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Novels by Sturgeon, reviewed by Eric WeeksDecember 9, 1999
About a year ago I wrote several reviews of Theodore Sturgeon's novels, but didn't post them on the web (these were for the web-zine If, now defunct). I was waiting to reread his most famous novel, "More than Human", before I'd post a complete review of all of his sf novels. Alas, I never got inspired to reread More than Human. A quick summary: most people think it's the best book by Sturgeon, although in my opinion I like "Godbody" and "Some of Your Blood" even more. Also, MTH has been reviewed by zillions of people before, so I don't really feel compelled to review it here. Perhaps someday in the future I'll write that review...
As mentioned before in this column, Theodore Sturgeon is one of my favorite authors, and I maintain The Theodore Sturgeon Page related to his work. I'm not going to worry about whether or not I'm being objective, although I have tried in some cases to indicate where certain books might be of greater interest to Sturgeon fans than to the general reader. Also, I'll mention that I am a fan of Sturgeon more for his short stories than for his novels... but some of these novels are really outstanding.
Also, I am only reviewing the sf novels of Sturgeon. He also wrote several novelizations of movies (both sf and westerns), an Ellery Queen novel, and a historical novel based on a practical joke by a radio DJ. The five novels reviewed below are the ones Sturgeon wrote "from scratch," and are all sf. "More than Human" is the sixth and last pure sf novel he wrote. In my opinion, Sturgeon wrote three major novels: More than Human, Some of Your Blood, and Godbody; and three minor novels: Venus Plus X, The Cosmic Rape, and The Dreaming Jewels. Read the first three first.
This is my favorite novel of Sturgeon's. As the book opens, Sturgeon speaks directly to the reader, informing you that you will be reading through the secret contents of a hidden folder. This folder is from the old files of an army psychiatrist, containing documents pertaining to a curious case... let's call him George Smith. Given the title, I don't think it gives away much to tell you that George likes to drink blood. But he's not your conventional vampire.
This book is basically a character study of George Smith. One of the documents is his personal narrative, written down for the psychiatrist. George grew up as a hillbilly, and had a terrible childhood. He is a quiet fellow who has learned that the best way to survive is to keep quiet. His first happiness in life came when he was put into a reform school for boys; later, he finds his niche in the army. In fact, he is sufficiently quiet that we learn a lot about him just by the coaxing the psychiatrist must do to get him to write the personal narrative. (In this novel, the psychiatrist's actions are described in a series of letters exchanged between him and his boss.) As the book progresses, we learn more about the parts of George's life that were omitted from the narrative.
This is a horror novel, although it's not your usual novel of gore and things that jump out of shadows waving knives. In fact, the Horror Writers' Association lists this book as one of the top forty horror books of all time. What I really like about this book is that it's an extremely well-done character portrait of George Smith, who as it turns out is more interesting of a character than he might seem at first glance. The plot is somewhat minimal, focusing on the psychiatrist drawing information from George and trying to decide what actions to take regarding George. George's life might be considered a secondary plot; it's an entertaining story by itself. And while this is supposed to be a horror novel, Sturgeon's empathy also makes George a sympathetic character.
I give this book 4 stars. Unlike the other books that get more than 3 stars from me, this book doesn't have an enormously powerful plot. But, I love good characterization, and this book has the best. If you've been reading my other book reviews, you know how picky I can be about even books I like, but in my opinion this is a book without flaws. (Any more of a plot would detract from this book.) If you too are a fan of characterization, this book is a must read. Fortunately, I believe it's currently in print.
This was Sturgeon's last book, published posthumously, which he spent over ten years working on. My impression is that he considered this his most important novel. The basic gist of the book is that love is important, that sex is an important way to express love (but not the only way), that through love (and sex) one can find religion, and that perhaps modern organized religion is not the proper way to find religion. The book is told in eight chapters, each chapter told from the perspective of a different character.
Godbody, a man, has come to a small rural town. He is some sort of messiah, and the people he interacts with have their lives changed by him: they realize the important messages mentioned above. For two characters, who are happy, married, and in love, Godbody's messages makes their marriage even better. For several unhappy characters, they learn how they can be happier. There are also two enemies of Godbody, two older people who control the town through a quiet system of blackmail, who see Godbody as a threat to their interests. Willa Mayhew writes the newspaper's gossip column, and by threatening to reveal the secrets she knows, forces people to live according to her narrow-minded view of right and wrong. Andrew Merriweather is the town banker, who works with Willa to enforce his view of right and wrong, and make money in the process. These two characters are similar to characters seen in many other of Sturgeon's stories; they are extremely sexually repressed. In this book, it is clear that all of their evilness flows from this.
That's my one main objection to this book, that being sexually repressed is seen as such an overriding flaw. This is Sturgeon's one gripe with organized religion, that it acts to repress us sexually (and this stifles love, even in a marriage, according to Sturgeon). This is a theme in a lot of Sturgeon's writing -- that the human race has some harmful ideas of right and wrong, when it comes to sexuality, and that much of these ideas comes from organized religion. (I should point out that he's not against religion in general; one of the characters in this book is a minister, who eventually turns against organized religion, but remains religious nonetheless.) The message of Godbody boils down to sex is love is religion; I am not sure I agree that sexually unpressed people are also automatically good people.
