The Cosmic Rape: “Bastits!”

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The Cosmic Rape by Theodore SturgeonThe Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon science fiction book reviewsThe Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon

In Theodore Sturgeon’s International Fantasy Award-winning novel of 1953, More Than Human, six extraordinary young people with various extrasensory mental abilities blend their powers together to create what the author called a “gestalt consciousness.” And in his next novel, the Staten Island-born Sturgeon amplified on this idea of shared consciousness, but upped the ante quite a bit; instead of a mere half dozen souls forming one hive brain, Sturgeon posited the notion of a mind containing the thoughts and experiences of the life-forms of 2½ galaxies! The book was The Cosmic Rape, which followed More Than Human by five years. This book was Sturgeon’s third sci-fi novel out of an eventual six (the author was much more prolific as a short-story writer).

The Cosmic Rape was initially released as a 35-cent Dell paperback in August ’58, the same month that the novella-length version of the book, entitled To Marry Medusa, appeared in the 35-cent Galaxy magazine. I’m not sure of the respective word counts of the two versions, but suffice it to say that the novella took up 59 pages of the magazine, with illustrations, while the Dell book — which I was fortunate enough to acquire in a NYC used-book store — reaches to 160 pages. (Those readers who think they might prefer the shorter version may find it in Sturgeon’s 1965 collection entitled The Joyous Invasions, by the way.) The novel finds the then-40-year-old author at the peak of his abilities and craft, as it turns out, although it was hardly a perfect affair … for this reader, at least.

As Kat mentions in her review of To Marry Medusa, in the book, the reader is introduced to a man who just might be the seediest, vilest and most pitiful character in sci-fi history. He is Dan Gurlick, an alcoholic, homeless bum who spends his days cadging drinks at the local bars, eating out of garbage cans, sleeping in an abandoned truck in the local junkyard, and hating and resenting every single person on Earth, muttering the word “bastits” as a sort of mantra. Gurlick’s life is suddenly altered one day when he devours a greasy cheeseburger from an alleyway garbage can; a burger that contains a “wrinkled raisin” that is actually a spore of the Medusa, that galaxies-spanning supermind alluded to above. The practically limitless mental capacity of the Medusa easily coerces Gurlick to do its bidding: to steal money to acquire metals and supplies so that machines might be built to help bring all of humanity into the Medusa matrix … a proposition that does indeed come to pass!

But Gurlick, surprisingly enough, is only present for perhaps half of the book’s length. In alternating chapters, Sturgeon introduces us to a half dozen other unfortunate characters, and thus we get to meet Paul Sanders, who is about to drug and date-rape a married woman who works in his office; Guido, a 17-year-old Italian boy whose various crimes of juvenile delinquency all center around a mysterious hatred of music; Dimity Carmichael, a sexually repressed spinster; Mbala, an African who must go out into the spirit-haunted jungle at night to defend his yam patch; 5-year-old Henry, a neurotic nervous wreck as a result of some truly bad parenting; and 4-year-old Sharon Brevix, who gets lost in the wild when her parents inadvertently leave her behind during a family move. The reader wonders just why Sturgeon keeps introducing new, unrelated characters in every other chapter, but remarkably, things do manage to cohere by the book’s end. The author knew just what he was doing here (no surprise, really), and uses each character to either make a point and/or advance his Medusa plotline. It is some pretty fascinating stuff, actually.

Sturgeon was a sci-fi author who always brought an emotional yearning and a polished, literary quality to his pulpish conceits, and The Cosmic Rape is surely a good example of this. The book is beautifully and poetically written, evincing a love of language, and veering off at times in unexpected directions. It is often wryly humorous (one barfly is said to be holding a beer that is “warm as pablum and headless as Ann [sic] Boleyn”), occasionally moving (such as the scene in which Gurlick actually “gets lucky”) and always highly imaginative (I love the descriptions of some of the alien planets that Gurlick gets to see via the Medusa). And most importantly, in the book, Sturgeon manages to make a persuasive argument as to the desirability of living in a hive mind, and truly, the lot of the average human does seem to be much improved after the great change.

Indeed, the lives of four out of six of those other sadsack characters are surely transformed for the better; the other two … well, perhaps I’d better not say. I wouldn’t want to spoil any surprises — of which The Cosmic Rape sports any number — for prospective readers. How wonderful it is to witness mankind’s sudden gaining of universal communication, understanding and cooperation; not only amongst all Earthfolk, but while communing with the inhabitants of those 2½ galaxies, as well. As the author winningly tells us, “…it was abruptly possible for mankind to live with itself in health. Removed now was mankind’s cessgland, the secretions of which (called everything from cussedness to Original Sin) had poisoned its body since it was born, distorting decencies like survival and love into greed and lust, turning Achievement (‘I have built’) into Position (‘I have power’)…” It is a compelling and desirable vision, to be sure, convincingly spun by the author.

As I said up top, though, I did have a few small problems with Sturgeon’s work here. For one thing, I was never entirely clear how those alien machines were supposed to bring all of humanity together into mental communion, with their mechanical blarings and wailings, and couldn’t at all wrap my own mind around why it was necessary for Gurlick to impregnate an Earthwoman before mankind could be absorbed into the Medusa fold. I also could not quite figure out, in the scene where Gurlick almost rapes three young women, why it was necessary for the trio to run off for help, and to be talking to their rescuer when they returned. Couldn’t this all have been done telepathically, without the need for spoken words, after mankind attains perfect mental rapport? And while I’m going on, am I the only one who had a tough time visualizing Guido’s two hideouts, the first in the attic of his detective nemesis, the other in a buried house next to a Roman highway? And finally, while I’m carping away, I was not fond of the final fate that the author reserves for Gurlick, and found it hard to believe that anyone would prefer a life of happy but resentful hatred over a life filled with a universe of gratification — mental, physical and spiritual. Just one of those aforementioned twists that Sturgeon keeps pulling out of his sleeve.

Anyway, these are mere quibbles. Scottish critic David Pringle, in his Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction, calls The Cosmic Rape a “short but telling treatment of an alien hive-mind and its takeover of the Earth,” but neglects to mention how different, how memorable and how visionary it is. This is a book to be read slowly, while savoring Sturgeon’s wonderful prose and contemplating the possibilities that he sets forth. You may never be fully satisfied with your single, solitary mentality again…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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6 comments

  1. I don’t think Sturgeon was ever that concerned about the physical/scientific details of “how things happened” in his work; his primary interest seemed philosophical. I like his writing but he seems very much a writer of a specific period of time. I don’t think his work is classic, but he’s interesting to read for a view of the midst of the 1960s and 70s particularly.

  2. It’s right there in your first paragraph! :)

  3. Sandy, I would agree with Marion: Sturgeon was never a hard sf writer interested in his ideas having some rational logic or ‘scientific underpinning’. They should probably be taken as analogous ideas that comment on rather than represent reality.

    Regarding Gurlick’s ultimate fate, for me, that is precisely what the novel needed in order to be a relevant work of fiction. Otherwise, it’s happily-ever-after with zero feet (or toes) in a reality that can be discussed with any meaning. It’s the counter-point to More Than Human, a book in which a few extrasensory mind powers are the road to utopia – whic of course, is impossible. Taking this perspective, More Than Human becomes a mere playground for sf ideas. Gurlick’s fate in The Cosmic Rape is realistic commentary on life, particularly how it contrasts your expectations. Smoking kills, yet millions do it. Gurlick had the hive mind utopia, and yet chose to ignore it. Why? The variety of answers to that question are far more interesting to me 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…

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