I find it surprising that I have never read this novel until now. It was first published in 1953, the year I was born, and in the following year it won the International Fantasy Award for best novel. I’ve had it on my shelf for years and… Well, now seemed to be the right time to pick it up and read it.
The story concerns the creation of homo gestalt, or the next evolutionary step in humanity, consisting of a group mind of several disparate characters: a wandering idiot, who functions as the group’s head (when he is killed he is replaced by an orphan boy), a baby with Down’s syndrome who is referred to in the language of the era as mongoloid (the group’s brain), a girl with the power of telekinesis, and twin girls with the power of teleportation. Each has specific functions within the larger gestalt.
The book consists of three novellas, each told in a different style. The first part, “The Fabulous Idiot,” related in third person omniscient, cuts from character to character as it gives the back stories of Lone, the idiot, Jane, the girl with telekinetic abilities, Bonnie and Beanie, the African American girls with the ability to teleport, and Baby, the brilliant calculating mind.
The second part, “Baby Is Three,” is told in first person by Gerard, the orphan boy who takes over as the gestalt head when a tree falls on the idiot. He has gone to a psychiatrist to find out what he has suppressed from his past, and much of the story takes place in the office where he receives therapy. He eventually has a revelation or awakening and uses his powers to make the psychiatrist forget that he ever met him. This novella was originally published in a science fiction magazine as a stand-alone piece, and Sturgeon later wrote the other two to expand the story to novel length.
The third part, “Morality,” tells how Jane helps a man named Hip recover from devastating memory loss brought on by Gerard, who has become selfish and destructive. It deals with Hip’s attempt to introduce morality and ethos into the gestalt.
The three parts are dissimilar in style and in their approaches to the story, but I appreciate how Sturgeon layered the novel in this manner. There is a considerable gap of time between the various sections, and the focus on different viewpoints lends an atmosphere of suspense and mystery as the characters uncover what has gone on before.
This story was written almost seventy years ago, and there is, of course, an absence of modern technology. The novel itself, however, has aged little. It is remarkably relevant and readable. In fact, it is a refreshing change from all the superhero nonsense commonly associated with extraordinary powers. Instead of taking a wild comic book approach to the subject, Sturgeon imbues the tale with subtlety and emotional impact. It’s a short novel, at least in comparison to bloated contemporary novels, but it is of sufficient length to succinctly tell its story and then come to a conclusion. All in all, it is an excellent, well-written novel.