The Dreaming Jewels (1950) is an emotionally charged novella that feels more contemporary than a reader would assume by its date of publication. Its plot is one we have heard before: a young orphan, Horton, runs away from his abusive step parents to join a traveling circus. A set of jewels with transformative powers are embedded in the eye sockets of his favourite toy, which is taken along with him.
What makes the novel feel so modern are its pool of characters, who are mostly drawn from the circus setting. They are outcasts, dwarves, and variously deformed freaks, and they are portrayed colourfully and humanely by Sturgeon, so that each character is by turns capable of generating feelings of revulsion, empathy, and pathos. Furthermore, their attitudes are downright modern, as is seen in the book’s central relationship between Horton and Zee, a female dwarf. Here, we see an idealised platonic, motherly, intimate, and gender-fluid love. This modern and socially inclusive sensibility would have been rare in mainstream novels of 1950, which makes its presence in a science fiction story more remarkable.
There are observations on the transformative powers of love and hatred, and this is the main thematic concern of the book, which is examined by a highly charged melodrama of self-discovery and revenge. Secondary to this is a running thread about music, literature, and science, which is reflective of Sturgeon’s own interests. The Dreaming Jewels, then, is visceral and keenly felt, and by these properties the book transcends its genre trappings. It has a genuine broad appeal for modern readers, as well as those who would normally shun a book about magical stones.