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.