Sep 27 2010 4:55pm

Pondering humanity: Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels

Sturgeon’s overwhelming theme, the one he kept coming back to, is “what does it mean to be human, and what would it mean to be more than human?” The Dreaming Jewels (1950) is one of his most direct attacks on the question. It’s a remarkably sophisticated novel for 1950, even if it was revised for book publication in the sixties.

The problem with talking about The Dreaming Jewels is that it has all the ingredients of pulp—a villainous adoptive father, an evil genius carnival owner, freaks created by aliens, aliens disguised on Earth, a beautiful and heroic midget. It’s on a kind of Bradburyesque line where science fiction and horror lean close to each other in creaking gothic Americana. This book is so much more than the sum of its tropes that it’s possible to read it and re-read it without realising that they are standard tropes. Sturgeon was always a masterful and evocative writer, and what in other hands might have been schlock is here transmuted into something real.

They caught the kid doing something disgusting out under the bleachers at the high school stadium and he was sent home from the grammar school across the street. He was eight years old then. He’d been doing it for years.

This is the first paragraph, and it’s a wonderful hook. It’s a while before you find out what disgusting thing it was the kid was doing, and even longer before you find out why he was doing it. What he was doing and why is the key to the science fiction plot.

This is a book that it’s clearly been difficult for publishers to market. The covers have been generally pretty awful, and also very different. I own a 1975 Corgi SF Collectors Library paperback that I bought new for 40p in the later seventies. It’s purple, and it has a slightly grainy cover, and it matches my editions of The Menace From Earth and A Canticle for Leibowitz. (Dear old Corgi SF Collectors Editions with their very seventies fonts! How I imprinted on them at an early age!) I mention this, however, because the (uncredited) illustration actually represents and illustrates the book much better than any of the other cover pictures I’ve seen. It shows a hexagon with an attempt at facets, a man, a woman, hands, a snake, and stars, all in shades of green. It isn’t attractive, but it wouldn’t put off people who’d enjoy what’s inside either.

The ambience of the story is darkly fantastical—the carnival, the freaks, the evil genius Monetre (“Maneater”), the child’s toy with sinister significance, and the child’s point of view. But the “what if” questions it asks are undoubtedly science fictional—what if there were aliens on earth co-existing without being noticed because they weren’t competing with people at all? What if somebody happened to discover them and tried to exploit them for his own purposes? What if his plans to make a better way of communicating with them went wrong? The human story Sturgeon uses to explore these questions doesn’t go at all where you expect it to go.

Okay, spoilers coming up. What have you been doing since 1950 anyway that you haven’t had time to read this yet!

I’m told that people don’t need formic acid and that if they did, eating ants wouldn’t be a good way to get it. I don’t care about the scientific accuracy here, the imagery is perfect. It feels right. The same goes for the jewels making copies—freakish broken copies with one jewel, better than the original copies with two. It doesn’t matter whether this is possible, it matters that Sturgeon can make me believe it. And I think Horton is one of his better supermen. I love the way the great secret he gets from the jewels, how to kill their creatures, doesn’t kill either of the two people he thinks it will, and does kill two people we had thought human. I love that Horton doesn’t go with the sentimental childhood sweetheart but recognises his love for Zena and hers for him. There’s a reasonable dose of sentimentality here, but it’s earned. There’s also just as much sex as you could get away with in 1950, and just as much wickedness, too. The two very different villains, only one of them truly human, are a wonderful contrast in styles. The message that you can learn how to be human by reading a lot must have resonated with a lot of geeky teens—I mean, I can’t have been the only one.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. Brian2
A very minor correction: it's "formic" acid, not "fourmic," unless there's an alternative spelling I'm not aware of. Incidentally, people may not have a use for it, but anteaters ingest so much of it via ants that their digestive systems don't need to produce hydrochloric acid. (I'm not quite sure why you needed to know that.)
Chris Lough
2. TorChris
@1. Fixed. Thanks Brian! We don't know our acids as well as we might...
Michael Green
3. greenazoth
Oh, wow, The Dreaming Jewels.

You weren't the only one it resonated with. Sturgeon (and a few other SF writers) saved my life one summer when I was thirteen.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Brian2: It wasn't a typo, it's a persistent braino. My spelling is generally pretty good, but there are some words that my brain is just convinced are spelled... wrong. Thanks for spotting it.
Bob Blough
5. Bob
This has always been my favorite Sturgeon novel - although Some of Your Blood is , I think, his best writing. While I love More than Human - the final novella in that novel falls apart for me. Anyway. thanks, for reminding me about this wonderful book.
I loved this book when I got it from the library when I was 12 or 13, and promptly forgot the name of the author and title when I wanted to find it again. (But really, how on earth could I have forgotten a name like "Theodore Sturgeon"?) Somehow I came across it again several years later, and still enjoyed it. Now, several more years later, I need to find it again. Thank you.
Nancy Lebovitz
9. NancyLebovitz
I call those persistent misspellings "better world misspellings"-- in a better world, relevant would be spelled relevent because having the same vowel in each syllable is so much tidier.
11. C Hirst
I still have a 1971 Corgi edition with the jewels on the cover. It was a replacement for a worn out copy.

It was Benjamin Franklin that started the "tidying" of spelling - In a previous life I had to translate some technical manuals from American to English!
12. Karen C.
I've long thought of "The Dreaming Jewels" as a Cinderella story.
13. Subnumine
The problem with Theodore Sturgeon is that, with considerable help from his publishers and the pulps, he achieved near-perfection at non-memorable titles - almost all of the time. I "discovered" Sturgeon when I picked up a collection and found all these stories that I had remembered for years, under titles which meant nothing to me while I was looking at the table of contents.

"The problem?" Yes; there are no other problems. Consider the stories about the men who faked an alien corpse and air pollution; the dendrochronologist and the chrysalis; the mind-controlling hair-drier.
Pamela Adams
14. PamAdams
What have you been doing since 1950 anyway that you haven’t had time to read this yet!

Clearly, wasting every minute. Well, at least every minute since about 1965- I refuse to be responsible for those minutes before I was born or learned to read.


The ending was so perfect. I kept thinking about the (imagined) American movie version. Not the Michael Bay version in 3-d filled with explosions and car crashes, but the more ordinary film made by some Hollywood studio. Horton and Kay would have wound up together. Zena would have given them her blessing or, more likely remained dead in order to clear Horton's way to Kay. Instead, Sturgeon made it clear that love goes where it is earned, and that the long-term relationship and caring between Horty and Zee are worth any number of sweet young things.

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