Remember the Grateful Dead? You know, that trippy jam band with the crazy fans and the Ben & Jerry's flavor named after their lead singer. 'Deadheads,' the ultra devoted fans that followed the band around the country, believed the shows had an 'X-factor' that allowed the performances to become something higher. It's as if the individual band members would blend and mesh their talents into something…More Than Human.
It may or may not come as a surprise to learn that the band's bassist, Phil Lesh, compared the Grateful Dead to the transcendent super-entity 'gestalt' from Theodore Sturgeon's 1953 novel, More Than Human.
Picture it: You're a lonely weirdo with super mind-powers who links up with six similarly strange oddballs to merge—without losing your individuality or body—into a single, multiplayer life form that could run the world. Y'all don't get around to doing that, though, because you're busy a) figuring out why you killed someone, then b) erasing people's memories so the whole planet will leave you alone—until this new lonely weirdo tells your main guy that protecting humanity is a better way to live. That's More Than Human in two sentences.
Back to reality. We mean back, though, as in about 1940. Let's time-travel a bit to see how this novel fits into the history of science fiction.
Sci-fi writers of the genre's Golden Age (yep, that's really what critics call it) kinda thought scientists could solve everything, Sturgeon included. But in 1945, the U.S. unleashed its scientific research to nuke Japan. Twice. All the Golden Age authors realized humanity could blow itself to smithereens in a day.
Hmm. So maybe Sturgeon questions his faith in scientists a little? Yeah, totally. Skip ahead to 1953, when this book comes out. The gestalt—that single, multiplayer life form in the novel—invents an anti-gravity generator, called the most revolutionary creation possible. But if such creative powers aren't used for good, the novel suggests, we'll have problems like nuclear war.
The book is a hit. It earns Sturgeon the International Fantasy Award in 1954. It's got this concept people really like: the gestalt "bleshes." The novel's word is based on the words "blend" and "mesh," and a character compares the concept to what musicians who play different notes but create a single song do. The single song is like the gestalt life form, see? More Than Human shows how, in Sturgeon's opinion, people can blesh, ethically speaking.
Zoom forward a decade. Counterculture hippies are really into the book, particularly authors of the New Wave, the next sci-fi movement. So More Than Human basically bridges the Golden Age and the New Wave. Ta-da! We've learned how the novel fits into science fiction history.
It's definitely Sturgeon's most well-known work. Writers say More Than Human has great literary technique, which, yeah, makes parts of it hard to understand, but we're here to help. Stephen King even went so far as to compare it to Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, which is a, uh, confusing Modernist masterpiece. Others praise Sturgeon's lyrical or flowery style, which was influenced by his study of Romantic poets.
Was More Than Human made into a movie though? Not quite. Filmmakers, notably Orson Welles, director of the canonical Citizen Kane, have tried to put this book onto the big screen—but the efforts have fallen through so far. You get to read it, though!
Oh yeah—that predicting the future thing? Science fiction is really more of a metaphor about the time in which it's written than a collection of prophecies, but maybe Sturgeon sorta did predict something about today. Read on to see what . . .
One big reason you should care about this novel is because its gestalt life form is lonely people with special talents joining together to advance humanity's brainpower, which is kind of like what we're all doing with the Internet today. This book, written before research into the Internet even began, argues that the next step in our evolution is in a mental, rather than a physical, direction. That's why the main characters have "psionic" mind-powers like telepathy.
You could consider the Internet a similar sort of mental evolution as psionic powers. We humans evolved our intelligence basically so we could figure out better ways to run away from lions and the like. We've been figuring things out ever since, building tools such as the Internet, a gigantic outboard brain we all share and contribute to. Just like the gestalt in the book, the Internet is a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.
More Than Human describes how we should use better brainpower to progress into gestalt groups that collaborate in a fluid, improvisational manner. Had Sturgeon taken his concept from biology rather than psychology, he might have hit upon the idea of stigmergy, which describes how, like an ant colony, the Internet is made up of many people working together. However you want to describe it scientifically, the book argues that the essence of progress is found in changing and improving the way you think and interact with others.
That's why the novel defines an intelligent method for working together: "bleshing" (it's even in the Urban Dictionary). To blesh is to "blend" and "mesh" together so well that something larger and more powerful emerges than if you were simply to add up individuals in an unthinking way.
When we blesh on the Internet, we solve problems in a powerful, intelligent way just by sharing the same general idea. For instance, we share a hashtag that actually helps rather than distracts, or programmers assist each other in creating free open-source software.
News today questions the ethics of the Internet regarding matters such as privacy and sharing information freely. The society at the end of the book takes those matters seriously, staying hidden when necessary and sharing ideas so humanity can invent better science and culture. The main characters have to learn to be ethical to join that society.
This book feels as if Sturgeon tried to predict a way for more intelligent people in the future to work together. More than half a century later, More Than Human could be considered literary advice on how we can use the Internet.
All Things Sturgeon…Except the Fish.
This is the headquarters for Sturgeon stuff online. It's maintained by physicist Eric R. Weeks, Ph.D.. This has or links to, like, basically everything you want to know about Sturgeon or his fiction.
Prolific is an Understatement
You want a list of pretty much everything Sturgeon ever wrote? Find it here, thanks to William F. Seabrook. His bibliography also includes reviews and criticism of Sturgeon's work, and biographies about the author.
Trust in Sturgeon
The copyright-holders to his work maintain a helpful site with lots of info, including where to buy his books. Thanks!
Better Call Toto
Dorothy might not be in Kansas anymore, but Sturgeon's papers are. His work is archived at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, home to the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. So, if you're as obsessed with More Than Human as we are, you can go to the Library and look at the original manuscript of the novel.
The Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award
This page lists authors who have won the annual Sturgeon prize for best science fiction short story. The list might help you find stories in a similar style to his.
"The Man Who Lost the Sea"
Strange Horizons re-printed one of Sturgeon's better-known short stories online. You can read the whole thing for free, which is pretty nifty. Yeah, the story is really challenging to understand, but we think it's worth it.
Recipe for Theodore Sturgeon's Butterfly Eggs
A recipe from Sturgeon's 1981 short story "Seasoning," which is about free will, predestination, and people writing scripts for their lives. There's a picture of the butterfly eggs, which look pretty gross.
Theodore Sturgeon, Storyteller
In 1976, this awesome rock-music critic dude Paul Williams wrote an essay about the author. Williams also edited The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon.
"The Push From Within"
Every college has a literary magazine, right? Well, in 1979, David D. Duncan interviewed Sturgeon and published in Phoenix, a University of Tennessee literary magazine.
"Yesterday's Tomorrows: Theodore Sturgeon"
Locus Magazine is pretty much the industry magazine for science fiction and fantasy writers, and in 2010 they printed this article by critic Graham Sleight. Sleight discusses how Sturgeon's stories and novels target readers' emotions.
Meet Theodore Sturgeon
Open Road Media is trying to make Sturgeon a better-known author. They created this short video of contemporary science fiction writers discussing his relevance.
Theodore Sturgeon Poetry Interview
Sturgeon discusses his poetic style in this rare radio interview from 1953 or thereabouts. His segment begins fifteen minutes in.
Original Cover Art
This image shows the original cover illustrations for the first hardback and first paperback editions of More Than Human. We think they look pretty far out.
Patti Perret photograph of Sturgeon wearing his "Q" pendant, which symbolizes his credo "Ask the Next Question." We want one.