Sorry for the delay in posting this recap. Our scifi book club meeting for December was our best-attended yet, with 11 participants! We read Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels. It’s a very dark story of Horty, a boy with mysterious powers, who runs away to the carnival.
Perhaps because Theodore Sturgeon was primarily a short story author, we all agreed that The Dreaming Jewels felt very much like three different short stories loosely connected by the central character. First is a very YA-feeling story of the boy running away to the carnival to escape an abusive home situation; then a psycho-social family drama involving Horty’s long-time crush Kay and his step-father; then a high fantasy-style showdown with the Big Baddy. Because the three stories were so different in tone, different people liked different stages of the book. Almost nobody liked the entire book.
The themes of the book were a mixed bag, and that’s part of the reason the different sections of the book felt so different.
The first and last stories are very concerned with alienation and connection – Horty’s abuse, and his unusual origins, make it very difficult for him to form normal relationships with his family and friends. His only points of contact with friendship and love are two women – his childhood crush, and the dwarf who “adopts” him at the carnival. [Point of interest: "dwarf" is the term used in the book, which was written in 1957.] In the last story, the final battle reveals the nature of the titular dreaming jewels – beings so alien that humans are are unable to comprehend their purpose:
All earthborn life proceeds and operates from one command: Survive! A human mind cannot coneive of any other base.
The crystals had one-and a very different one.
Horty almost grasped it, but not quite. As simple as “survive!”, it was a concept so remote from anything he’d ever heard or read that it escaped him.
Doesn’t that sound just like something you’d read in HP Lovecraft?
Oddly, for the 1950s, the first and second stories have a lot to say about gender. There are only two female characters – Horty’s crush Kay and his surrogate mother Zena. Both behave in fairly stereotypical feminine ways. Kay is pure Virgin, unable to take control of her sexuality and powerless against the judge who victimizes her. Zena is a loving but very manipulative mother figure, unwilling to let Horty take control of his own life until external circumstances force his hand. It gets interesting when Horty takes control of his own shapeshifting powers – and changes into each of them. It seems as though every time Horty grows as a person, he first has to become female.
The second and third stories consider the nature of force and power, especially the power of a powerful father figure over his subordinates. The second story is the subtler of the two. Horty’s step-father, now a judge, is victimizing Kay. Kay is timid, virginal, and utterly powerless, until Horty anonymously helps her escape. But then Horty assumes her form, and takes control of the power of female sexuality to seduce his stepfather (!) and get his revenge. In the third story, the Big Baddy – literally the circus’s ringleader - goes toe-to-toe with Horty in a battle of psychic power. In the end the battle hurts the victims at least as much as the Big Baddy himself. The direct confrontation of power against power is disastrous for everyone concerned.
There was a lot of grist for the mill in this one, but in the end our consensus was that it was more interesting as an intellectual exercise than as a story. The writing was direct, almost like a kids’ chapter book, and the main character was so alien(ated) that it was difficult to care about him. Our average score for the book was about 6.5/10 (although personally I gave it an 8.5, the highest score of the group).
Join us next week, January 4th 2011, for Sarah Hoyt’s The Darkship Thieves. The author lives in southern Colorado, and she said she may join us, schedule permitting.