03 January 2013
Less Than Human
One I missed back in the early Eighties when I was going through the classics of science fiction like a hot knife through butter. Maybe I’d have liked it better if I’d read it back then. Probably not.
It's an act of charity to call this book SF at all. It’s supposed to be about the emergence of a new species, but from an evolutionary point of view the emergence described could not possibly take place – the whole concept is ridiculously unscientific. The story does contain one authentic science-fictional device – an antigravity generator – but it has only peripheral relevance and the author doesn’t even bother to make it credible. In fact, his account of how the thing is made and used positively insults the reader's intelligence.
The real story here is about a group of subnormal or disturbed young people with parapsychological powers. That’s right, telepathy, telekinesis and so forth. Such mumbo-jumbo, good reader, makes up the ‘scientific’ content of this ‘science fiction classic’ – justified by one lame paragraph in which the author asserts that credible evidence for such things exists. It does? Show me.
Oh, all right then, never mind: let's shove the ‘science fiction’ definition and ask how this works as fantasy. I think the answer is: it probably works all right if you’re a lonely, disturbed teenager who wants to believe your social ineptitude is a sign that you’re different and special. Readers over the mental age of sixteen, however, are likely to find it all a bit infantile and pathetic.
The writing has moments of genuine quality, but Sturgeon tries too hard and is much too fond of the egregiously quirky metaphor or syntactical conceit to be able to write good prose consistently. The general structure of the novel is messy and contains several confusing chronological shifts, which seem to exist only because the author couldn’t find a better way of telling the story. The consistent ferment of juvenile anxiety is exhausting and, if you’re a grown-up, tedious to a degree. As for the ending, it is irritatingly moralistic and even the genuine surprise at the end is spoiled by too much preaching.
So why was this ever a classic? I suspect the answer lies with those lonely, disturbed teenagers mentioned above. It spoke to them. It told them they were special – that maybe, just maybe, they were... more than human.
But they weren’t special, and neither is this book.