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First published in 1953, this most celebrated of Sturgeon's works won the International Fantasy Award, as has been touted as "a masterpiece of provocative storytelling" (The Herald Tribune). A group of remarkable social outcasts band together for survival and discover their combined powers renders them superhuman.
THE FABULOUS IDIOT
THE IDIOT LIVED IN a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead.
Men turned away from him, women would not look, children stopped and watched him. It did not seem to matter to the idiot. He expected nothing from any of them. When the white lightning struck, he was fed. He fed himself when he could, he went without when he could. When he could do neither of these things he was fed by the first person who came face to face with him. The idiot never knew why, and never wondered. He did not beg. He would simply stand and wait. When someone met his eyes there would be a coin in his hand, a piece of bread, a fruit. He would eat and his benefactor would hurry away, disturbed, not understanding. Sometimes, nervously, they would speak to him; they would speak about him to each other. The idiot heard the sounds but they had no meaning for him. He lived inside somewhere, apart, and the little link between word and significance hung broken. His eyes were excellent, and could readily distinguish between a smile and a snarl; but neither could have any impact on a creature so lacking in sympathy, who himself had never laughed and never snarled and so could not comprehend the feelings of his gay or angry fellows.
He had exactly enough fear to keep his bones together and oiled. He was incapable of anticipating anything. The stick that raised, the stone that flew found him unaware. But at their touch he would respond. He would escape. He would start to escape at the first blow and he would keep on trying to escape until the blows ceased. He escaped storms this way, rockfalls, men, dogs, traffic and hunger.
He had no preferences. It happened that where he was there was more wilderness than town; since he lived wherever he found himself, he lived more in the forest than anywhere else.
They had locked him up four times. It had not mattered to him any of the times, nor had it changed him in any way. Once he had been badly beaten by an inmate and once, even worse, by a guard. In the other two places there had been the hunger. When there was food and he was left to himself, he stayed. When it was time for escape, he escaped. The means to escape were in his outer husk; the inner thing that it carried either did not care or could not command. But when the time came, a guard or a warden would find himself face to face with the idiot and the idiot's eyes whose irises seemed on the trembling point of spinning like wheels. The gates would open and the idiot would go, and as always the benefactor would run to do something else, anything else, deeply troubled.
He was purely animal—a degrading thing to be among men. But most of the time he was an animal away from men. As an animal in the woods he moved like an animal, beautifully. He killed like an animal, without hate and without joy. He ate like an animal, everything edible he could find, and he ate (when he could) only enough and never more. He slept like an animal, well and lightly, faced in the opposite direction from that of a man; for a man going to sleep is about to escape into it while animals are prepared to escape out of it. He had an animal's maturity, in which the play of kittens and puppies no longer has a function. He was without humor and without joy. His spectrum lay between terror and contentment.
He was twenty-five years old.
Like a stone in a peach, a yolk in an egg, he carried another thing. It was passive, it was receptive, it was awake and alive. If it was connected in any way to the animal integument, it ignored the connections. It drew its substance from the idiot and was otherwise unaware of him. He was often hungry, but he rarely starved. When he did starve, the inner thing shrank a little perhaps; but it hardly noticed its own shrinking. It must die when the idiot died but it contained no motivation to delay that event by one second.
It had no function specific to the idiot. A spleen, a kidney, an adrenal—these have definite functions and an optimum level for those functions. But this was a thing which only received and recorded. It did this without words, without a code system of any kind; without translation, without distortion, and without operable outgoing conduits. It took what it took and gave out nothing.
All around it, to its special senses, was a murmur, a sending. It soaked itself in the murmur, absorbed it as it came, all of it. Perhaps it matched and classified, or perhaps it simply fed, taking what it needed and discarding the rest in some intangible way. The idiot was unaware. The thing inside....
Without words: Warm when the wet comes for a little but not enough for long enough. (Sadly): Never dark again. A feeling of pleasure. A sense of subtle crushing and Take away the pink, the scratchy. Wait, wait, you can go back, yes, you can go back. Different, but almost as good. (Sleep feelings): Yes, that's it! That's the—oh! (Alarm): You've gone too far, come back, come back, come—(A twisting, a sudden cessation; and one less "voice.") ... It all rushes up, faster, faster, carrying me. (Answer): No, no. Nothing rushes. It's still; something pulls you down on to it, that's all. (Fury): They don't hear us, stupid, stupid.... They do.... They don't, only crying, only noises.
Without words, though. Impression, depression, dialogue. Radiations of fear, tense fields of awareness, discontent. Murmuring, sending, speaking, sharing, from hundreds, from thousands of voices. None, though, for the idiot. Nothing that related to him; nothing he could use. He was unaware of his inner ear because it was useless to him. He was a poor example of a man, but he was a man; and these were the voices of the children, the very young children, who had not yet learned to stop crying to be heard. Only crying, only noises.
Mr. Kew was a good father, the very best of fathers. He told his daughter Alicia so, on her nineteenth birthday. He had said as much to Alicia ever since she was four. She was four when little Evelyn had been born and their mother had died cursing him, her indignation at last awake and greater than her agony and her fear.
