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.

The Foods of Tomorrow

soylent-green

Other than strident dystopias like The Sheep Look Up or Make Room! Make Room! (Soylent Green), science fiction doesn’t seem to really engage with food that often. Certainly I can think of great examples of descriptive scenes of eating in fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, but if an SF work does expend the same energy on food it tends to the horrific of the examples above, or the satirical—like the genetically engineered vat-food in Brave New World or the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Food is a passion and hobby of mine, so this excellent article by Jason Sheehan hits a sweet-spot for me. As an ex-chef and food writer with a love of SF, Mr. Sheehan understands the potential of food as a fictional world-building tool. He cites a couple of examples—particularly the dog food scene in The Road Warrior—that have long preoccupied me as well.

The food-related SF example that looms largest for me though is an unlikely one: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. I say unlikely in that although Asimov is rightfully a giant in the field of SF, no one ever points to him for rhapsodic descriptions of foodstuffs—Proust he ain’t.

I read The Caves of Steel at about the age of fourteen. In the novel, Asimov imagines an enormous and nearly endless city, where many people live their whole lives without accessing open space. As a method of dealing with overpopulation, most citizens are issued chits for cafeteria-style eating rather than being allowed to prepare food at home—saving the space/resources for individual kitchens and food storage, and ensuring people only eat a ration based on their personal needs. He describes lining-up to hand in your chit and then passing on to another line for the food available to your particular circumstances.

In a weird bit of synchronicity the evening of the day I finished reading The Caves of Steel, my family visited a new restaurant for dinner. This restaurant is long since lost to the mists of time. It was a buffet place. You lined up to pay for a chit…then got into lines for individual, semi-cubicle divisions (like, yes, many men’s urinals) to stand at a space near a conveyor belt that rolled the food past you. The ambiance of the place was somewhere between high school cafeteria and a DMV.

What Mr. Sheehan understands better than the either the creators of that restaurant nightmare, or the average SF writer, is that food matters on many levels, it’s not just fuel.

Historically, Science Fiction, when it bothered to think about food at all, predicted either deprivation or pills that would make eating obsolete. No one in the Golden Age of SF ever predicted the 21st Century’s widespread resurgence of interest in DIY food production methods like canning, smoking and cheese-making.*

Food sets off reactions in our heads that we’re just beginning to understand. It’s no accident that cocaine and something fatty like bacon can light up similar regions of a brain-scan. Back to Proust again and the madeleine: food can trigger memories and emotional responses. We don’t want to make eating obsolete, we want to revel in both the sensual pleasures it affords and the cell-replacing sustenance it provides.

I’ve written before about the inherent power of imaginary food—it never disappoints. Mr. Sheehan’s article perfectly articulates the ways in which describing the food and eating habits of the characters populating a science-fictional universe can help make that universe more tangible, but I think there’s also another opportunity in this same effort. I’ve read many passages in general literature that bring to life an imaginary meal.**

I want to read more passages that attempt to convey a meal I can’t even imagine.

——
*Punk Domestics is a fantastic site that highlights this renewed interest in a return to the fundamentals of self-sufficient food preparation.
**My favourite is in Under the Jaguar Sun, by Italo Calvino.

Science Fiction Book Meme

Who Goes There? John W. Campbell Jr

Who Goes There?, John W. Campbell, Jr., cover Malcolm Smith, Shasta, Chicago Illinois, 1951, 2nd Edition-2nd printing, movie tie-in with “The Thing from Another World

I couldn’t resist another little pre-launch appetizer. John DeNardo at SF Signal posted an excellent time-waster of a meme this past Sunday, which I am unable to pass up. My overlong answers to the original 17 questions follow below in italics.

1. My favorite alien invasion book or series is…?

I was going to pick The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which is unquestionably great, but it really isn’t as interested in the alien threat described in the plot as it is the “what-if” psycho social ramifications of unending conflict over vast stretches of space-travel dilated time.

For that creepy, existential-crisis, fear-of-the-other that alien invasions stories largely represent, it’s still hard to top Who Goes There?, by John W Campbell Jr.

2. My favorite alternate history book or series is…?

The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson—steampunk before there was such a thing, now canonical.

3. My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Neuromancer: the perfect blend of fatalistic hardboiled noir and future shock.

4. My favorite Dystopian book or series is…?

There are a lot of great dystopian books, but 1984 is still the chilling pinnacle of this subgeneric hill. It even appeared on the bestseller lists again in the wake of recent privacy scandals. Orwell understood the inherent power of the perversion of language in service to control.

