’t even know where to start! Andrew invited me to do a regular feature here on Albino Books and we agreed that approaching the classics of sci-fi and fantasy from the perspective of an outsider, a newbie, an ill-educated blunderer, was the only way to go. The name of this feature, Copper Cylinders, comes from an almost entirely forgotten 19th-century Canadian novel by James DeMille called A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. DeMille’s novel is a very odd mixture of adventure, travel, dystopia, meta-fiction, and early sci-fi. It tells the story of a ship stranded at sea by a persistent and desperate lack of wind; the shipmates are close to losing their minds from sheer boredom when a sealed copper cylinder just floats along—a break in the boredom seized on with more energy than we with our 21st-century array of constant distractions can barely imagine. They retrieve the cylinder and break it open to find a handwritten story, claiming to be true, of an unknown civilization organized around principles entirely alien to their own. The manuscript is read aloud to help pass the interminable time on the calm, wine dark sea.

Sci-fi abounds with strange manuscripts waiting to be picked up and opened. I begin with Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 fix-up More Than Human.

I was a bit lost, at first, reading More Than Human. I hadn’t expected to find the prose so…Cormac McCarthy-ish when I began it. Sturgeon was clearly better able to write a complete sentence than McCarthy is, but I suppose I was expecting something less literary and more science-y (no, I can’t really tell you what I mean by the latter):

The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead. (p.1)

The idiot, who comes to be known simply as Lone, is 25 years old when the tale begins. He is pre-verbal, disconnected to his human brethren, and “purely animal—a degrading thing to be among men.” Sturgeon’s prose is alternately dense, tight, and bordering on the purplish. So when I read that when “a guard or a warden would find himself face to face with the idiot and the idiot’s eyes, whose irises seemed on the trembling point of spinning like wheels….the gates would open and the idiot would go, and as always the benefactor would run to do something else, anything else, deeply troubled,” I really didn’t know what was going on. More Than Human begins with an overabundance of metaphor, simile, figurative language—was this supposed to be literal?

As it turns out, yes—although my discovery of what Lone could do (and how and why) occurred at precisely the pace he learns it. Lone is taken in by a sad childless couple in the country; over the years, they teach him to be something resembling human. He learns to talk; he becomes a good farm worker; he feels a certain connection to the Prodds who come to accept him despite his strange and essential difference from them. Until, that is, Mrs. Prodd finds herself with child and Lone is politely asked to move on. He does, building himself a little cave in the woods, foraging for food and supplies.

He won’t remain alone very long, however. In the city, a community is forming that will find him and become his community. First there’s Janie, who makes life uncomfortable for her maliciously disinterested mother and her collection of boyfriends with alternately frightening and playful displays of her telepathic and telekinetic powers. Unwelcome in her own home, at age five, Janie “began playing with some other little girls. It was quite a while before they were aware of it,” in part because they are only toddlers. The best game involved moving their little jumpers just out of reach after they took them off, something these girls (Bonnie and Beanie) do with alarming speed: “the twins could skin out of their rompers faster than the eye could follow.” Teleportation! It’s only a matter of time before the three little girls escape their uncomprehending and hostile parents and end up starving in the same forest Lone inhabits, and only a matter of time till they all come together.

Getting to know each other is a difficult and often hilarious process for these four—three young children and one grown-up idiot of limited vocabulary. And then Baby arrives—Baby, the mongoloid progeny of the Prodds, who probably kills Mrs Prodd in childbirth and drives Mr Prodd insane. Baby is rescued by Lone, but their relationship is symbiotic: they cohere through Baby, who can’t talk but can communicate telepathically with the girls and who is, Janie reckons, like an “adding machine” that always “gives you the right answer.” Through Janie, Baby explains himself:

“He says he is a figure-outer brain and I am a body and the twins are arms and legs and you are the head. He says the ‘I’ is all of us.”

“I belong. I belong. Part of you, part of you and you too.”

“The head, silly.”

Lone thought his heart was going to burst. He looked at them all, every one: arms to flex and reach, a body to care and repair, a brainless but faultless computer and—the head to direct it.

“And we’ll grow, Baby. We just got born!”

Lone nearly bursts with the hopeful possibilities of it all—me too! But the hope can’t last, for this being, whatever it is, soon receives a new head. This occurs in the middle portion, Baby Makes Three, which lays out Sturgeon’s grand idea—and it still reads like a grand idea, goddammit, 60 years after being written.

Gerry Thompson narrates this section. He tells how he eventually finds Lone and the others, is accepted, how Lone dies, how he ends up as its head. It’s an ugly, painful story, the most important parts of which are buried in Gerry’s sub-conscious. Fourteen years old, bitter and mangled after years of abuse and neglect; Gerry tracks down a psychiatrist to help him understand why he’s just murdered the woman who cares for them all after Lone dies.

