Vintage Science Fiction Month: To Marry Medusa

Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. The objective: Read and discuss “older than I am” Science Fiction in the month of January.

Theodore Sturgeon once famously opined that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” It’s a funny adage, but unfortunately for Sturgeon, his own bibliography proves it to be a lie. Of course, I haven’t read it all, but he’s batting 1.000 in my book. To Marry Medusa was originally published under the less palatable title The Cosmic Rape (there are some wrinkles to the edited versions/titles that aren’t really worth going into; this is close enough for jazz), but what I read was the full novelization… that still only clocks in at 160 or so pages.

The story presents an unusual riff on the tired alien invasion genre. Dan Gurlick is a bitter, alcoholic hobo. His latest meal, snatched from a trashcan, is a half-eaten cheeseburger that just happens to contain an alien spore that has traveled many light years in search of an appropriate host. Once Gurlick eats the burger, the alien spore proceeds to eat him. Or rather, his mind. It turns out that the spore is the tool of an alien hive mind called “Medusa”, which has absorbed and assimilated the lifeforms of billions of other planets across multiple galaxies. And yet… humanity flummoxes it.

Medusa is able to infect Gurlick the normal way, but there’s no connection to others of his species. As a vast, nearly incomprehensible hive mind, Medusa can’t conceive of a species that isn’t already a collective. It thinks that humanity has fractured as a protective measure, and thus sets Gurlick on the task of collecting raw materials so that Medusa can create some self-replicating machines that will (re)unite humanity… and thus make them ripe for conquest. But is Medusa trying to play with something it doesn’t understand?

The story has an interesting, if scattershot structure. There are chapters covering the aforementioned exploits of Gurlick and Medusa alternated with various vignettes and character sketches of seemingly ordinary people in not-so great situations. There’s a creep seeking to rape a co-worker, a homicidal maniac named Guido who is animated by his hatred for music, a young boy named Henry who is abused by a smiling father, and an African farmer named Mbala whose yams are being stolen. Sturgeon’s fondness for the short story form is certainly evident here, and at first, I thought each of these secondary characters would only get short introductions, but then he starts to revisit folks we’ve already met. As you might expect, some of these work better than others, but that’s almost part of the point. Sturgeon literally refers to these stories as anecdotal (page 107):

These were people, these are anecdotes, dwelt upon for their several elements of the extraordinary. But each man alive has such a story, unique unto himself, of what is in him and of its molding by the forces around him, and of his interpretations of those forces.

It can be a bit disorienting, but the ultimate effect is that Sturgeon has managed to make humanity as a whole a character; at first metaphorically, and then literally. It’s a neat trick, and one that a lesser writer might not be able to pull off.

Sturgeon’s prose is stylish but lean, often moving in unexpected directions without being drowned in hooptedoodle. It’s funny, because a lot of characteristics of this book are things that I don’t normally enjoy (i.e. episodic structure, character sketches, pretty simple plot overall, very stylish prose, some overly dark situations, etc…), and yet Sturgeon makes them work for me.

Sturgeon is clearly fascinated by hive minds and collectives as evidenced by his earlier classic, More Than Human, which covers many of the same themes from a smaller perspective. To Marry Medusa is certainly great, but even though Sturgeon pulls off the disjointed nature of this story, it can’t quite compete with More Than Human. Both books are recommended though!

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