The novel “The Dreaming Jewels”, also known as “The Synthetic Man”, by Theodore Sturgeon was published for the first time in 1950 in the magazine “Fantastic Adventures” and then as a book in a revised edition.
Horty is 8 years old when is caught eating ants. His strange behavior angers his adoptive father and as a result of the fight that follows, he loses three fingers on one hand. Horty decides that the best thing he can do is run away from home with only one jack-in-the-box he cares about very much. He literally jumps on the first passing truck, where he meets some people who work in a circus and invite him to go with them.
The circus owner Pierre Monetre isn’t very friendly but Zena, a dwarf who met Horty on the truck, convinces her boss to welcome the child by passing him off as a dwarf girl like her. Horty’s life seems to improve markedly in an environment where people generally love each other but Zena warns him not to tell anyone that the fingers he had lost have grown back.
Theodore Sturgeon was a humanistic science fiction author whose masterpieces weren’t linked to scientific and technological elements but to their protagonists’ profoundly human qualities. These people are cast out by the society in which they live for various reasons and are sometimes abused by the people who are supposed to help them.
In “The Dreaming Jewels” the protagonist is Horty, a boy who runs away from home to escape his adoptive father’s cruelty. For reasons that he doesn’t even understand at the time, he ate some ants but he was seen. That angered his adoptive father, who doesn’t care why he did it but considers himself a decent person and finds Horty’s behavior disreputable.
The contrast between this initial situation and the circus is total. Horty’s real adoptive family is the one made up of the circus people, and in particular Zena, as among them he finds solidarity and benevolence. There’s an abyss between an allegedly decent person such as Horty’s adoptive father and the outcasts of the circus, the ones who are called freaks in the famous movie by Tod Browning. In Sturgeon’s novel, the theme of diversity is also central together with the great humanity of the people Horty meets in the circus.
The first part of “The Dreaming Jewels” is in many ways a coming-of-age story that summarizes Horty’s years of life with his progressive self-discovery. It’s an extraordinary growth with anomalies and mysteries, and Horty must find a solution to them. In some ways, the science fiction element is always present but only by reading Horty’s story is it possible to understand its nature. It’s humanistic science fiction with fantasy overtones and is common in Theodore Sturgeon’s stories, whose style is often poetic.
The characters are definitely the strong point of “The Dreaming Jewels” and make the story work despite a tendency towards exposition. The exploration of what humanity is, for better or for worse, is conducted by Theodore Sturgeon in a way that places it outside a time frame and puts it on the level of an archetype. It’s a story for which genre labels are limiting, so I recommend reading it to anyone interested in reflections on humanity.