Only a good father, the very finest of fathers, could have delivered his second child with his own hands. No ordinary father could have nursed and nurtured the two, the baby and the infant, so tenderly and so well. No child was ever so protected from evil as Alicia; and when she joined forces with her father, a mighty structure of purity was created for Evelyn. "Purity triple-distilled," Mr. Kew said to Alicia on her nineteenth birthday. "I know good through the study of evil, and have taught you only the good. And that good teaching has become your good living, and your way of life is Evelyn's star. I know all the evil there is and you know all the evil which must be avoided; but Evelyn knows no evil at all."
At nineteen, of course, Alicia was mature enough to understand these abstracts, this "way of life" and "distillation" and the inclusive "good" and "evil." When she was sixteen he had explained to her how a man went mad if he was alone with a woman, and how the poison sweat appeared on his body, and how he would put it on her, and then it would cause the horror on her skin. He had pictures of skin like that in his books. When she was thirteen she had a trouble and told her father about it and he told her with tears in his eyes that this was because she had been thinking about her body, as indeed she had been. She confessed it and he punished her body until she wished she had never owned one. And she tried, she tried not to think like that again, but she did in spite of herself; and regularly, regretfully, her father helped her in her efforts to discipline her intrusive flesh. When she was eight he taught her how to bathe in darkness, so she would be spared the blindness of those white eyes of which he also had magnificent pictures. And when she was six he had hung in her bedroom the picture of a woman, called Angel, and the picture of a man, called Devil. The woman held her palms up and smiled and the man had his arms out to her, his hands like hooks, and protruding point-outward from his breastbone was a crooked knife blade with a wetness on it.
They lived alone in a heavy house on a wooded knoll. There was no driveway, but a path which turned and turned again, so that from the windows no one could see where it went. It went to a wall and in the wall was an iron gate which had not been opened in eighteen years and beside the gate was a steel panel. Once a day Alicia's father went down the path to the wall and with two keys opened the two locks in the panel. He would swing it up and take out food and letters, put money and mail in, and lock it again.
There was a narrow road outside which Alicia and Evelyn had never seen. The woods concealed the wall and the wall concealed the road. The wall ran by the road for two hundred yards, east and west; it mounted the hill then until it bracketed the house. Here it met iron pickets, fifteen feet high and so close together a man could hardly press a fist between them. The tops of the pickets curved out and down, and between them was cement, and in the cement was broken glass. The pickets ran east and west, connecting the house to the wall; and where they joined, more pickets ran back and back into the woods in a circle. The wall and the house, then, were a rectangle and that was forbidden territory. And behind the house were the two square miles of fenced woodland, and that belonged to Evelyn, with Alicia to watch. There was a brook there; wild flowers and a little pond; friendly oaks and little hidden glades. The sky above was fresh and near and the pickets could not be seen for the shouldering masses of holly which grew next to them, all the way around, blocking the view, breaking the breeze. This closed circle was all the world to Evelyn, all the world she knew, and all in the world she loved lay in it.
On Alicia's nineteenth birthday Evelyn was alone by her pond. She could not see the house, she could not see the holly hedge nor the pickets, but the sky was there, up and up, and the water was there, by and by. Alicia was in the library with her father; on birthdays he always had special things planned for Alicia in the library. Evelyn had never been in the library. The library was a place where her father lived, and where Alicia went at special times. Evelyn never thought of going there, any more than she thought of breathing water like a speckled trout. She had not been taught to read, but only to listen and obey. She had never learned to seek, but only to accept. Knowledge was given to her when she was ready for it and only her father and sister knew just when that might be.
She sat on the bank, smoothing her long skirts. She saw her ankle and gasped and covered it as Alicia would do if she were here. She set her back against a willow-trunk and watched the water.
It was spring, the part of spring where the bursting is done, the held-in pressures of desiccated sap-veins and gum-sealed buds are gone, and all the world's in a rush to be beautiful. The air was heavy and sweet; it lay upon lips until they parted, pressed them until they smiled, entered boldly to beat in the throat like a second heart. It was air with a puzzle to it, for it was still and full of the colors of dreams, all motionless; yet it had a hurry to it. The stillness and the hurry were alive and laced together and how could that be? That was the puzzle.
A dazzle of bird notes stitched through the green. Evelyn's eyes stung and wonder misted the wood. Something tensed in her lap. She looked down in time to see her hands attack one another, and off came her long gloves. Her naked hands fled to the sides of her neck, not to hide something but to share something. She bent her head and the hands laughed at one another under the iron order of her hair. They found four hooks and scampered down them. Her high collar eased and the enchanted air rushed in with a soundless shout. Evelyn breathed as if she had been running. She put out her hand hesitantly, futilely, patted the grass beside her as if somehow the act might release the inexpressible confusion of delight within her. It would not, and she turned and flung herself face down in a bed of early mint and wept because the spring was too beautiful to be borne.
