Friday, November 3, 2017

Review of The Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 More Than Human explored the possibility of a gestalt human mind in symbolic fashion; an unlikely group of six, each with their own unique powers, come together to form a more capable, collective mind.  The topic interesting (or More Than Human ultimately dissatisfying), Sturgeon returned to the subject in 1958 with The Cosmic Rape (aka To Marry Medusa). In some ways the counter-point to More Than Human, Sturgeon looked at a unified mind, in this case in a galaxy-spanning hive mind, in more human fashion—which made a huge difference, at least for this reviewer.

Though operating on a classic sf premise (an intergalactic alien hive mind seeks to subsume humanity’s minds), The Cosmic Rape is a fully human story.  Though the malcontent Dan Gurlick is linchpin to the novel, his story is interleaved by a handful of characters’ who couldn’t be more diverse.  Guido is a juvenile delinquent who, for reasons he doesn’t understand, hates music and feels the need to destroy it whenever he hears it.  Mentored by a patient policeman, he slowly softens.  Mbala is an African farmer who discovers someone is stealing yams from his garden at night.  Precisely who the culprit is is a surprise, forcing Mbala into a difficult decision.  Sharon is a four-year old girl riding with her family as they move house to a new city.  The family stopping for a break alongside the road, domestic hell breaks loose (Sturgeon does a superb job capturing the mini-dramas of children and parents), and as a result Sharon is accidentally left behind.  Her rescue is entirely unexpected.  Gurlick’s story told in and around these characters’ stories, the reader meets a true malcontent.   Thief, drunk, rapist—it’s the hive mind’s fate to have him as its first contact and first convert on Earth.  Tasking the vile man with gaining the knowledge and materials necessary to infiltrate and take over humanity’s minds, Gurlick is transformed by the alien mind, but not entirely…

Sturgeon’s oeuvre heavily leaning toward short fiction, it should come as no surprise The Cosmic Rape is a braid of narratives rather than a single, driving narrative.  Distinct yet complementary, Sturgeon weaves the strands of the braid into whole that arrives at a remarkable point upon the conclusion (and that gives the title a wonderful double-meaning).  An amazing representation of what a hive mind could mean in human terms (e.g. no more hidden anxieties if everyone could read your mind), Sturgeon nevertheless adheres to the fact the whole remains subjective to the individuals which comprise it—a purely humanist, almost fatalist view.  The overall composition relatively short in length, Sturgeon’s strong prose ensures this contrast packs a major punch.

It follows that, unlike many, I am not on the More Than Human bandwagon.  Generally speaking, it’s a good novel, but the kookiness of the extra-sensory powers makes it difficult to take too seriously, in particular that they are applied toward utopianism.  I fully appreciate that Sturgeon was attempting to look ahead to a time when humanity might put aside its differences and unify peacefully, but telekinesis, mind-reading, and the like cannot be taken as realia, and finding any symbolism behind it is a bit difficult given the highly optimistic manner in which the idea concludes itself.  The novel is wonderfully well written, but ultimately empty considering humanity’s mind powers have not evolved since the 1950s in the way Sturgeon or Alfred Bester imagined they might (Beavis and Butthead are somehow more relevant).

By contrast, The Cosmic Rape comes across the more relevant of the two.  Yes, the galactic hive mind is not all that different than the extrasensory mind powers of More Than Human in terms of purpose.  But a key difference is found in how Sturgeon grounds the fate of the hive mind in a human reality.  There simply is no Gurlick in More Than Human, and for that The Cosmic Rape is all the more representative.  From another perspective, the conclusions of the two novels go in different directions, with only that of The Cosmic Rape leading anywhere non-abstract.

Gurlick’s fate, for me, is what makes The Cosmic Rape the more relevant work of fiction.  Instead of a happily-ever-after with zero feet (or toes) in a reality that can be discussed with any meaning or a mere playground for sf ideas, Gurlick’s late decision is realistic commentary on life, particularly how it contrasts the reader’s expectations. Smoking kills, yet millions do it.  Why? The variety of answers to that question are far more interesting than the absurdity of: how can telekinetic powers help us achieve gestalt utopia?  The former can provide real insight whereas the latter can only result in waffling…

In the end, The Cosmic Rape feels like a re-invention of and improvement upon More Than Human.  Sturgeon taking a broader, more humanist approach, the absurdity of an extrasensory utopia is traded in favor of a hive mind that does not lead to utopia, rather a vision of what true human understanding could be contrasted by inescapable human realities.  More relevant for this contrast, The Cosmic Rape more clearly defines Sturgeon’s ideas, fictional and metaphorical.  The prose just as strong, if not more refined than More Than Human, The Cosmic Rape is that all important next step.

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