5. My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?

I struggled with this one—More Than Human, Fahrenheit 451, The Foundation Trilogy—all remarkable books. But Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination sticks in my imagination more than any other book from its period. As William Gibson noted, Bruce Sterling called it “a seamless pop artifact”—it pulses with life and accomplishes more in fewer pages than most of a bookcase worth of sci fi “classics.”

6. My favorite hard sf book or series is…?

This question lets me sneak in Arthur C. Clarke’s magnificent Childhood’s End, which more properly should have been my response to the Golden-Age one above; in which case this space would go to Rendezvous with Rama. But no other work of so-called “hard” science fiction leaves me as simultaneously melancholy and hopeful as Childhood’s End.

7. My favorite military sf book or series is…?

Now I get to slip in The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, excellent.

8. My favorite near-future book or series is…?

Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge has it all: reverse-aging medical procedures, augmented reality, smart military tech—and a bone-chilling vision of libraries being devoured that still gives me nightmares…

9. My favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. SF fans debate whether or not The Road represents a kind of literary-world dilettantism in the ghettos of genre, but no one who is a father can successfully refute this book’s power.

10. My favorite robot/android book or series is…?

My instinct is to go straight to I Robot, by Asimov—a juggernaut of the SF genre and influential even unto the real world of robotics—but I’m going to have to go with something of an oddball choice: Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (R.I.P.). Look to Windward examines the possible emotional consequences for artificial intelligences involved in an interstellar war. Banks’ great conceit is of a civilization shepherded by “Minds,” artificial intelligences with all the possible quirks that come from being sapient. The Minds extend themselves into android avatars and there are also independent probe-style robots here and there, so it counts. Worth the price of admission for the list of names the Mind-driven space ships christen themselves: You May Not Be The Coolest Person Here, Hand Me The Gun And Ask Me Again, Nuisance Value, Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall etc.

“O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

11. My favorite space opera book or series is…?

Again, back to the inimitable Iain M. Banks and his Culture. Start with Consider Phlebas, but the crown jewel in the series is Use of Weapons—avoid spoilers like a drunken uncle at the family picnic.

12. My favorite steampunk book or series is…?

My first thought was the awe-inspiring Perido Street Station by China Miéville, but although it’s rife with proto-steampunk tropes, it’s gnarly worldbuilding more easily fits into a kind of weird-fantasy crossover category than steampunk per se. So I’m going to step sideways into comics and pick The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore. Pure steampunk is, at it’s best, a reconfiguration of Victoriana, and no work does that more directly than League—Mina Harker, the Invisible Man, Mr Hyde, Dorian Grey, Captain Nemo, steam, gears, historical figures, the Nautilus, airships, Moriarty—it’s got it all and mashes it all together brilliantly.

13. My favorite superhero book or series is…?

This is perhaps my most obscure choice, but I’m going to say Slan by A E van Vogt. Slan’s prose is clunky and much of it has aged poorly, but there’s still something weirdly engaging about the book. Slan’s artificially evolved superhumans in hiding prefigures the X-Men to a startling degree. The murky morality of the two principle slans, the increasingly frenetic parallel narratives, and the still gripping action make it a surprisingly readable pulp curio.

I’ve interpreted this question to mean traditional prose novels, but if I had to go straight to the source, comics, then it’s The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, hands down—dark, gritty and all that revisionist stuff, sure, but ultimately still heroic. And about heroes you’ve known all your life, which notches it above the wonderful deconstruction that is Watchmen.

14. My favorite time travel book or series is…?

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. No one even tangentially exposed to a Judeo-Christian upbringing can deny the impact of Moorcock’s exploration of the psychology of faith. What would have been a clever think-piece in the hands of a lesser writer, is a gripping emotionally-charged fable in the hands of the master.

15. My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?

It’s tempting to stray into fantasy works here, particularly the incomparable Ursula K. LeGuin, but I’m going to stay in SF as the question implies and say Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi, which I actually enjoyed more than the adult-oriented Old Man’s War (still good, don’t get me wrong) in the same series. The perspective of a teenage girl on the events of a semi-traditional military science fiction story was really fresh and interesting.

16. My favorite zombie book or series is…?

I’m stretching it a bit here, but I’m going to say The Passage by Justin Cronin. Although technically about vampires, the images of hordes of uncommunicative monsters swarming out of the dark and wiping out most of humanity falls more easily into the zombie tradition. It’s also one of those books that creeps slowly into your consciousness and stays there until you have to finish it at two in the morning on a weeknight. A stealthy read that starts out feeling like a re-write of The Stand and gradually evolves into a weird hybrid of potboiler and properly literary experience—apocalyptic-ally elliptical.

17. The 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan and another phonebook by Steven Erikson.

Feel free to reply in the comments below or to the original meme—or to debate the relative merits of my selections if you’re feeling argumentative.