What he learns is that he, Janie, Baby, Beanie, and Bonnie together form a new being, which Gerry names Homo Gestalt. Sturgeon imagines the next stage in human evolution as not physical, but instead mental—or, more precisely, psychic. Gestalt—something, loosely, either greater or other than the sum of its parts. Homo Gestalt is a fully functioning being distinct from the beings that comprise it. As the new head of this being, Gerry can control the actions of all the others—except Baby, with whom he can’t communicate directly, but he can force Janie to act as a bridge between them using his controlling whirly eye trick. (A plot hole that never gets sewn up—if, as Lone could, Gerry can look into anybody’s eyes and not only extract all the information there, but also control their behaviour, erase their memories, etc—why can’t he do this with Baby? Baby is physically deformed, never learns to talk, but is possessed of vast knowledge—why can’t Gerry just access this all directly by looking into his eyes?)

In Lone’s idiot but mostly gentle hands, Homo Gestalt is a wonderful but probably harmless thing; in Gerry’s, it quickly becomes terrifying because he is willing to do anything to preserve the Gestalt being’s life (it’s why he kills their guardian, Miss Kew—she makes life too comfortable for them as individuals). Things become more ominous when Gerry realizes that, as the controlling force behind his Homo Gestalt, he can do anything he wants, and what he wants is to have fun. Fun, that is, according to the standards of an angry, maladjusted 14-year-old: “Everybody’s had fun but me. The kind of fun everybody has is kicking someone around, someone small who can’t fight back. Or they do you favours until they own you, or kill you…I’m just going to have fun, that’s all.”

I loved this terrifying turn in the novel. I love that Sturgeon explored the schlocky possibilities of “bleshing” (blending and meshing in a symbiotic community of comfort and comfortable survival) just to knock them down to explore the darker possibilities of human physic evolution.

Gerry is sociopathic, but there is some good news: not all of the parts of Home Gestalt are essentially ruthless. Without Janie, Gerry can’t communicate with Baby, etc and so it becomes not dead, but partially disabled. Part 3, Morality, focuses on a grown-up Janie on the run from the ruthless Gerry and the enthralled Beanie and Bonnie. Enter Hip Barrows, a mechanical genius of great promise inexplicably gone mad and rescued from prison by Janie. They go through their own process of psychiatric healing—in hiding—until Hip decides to offer himself up as a sacrificial goat to try to teach Gerry about that thing he’s missing—morality. I get that; I would agree that no human or post-human being makes complete or safe sense without morality. But while I found Janie and Hip’s interactions—alternately practical, frustrated, tense, and sweet—entirely compelling, I found the resolution of More Than Human mostly frustrating. Here’s why:

Gerry accepts the sacrifice but doesn’t actually go through with it because, going in and reading Hip’s mind, he sees there’s more at stake than his own basic desires; he becomes more human. Because Gerry doesn’t sacrifice Hip, Hip becomes part of their Homo Gestalt entity. He is the missing piece that enables Gerry, as the organism’s head, to become mature and self-aware enough to earn acceptance by all the other Homo Gestalts, a community that was just waiting for him to stop the violence and bullshit so they could reveal themselves to him. Okay—but one afternoon? Actually, that’s not even what bothers me most—this is a novel of ideas, and so the timelines don’t matter incredibly much. What matters is that while the newly complete Gestalt being is made complete by morality (Hip), it can’t transcend some pretty appalling aspects of twentieth-century social structure. Janie and Beanie and Bonnie are and remain merely appendages of the being, there to be used as the head sees fit—good thing the head has morality (male) to make sure he doesn’t do too much damage! The structure of the being persistently relegates women and minorities to positions of subservience; not only that, they don’t object: Janie is happy to stop making decisions now that Hip is around to make Gerry behave himself. And the twins never learn to talk; only once does either of them take independent action, and that’s to prevent Gerry from killing Hip before he learns his lesson—and as soon as Hip gains control of the situation, she and her sister immediately begin taking orders from him.

I don’t know if the other Home Gestalts have heads that are female or black or both—I think they could be beyond race and gender, but this isn’t made explicit. All we know of them, besides that they’ve been waiting for Gerry to get his shit together before revealing themselves, is that “multiplicity is our first characteristic; unity our second. As your parts know they are parts of you, so must you know that we are parts of humanity.”

Okay. But the only characters in Gerry’s Homo Gestalt who have last names are male. And Beanie and Bonnie, who are black, not only never learn to talk (at best, they “gabble”). Making things even more uncomfortable, Bonnie and Beanie’s father speaks with all the eloquence of a minstrel show; when he discovers them naked (because young Janie has put their rompers out of reach), all I could think was ‘Oh hell, please don’t let him be black! Please!’:

‘Bonnie!’ he bellowed, ‘Beanie! Wha y’all?’ He lurched out into the open and peered around. ‘Come out yeah! Look at yew! I gwine snatch yew bald-headed! Wheah’s yo’ clo’es?’ He swooped down on them and caught them, each huge hand on a tiny biceps. He held them high, so that each had one toe barely touching the concrete and their little captured elbows pointed skyward. He turned around, once, twice, seeking, and at last his eye caught the glimmer of the rompers on the sill. ‘How you do dat?’ he demanded.’ You trine th’ow away yo’ ‘spensive clo’es? Oh, I gwine whop you.’