Godbody is one of Sturgeon's best books in terms of characterization. Each chapter is told first-person from a different viewpoint, and this technique is handled exquisitely. It is hard in a 160 page novel to get to know eight characters well, and Sturgeon pulls it off. The one character we never really know well is Godbody, although perhaps he is known more through the effect he has on the other characters. However, unlike Some of Your Blood, this book isn't about characters (or plot) as much as it is about message. It's hard to say much else about this book, other than it's a fitting final work of Sturgeon. If you read this book, you will see some of Sturgeon's best characterization, and get the full impact of what Sturgeon feels about love and how important love is. For anyone who is a fan of Sturgeon's writing, this is a must-read 4 star book, more so than anything else he has written. Apart from that, I'd say it's a 3 star book that is perhaps a little overwhelmed by its message.
Not a great book, but it does contain some good vignettes. The main character, Gurlick, is a nasty, drunken bum. He becomes the pawn of a vast interstellar intelligence bent on subsuming humanity into its hive mind. To this end, Gurlick builds various devices as directed by the hive mind. When activated, these have the effect of irrevocably telepathically linking all humans to each other. The final step of the plan must use Gurlick himself to connect the linked minds of humanity to the hive mind.
Gurlick is one of Sturgeon's better characters; we can practically smell him from Sturgeon's descriptions. He is a complete and total loser. In addition to Gurlick, the book also contains several vignettes about other random people. These stories are carried to a certain point, then used to illustrate the effect that the telepathic linkage has on the human race. In the end, Sturgeon draws a very utopian picture of what life could be for a human hive mind. Much of this draws from Sturgeon's viewpoints about what makes people unhappy, such as needing to worry about other people's opinions, or being sexually repressed.
I found one thing inexplicable in the book. The machines which create the human hive mind are systematically destroyed by the humans. I couldn't quite figure out why this was necessary. If these machines are actually creating the human hive mind, and this is a good thing, then why do they need to be destroyed? I think Sturgeon wanted to show what a united humanity would be capable of, in terms of coordinated effective action, but he forgot to provide a clear reasonable explanation of why these machines needed to be destroyed. After all, the evil alien hive mind wants to subsume humanity, not destroy it -- these aren't killing machines.
This book gets 2 stars. It's got one great character, and good little vignettes, but that's about it. Sturgeon's vision of utopia is fun to read about, if you like that aspect of his writing. Otherwise, the book has very little that's compelling about it, and the plot has a few weaknesses. If you like Sturgeon's writing in general, you will enjoy this book; if you're just looking for a good sf plot, you will probably be disappointed.
Horty Bluett is a strange child who may not even be a normal human. Oppressed by an evil stepfather, he runs away from home and joins a circus. The circus is run by the evil Monetre, but fortunately Horty is befriended by Zena, a midget. Horty grows up, leaves the circus, and later returns and confronts Monetre. Sturgeon uses this book to discuss the humanity of people who aren't otherwise "normal." For example, besides Horty (who may literally be nonhuman), Zena has experienced discrimination and alienation due to being a midget. Sturgeon discusses the meaning of humanity in portions of this book, focusing on how, despite their abnormalities, Horty and these circus freaks are more human than Monetre. This is the strength of the book; the plot itself is not very compelling.
This book has one quirky part. The description of Horty's stepfather is extremely similar to Theodore Sturgeon's own stepfather. (Sturgeon's autobiography, Argyll, tells quite a lot about Sturgeon's unhappy childhood.) After Horty leaves the circus, there is a brief interlude where the stepfather is sexually harassing none other than Horty's childhood sweetheart. Horty effectively squashes this. This interlude is somewhat strange and out of place, and may be wish-fullfilment on Sturgeon's part, but it's interesting.
I give this book 2 stars. The plot doesn't move smoothly; we move rather abruptly from one situation to the next. The episode with the stepfather in the middle could have been dropped from the book, although perhaps it's not entirely inappropriate as both the stepfather and the childhood sweetheart play key roles in Horty's life in other ways as well. Monetre is evil to the point of being a caricature; I prefer more realistic evil characters (such as the stepfather). This book does have Sturgeon's appreciation for humanity, which makes it worth reading.
A couple last notes about this book. This book has also been published under the title "The Synthetic Man." I'd prefer that title to "The Dreaming Jewels." Someone told me that once, at a sf convention, Sturgeon wore jeans with teardrop shapes sewed on them -- they were his "Drooling Jeans."
Charlie Johns is a normal everyday kind of guy, transported to a utopian society in the future. The twist in this utopia is that the human race has evolved to the point where everybody is a hermaphrodite, both male and female. Charlie has been brought to this society in order to judge it, by his own standards. As Sturgeon has created it, this society really is a utopia, there really are no flaws. Nonetheless, in the end Charlie's judgement is harsh, stemming from his disgust of hermaphrodites. Actually, it's a little subtler than that, although I don't want to give anything away. Similar to some other stories Sturgeon has written, the main point is that the human race won't accept a utopia if it meant giving up sexual taboos.
Interspersed with the story of Charlie Johns is a non-story sort of examination of a normal, modern-day married family. Sturgeon focuses on the husband, and his interaction with his somewhat-sexist neighbor and his somewhat-feminist wife. These tiny vignettes illustrate different gender roles and stereotypes, and are somewhat thought-provoking. Despite being published in 1960, these still illuminate the interesting questions about gender identity.
In the end it's hard to decide if the book is about gender (as the back cover claims), sex (as the author claims), or utopia (as I would claim, except that I'm saying it's hard to decide). Mainly, as Sturgeon often does, this book pokes at sexual taboos, while exploring one possible version of utopia. This book is reminscent of Godbody. It's a 2 1/2 star book -- not amoung the best of Sturgeon's novels, but better than The Dreaming Jewels and The Cosmic Rape.