It’s been a while since I made any progress on the nine novels included in the Library of America’s American Science Fiction: Classic Novels of the 1950s. I had a great time reading the first novel in the collection, The Space Merchants (my review here), but I was a bit disappointed in the way the plot took over all other concerns as the novel progressed. Perhaps that why I waited before tackling the next in the collection, More Than Human (1953). I needn’t have worried. I read the first page and knew right away that I was dealing with a different, superior beast.

Review copy courtesy of The Library of America.

Review copy courtesy of The Library of America.

More Than Human rests on a fairly simple premise — the next stage of human evolution — but goes about exploring this premise in a way that is formally, stylistically, and conceptually ambitious. The book is divided into three, episodic, almost stand-alone parts: Part I, The Fabulous Idiot, explores the initial stage of the evolution; Part II, Baby Is Three, explores this creature’s quest for survival, during which it discovers just how powerful it is; and Part III, Morality, deals with just how such a creature might develop a system of morals.

From the beginning of “The Fabulous Idiot,” I was hooked, both by the excellent style and the strange person it described:

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.

Men turned away from him, women would not look, children stopped and watched him.

The idiot has no past and no name. He resides completely inside of himself and in the present moment, mainly living by instinct, particularly hunger and fear. Otherwise, without the gift of language and no real awareness of other people, the idiot wanders around.

The story shifts and we meet the Kew family, composed of the hyper-religious, brutal, guilt-inducing, misogynistic Mr. Kew and his two young daughters, Alicia and Evelyn. Their mother died giving birth to Evelyn, lending credence to father’s claims that the Lord punishes women who think of flesh. The daughters are raised in an environment that Mr. Kew hopes will keep them innocent, though he has his doubts.

One day, out in a beautifully described, atmospheric, gated forest, Evelyn and the idiot have a brief psychic encounter. I won’t go into the brutal details, but in the end the only ones living are the idiot and Alicia. Injured, possibly near death, the idiot stumbles upon the Prodd farm. The Prodds have an empty nursery and decide that they can raise this poor idiot in the place of their own lost Jack. They teach him to speak, though he’s never going to be much of a speaker, and they call him Lone.

This section also takes a little bit of time to introduce several other characters, some of which we won’t see again until Parts II and III: Gerry Thompson, Hip Barrows, Janie, Bonnie, Beanie, and, finally, a Downs Syndrome baby names, simply, Baby.

See, the developing creature is not actually physically different from Homo Sapiens. Rather, it is a creature formed when the psychically evolved children we’re introduced to begin to work together, one forming the arms, one the head, one the brain, etc. Individually, they are cast aside as freaks, but in their collective state they are actually one begin, and this being can do incredible things. These children come together to form the first being of a new species: Homo Gestalt.

The first paperback edition of More Than Human (Ballantine, 1953). Art by Richard Powers.

The first paperback edition of More Than Human (Ballantine, 1953). Art by Richard Powers.

The book is structured in such a way, though, that we have no idea where it’s going. Like Lone, when he lived mainly in the present, we have no sense of the past or the future. We just move along as the world — along with Lone’s acquisition of language skills — grows around us. Understanding comes bit by bit, layer upon layer. The characters themselves don’t know what’s going on, so why should we?

This structure that keeps us in the dark continues in Parts II and III as well. In Part II, which takes place some years after Part I, we are confused when a Gerry Thompson we have probably forgotten about goes to a psychiatrist because, “I want to find out why I killed somebody.”

We come to learn that Gerry was living with a few of the other children at Alicia Kew’s home. They were all happy and, for the most part, felt the comfort that comes with belonging. Yet just last night he killed someone and he has no idea why.

We go back and forth in time, even to what appears to be the future when Gerry, who is an adolescent, talks about being 33 years old. He has blocked out some memories, but he doesn’t know why. Again, this back-and-forth motion keeps the reader moving forward, but it’s more than a means to keep the mystery alive.

In the next section, we again encounter Hip Barrows, whom we also haven’t seen since Part I. He’s completely lost a portion of his past. All he knows is that he was seeking to find someone in a cave. As he seeks the memories his memories, “His afternoons began to possess a morning and his days, a yesterday.” It’s a fascinating way to approach the idea that matter, energy, space, time, and psyche are all the same thing and that some day a new creature will come along who can play in all five aspects.

My only quibble with the book came in the last Part: Morality. While I liked the idea that Homo Gestalt was a new, lonely species with just one member — “We’re living on a desert island with a herd of goats” — I wasn’t keen on what to me appeared to be a rather tidy way of developing a moral philosophy. Thus, the last few pages of the book didn’t give me a conclusion that lived up to the rest of the book. That said, the rest of the book is exceptional, and it did just what I hoped one of these science fiction books would do: revive my youthful interest in the unknown.

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