He was in the wood, numbly prying the bark from a dead oak, when it happened. His hands were still and his head came up hunting, harking. He was as aware of the pressures of spring as an animal, and slightly more than an animal could be. But abruptly the spring was more than heavy, hopeful air and the shifting of earth with life. A hard hand on his shoulder could have been no more tangible than this call.
He rose carefully, as if something around him might break if he were clumsy. His strange eyes glowed. He began to move—he who had never called nor been called, nor responded before. He moved toward the thing he sensed and it was a matter of will, not of external compulsion. Without analysis he was aware of the bursting within him of an encysted need. It had been a part of him all his life but there was no hope in him that he might express it. And bursting so, it flung a thread across his internal gulf, linking his alive and independent core to the half-dead animal around it. It was a sending straight to what was human in him, received by an instrument which, up to now, had accepted only the incomprehensible radiations of the new-born, and so had been ignored. But now it spoke, as it were, in his own tongue.
He was careful and swift, careful and silent. He turned his wide shoulders to one side and the other as he moved, slipping through the alders, passing the pines closely as if it were intolerable to leave the direct line between himself and his call. The sun was high; the woods were homogeneously the woods, front, right, left; yet he followed his course without swerving, not from knowledge, not by any compass, but purely in conscious response.
He arrived suddenly, for the clearing was, in the forest, a sudden thing. For fifty feet outward the earth around the close-set pickets had been leached and all trees felled years ago, so that none might overhang the fence. The idiot slipped out of the wood and trotted across the bare ground to the serried iron. He put out his arms as he ran, slid his hands between the pickets and when they caught on his starved bony forearms, his legs kept moving, his feet sliding, as if his need empowered him to walk through the fence and the impenetrable holly beyond it.
The fact that the barrier would not yield came to him slowly. It was as if his feet understood it first and stopped trying and then his hands, which withdrew. His eyes, however, would not give up at all. From his dead face they yearned through the iron, through the holly, ready to burst with answering. His mouth opened and a scratching sound emerged. He had never tried to speak before and could not now; the gesture was an end, not a means, like the starting of tears at a crescendo of music.
He began to move along the fence walking sidewise, finding it unbearable to turn away from the call.
It rained for a day and a night and for half the next day, and when the sun came out it rained again, upward; it rained light from the heavy jewels which lay on the rich new green. Some jewels shrank and some fell and then the earth in a voice of softness, and leaves in a voice of texture, and flowers speaking in color, were grateful.
Evelyn crouched on the window seat, elbows on the sill, her hands cupped to the curve of her cheeks, their pressure making it easy to smile. Softly, she sang. It was strange to hear for she did not know music; she did not read and had never been told of music. But there were birds, there was the bassoon of wind in the eaves sometimes; there were the calls and cooings of small creatures in that part of the wood which was hers and, distantly, from the part which was not. Her singing was made of these things, with strange and effortless fluctuations in pitch from an instrument unbound by the diatonic scale, freely phrased.
But I never touch the gladness May not touch the gladness Beauty, oh beauty of touchness Spread like a leaf, nothing between me and the sky but light,
Rain touches me
Wind touches me
Leaves, other leaves, touch and touch me ....
She made music without words for a long moment and was silent, making music without sound, watching the raindrops fall in the glowing noon.
Harshly, "What are you doing?"
Evelyn started and turned. Alicia stood behind her, her face strangely tight. "What are you doing?" she repeated.
Evelyn made a vague gesture toward the window, tried to speak.
Evelyn made the gesture again. "Out there," she said. "I—I—" She slipped off the window seat and stood. She stood as tall as she could. Her face was hot.
"Button up your collar," said Alicia. "What is it, Evelyn? Tell me!"
"I'm trying to," said Evelyn, soft and urgent. She buttoned her collar and her hands fell to her waist. She pressed herself, hard. Alicia stepped near and pushed the hands away. "Don't do that. What was that ... what you were doing? Were you talking?"
"Talking, yes. Not you, though. Not Father."
"There isn't anyone else."
"There is," said Evelyn. Suddenly breathless, she said, "Touch me, Alicia."
"Yes, I ... want you to. Just ..." She held out her arms. Alicia backed away.
"We don't touch one another," she said, as gently as she could through her shock. "What is it, Evelyn? Aren't you well?"
Excerpted from More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. Copyright © 1986 the Theodore Sturgeon Literary Trust. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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As an Avid SF reader I consider this book to be among the best written. Though there is no accounting for taste, I found the book great in almost all aspects.
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Posted January 14, 2014
I'm a big Sci Fi fan and like interesting takes of it. I seen on Goodreads how underrated this book is and thought I would give it a try. I like some of the themes in this, and it is worth the read. You can see where this inspired Vonnegut and others.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 6, 2010
This is a great book about several psychics who band together to become something amazing and unheard of. Also this book holds up outstandingly well for a book written in the early 50's. In fact the only real reason you can tell it was written in the 50's is the stand it takes against racism and how the subject is approached.
One of the best books about people with psychic powers of all time. So, I say to hell with Carrie.
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