Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review of The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon

Robert Silverberg calls the 1950s the real Golden Age of science fiction, not the decade prior. With the bloom of Algis Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke, C.M. Kornbluth, Walter M. Miller, James Blish, Clifford Simak, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, Wilson Tucker, Robert Sheckley, and others, it's tough to argue. Producing books and stories that went beyond the confection of ray guns and drooling aliens, human concerns were brought front and center, even as the backdrops utilized the now-standard tropes of science fiction. One of the greatest if not the most unique writer to appear in the decade was Theodore Sturgeon, and his debut novel, 1950's The Dreaming Jewels, is the flag waving, marking the changing of the guard - or in this case, precious metals.

As fresh at the beginning of the 21st century as when it was first published in the mid-20th, The Dreaming Jewels is a singular story of self-discovery, alien jewels, and the value of quality relationships to personal stability and well-being. The life portrayed in traveling carnivals in (then) contemporary America is just the icing. Abused at the hands of a nasty step-father, young Horty escapes and is picked up by a passing show at the tender age of eight. Raised amongst a variety of freaks and carnies, he never loses sight of a mysterious jack-in-the-box he's had since birth—a jack-in-the-box which causes extreme anxiety near to the point of death when he’s separated from it. Their traveling show managed by the cadaverous Pierre Monetreto, Horty, and a kind woman named Zena, are eventually pushed to the brink of sanity by the man's inexplicable actions. A scientist by training, the point of Monetreto’s research is slowly revealed, and darker the portents become...

Certainly a disappointment for readers expecting aggressive aliens and space battles, and, on the flip side, a nice surprise to readers looking for something new, something to break the mold, The Dreaming Jewels is as colorfully human as its title hints. (For this and other reasons, the later alternate title The Synthetic Man makes for an ambiguous choice.) A deceivingly simple story, Sturgeon keeps the novel's intensity lo-fi (save the climax) but full-barrel in its presentation of a boy who becomes a man, and the uncertainties feared, confidences found, and ultimately life discovered as the fabric of his world takes on deeper hues of alien-ness. Ostensibly a YA novel, there are certainly layers available to the probing mind that give the novel mature depth.

The obvious comparison to The Dreaming Jewels is Ray Bradbury's later Something Wicked This Way Comes. Both about young men in settings darkened by the phantasmagoria of a traveling carnival in Gothified Americana, indeed the comparisons are apt. Bradbury's the more well known work, twelve years, in fact separate the two. Sturgeon's the earlier, his novel tends toward the personal, while Bradbury's the ideological. Not to say one is better than the other, both are superb Silver/Golden Age works, only that the presence and perseverance of evil is but one of the facets of The Dreaming Jewels (sorry).

In the end, The Dreaming Jewels is something of a landmark novel in science fiction. Quietly so, its human-centric, soft-science fiction approach did not allow it to appear on the scene with the same bang as, say, Neuromancer did. But in retrospective, it’s certain the novel is part of the vanguard of novels and novelists looking to transform science fiction into a legitimate form of fiction. Reading as fresh today as when it was published only adds to its legacy.

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