Charlie Johns wakes to find himself, apparently, in some future utopia. The people there, who call themselves Ledom, have no distinct gender, but are simultaneously male and female. They speak a uniquely pleasant-sounding language, and have access to incredible technology such as the A-field, which can project force great enough to hold up a building or small enough to create a better spoon, and the cerebrostyle, which can impress on the mind information and the whole chain of reasoning that supports it, similar to instantly reading a book.
Alternating chapters with Charlie's story is told the story of a present-day family, Herb and Jeanette Raile and their children, Karen and Davy, as well as their neighbors the Smiths.
Charlie has been brought to this place, he is told, in order to give the Ledom something they need but cannot provide themselves: an outside opinion on their society. As one of their predecessors--homo sapiens--Charlie is uniquely suited to providing this service. Once he has learned about them and rendered judgment, the Ledom promise to return him, if he so desires. Philos, a historian, is appointed to teach him. Charlie agrees to see this through, though he stipulates that he does not wish to know how or when humanity met its end.
The Railes associate with, and occasionally secretly plot against, the Smiths, giving a picture of the state of modern life: commercialized, which Herb, an ad-man, demonstrates.
Charlie is told a good deal about the Ledom way of life: how they worship children, as representatives of the future; how they remain close to the Earth, so that every Ledom has the skills needed to survive without technology; what their personal relationships are like.
Herb, too, contemplates his personal relationships, and his discomfort with a lack of gender roles. He is concerned that his kids won't know which parent is the father and which is the mother, and that this might not be good for them, any more than it's pleasant for him.
Philos gives Charlie, via cerebrostyle, the central argument of the Ledom: humans need two things to live happily--sex and religion, and the latter has been perverted to put chains on the former. Religion has been used to emphasize differences between men and women when really both are essentially similar. Rules are enforced about how to worship and barriers have been put in place to make the whole thing less satisfying. This is ultimately what has caused human misery, so the Ledom take no part in it: they have no separate genders, have sex as freely as they desire, and for religion they feast and dance and worship as primitive men did. Thus they can be happy and have no need of the cruelty mankind inflicts on itself.
Meanwhile the Railes and the Smiths and other families in the neighborhood attend a meeting with Rev. Bill Flester, who proposes that running all these churches is too much overhead, and what they really need is a church that's more like "God's supermarket". Doctrine is such a little thing to quarrel over, and by building one big church, the religious 'management' can sell whatever religion they want, and people can take whatever 'brand' they prefer, "with self-service of the best kind, with plenty of parking space and a decent playground for the kiddies."
Charlie has found Philos's argument convincing: "I think you're the most remarkable thing ever to hit this old planet, you Ledom," He says. "It's enough to make a fellow really religious, the business of a mutation like you coming along just when the rest of us were going up in smoke." Everyone seems pleased with this, but Philos has something more to tell Charlie--something he has kept even from the other Ledom. Philos's mate, Froure, has long been thought killed in an accident, but this was a ruse. Froure and Philos hid the truth because after the accident, Froure gave birth--to a human, homo sapiens.
Philos has come to realize that the Ledom are not a mutation that has replaced homo sapiens, but rather homo sapiens that are surgically modified at birth to have the characteristics of both sexes, and all the other differences between the two 'species'. Philos asks Charlie to take his child, Soutin, back to the past with him, to keep her away from the other Ledom, among whom she'd be a freak. Charlie agrees, but the plan falls apart when he activates the time machine and nothing happens--because there is no time machine, and this is not the future. Charlie is the 'Control Natural' for the Ledom, actully named Quesbu, and had been impressed with the memories of the real Charlie Johns so that the Ledom could assess whether mankind was ready to learn about them. Clearly, they are not, as once 'Charlie' learned that the Ledom were not a natural mutation, he quickly changed his good opinion of them: "Why is what you do evil? Men marrying men. Incest, perversion, there isn't anything rotten you don't do." And if mankind should learn of their existence, "We'd exterminate you down to the last queer kid [. . .] and stick that one in a side-show."
The story closes with the sky--actually, the A-field shield that protects the Ledom from the outside world--shimmering: "Fallout," says Philos. "They're at it again, the idiots."
In the postscript, Sturgeon writes about his intentions:
and about his influences:
|Pyramid Publications, Inc.||Publisher|