It soon becomes clear that he is, in fact, black. I was appalled not only because it’s just appalling, but it was more so because the disjoint between Sturgeon being able to imagine such a wildly compelling form of human evolution sits right on top of, and never questions, such contemporary prejudices. (It’s like how in Neuromancer, William Gibson invented the internet but couldn’t imagine a world without cassette tapes—but sad and disturbing rather than charming and a little funny.)

So, I mostly loved this book but it made me uncomfortable and embarrassed sometimes. I read a lot of nineteenth-century fiction, so it’s not like I don’t come across such prejudices about race and gender (the former much more explicit than the latter in More Than Human) fairly frequently. But I guess, as a relative newbie to sci-fi, I’d hoped the big ideas with regards to science would necessarily seep into ideas about the present…But, after all, maybe that’s too much to ask—Theodore Sturgeon was, presumably, only human.

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Copper Cylinders: More Than Human by Colleen Shea is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

About Colleen Shea

There are many things about Colleen Shea that are cool and awesome and deserving of other hackneyed terms of approbation, but the most important thing is this: she invented the pie-luck. That's right, the potluck in which only pies are considered acceptable offerings. You're welcome. Pie is, clearly, the most important thing in the world but in case you're curious, Colleen also reads, writes, cycles, and cooks many delicious non-pie items. She blogs, mostly about books, at Jam and Idleness and is a regular contributor at Food Riot.
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6 Responses to Copper Cylinders: More Than Human

  1. andrew says:

    Great review Colleen. I think you’re dead on with most of your assessment, except that I would argue some of the more objectionable bits you identify, are a part of the book’ secret strength when you put it into context.

    You rightly note the Cormac McCarthy-esque (of whom, we should clearly never speak of again to each other) prose, but what you’re detecting is the shared influence of William Faulkner; in particular The Sound and the Fury, which contains stream-of-consciousness passages in the voice of a mentally challenged character.

    In terms of historical context, More Than Human was published prior to the real rise of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements in the U.S., in pieces in 1952 and fully in 1953. This was one year after an infamous 1951 trial in Mississippi which led to the execution of Willie McGee, a black man accused of raping a white woman. The evidence suggested that McGee was actually involved in a consensual affair. William Faulkner wrote a letter at the time insisting the case was unproven.

    More Than Human was also written shortly after the development of Gestalt Therapy techniques, which arrived in the late 1940s and Early 1950s. In the classic way of all SF writers from H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to today, Sturgeon extrapolated some of the basis of Gestalt Therapy, “it is only possible to know ourselves against the background of our relationship to the other” (J. Latner, 2000) into an extended metaphor.

    Sturgeon’s, no question, clumsy attempts to write in a kind of vernacular the way Faulkner did, and his ultimately patriarchal approach to the final gestalt being, obscure a radical and progressive agenda. If, at the time, Sturgeon had written an op-ed piece for the New York Times suggesting that black people should be embraced as part of the community of humankind in order for us to evolve, he would have found a burning cross on his doorstep that night.

    More Than Human falls short of greatness because of Sturgeon’s blinkered and prejudicial approach to depicting black people and women, but Sturgeon’s reach was admirable, and should be commended, even if it did exceed his grasp.

  2. Colleen says:

    Faulkner, yes. I don’t enjoy Faulkner, so it makes sense that I also don’t enjoy He Who Shall Henceforth Never Be Discussed By Us, Meaning Andrew and Colleen.

    I take your point with regards to historical context and race. But I don’t think having Beanie and Bonnie at least be able to talk, dammit, would have earned TS a burning cross on his lawn!

    Really, my disappointment is about my larger expectations of the genre–which, clearly, just aren’t fair. I’ll try not to expect too much in terms of forward thinking for my next Copper Cylinders post…

    • andrew says:

      No, for sure don’t stop holding the genre to a higher standard, I think there’s some really interesting discussion there—especially in Science Fiction, where writers could be so forward-looking in terms of new technologies, and so blind, or even regressive, about social change.

      There are exceptions who tackled the possible evolution of social constructs, but even among the exceptions the results could be just plain weird—like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers’ fascistic meritocracy or the “line marriage” polyamory in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

  3. Colleen says:

    Sounds like I’m going to have to read Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (god, I love this title) for CC at some point!

    One thing I didn’t have space for in this post on Sturgeon: He was surprisingly funny at points–especially when Lone and the kids were first learning to live together. I wasn’t expecting any hilarity in MTH but what was there was really well done.

    Which I guess is actually part of why I found the lack of forward-thinking on race and gender so discomfiting–he was so clearly interested in humanity and how it worked in both macro- and microcosm…

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