Halfway Human, by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Avon EOS, PB, 472 pp., $5.99
Halfway Human has already garnered some excited comment. I've read several previous Gilman shorts: I liked "The Honeycrafters" a few years ago, and kind of liked "The Wild Ships of Fairny" and "Frost Paintings" (the latter from the most recent Dozois Best of the Year). Halfway Human is her first novel, and I approached it eagerly.
It's pretty darn good. The "future history" is a rather well worked out variation of a common idea: sometime long in the past (story past, our future), Earth humans have colonized and terraformed many alien planets. After a period in which the planets fell out of contact, a subset of them have rediscovered each other, and have apparently formed a very loose confederation, including Capella Two, the planet (or actually a moon) on which the nominal viewpoint character, Valerie Endrada, lives. Travel is by matter transmitters, and is (logically) light speed. (The fairly rigorous insistence on light speed travel and the corresponding simultaneity problems is a good decision, and is used well in the story.) The tech behind all this is very much backgrounded (quite appropriately). At the time of the action, none of the unmanned probes which are trying to rediscover the colony planets have reported back in some time, except for the one at Gammadis (Gamma Disciplins), which is 51 ly away from Capella Two, and which harbors an odd variety of humans. The original mission to Gammadis ended 63 years previously in disgrace, with the ambassadors thrown off the planet (and arriving back on Cappella 12 years prior to the main action).
All this is window dressing, and it's not bad. I would quibble (as I often do about other far future novels) that the inhabitants of Capella Two, though they are thousands of years in our future, and have matter transmission, and a goofy sort of information capitalism economy, basically seem like very standard-issue 20th C. people. But this is really just a quibble. To continue quibbling, I think Gilman stumbles a bit occasionally with references that come off a bit anachronistic to me. And she makes some questionable decisions like calling the planet Gammadis by the Capellan name instead of the local name (which is Taramond, which I know (and the characters know) is a corruption of something like "Earthworld", but so what?) Again, though, sheerest quibbling.
Three paragraphs, and I haven't got to the good part, the reason to read this novel. Well, the strange thing about Gammadis humans is that they are born neuter. At puberty, about 1/3 (very roughly, and the ambiguity about the actual numbers is a point of the novel) stay neuter, and the others turn half into males and half into females. There is no way to tell whether a given child will be male, female, or neuter. The kicker is that the neuters, also called blands, are condemned to life in "grayspace", literally underneath and "behind" the "human" world, and they live lives of slavery, performing the menial tasks of their society, leaving the "humans" free for the more intellectual and artistic pursuits. This is regarded on Gammadis as natural: neuters are supposed to be stupider, and less energetic, and literally to have no souls. The whole setup is monstrous, and at the same time quite clearly analogous in many ways to slavery in the US, and in many other cultures. In fact, though the novel seems to be promoted as a novel about gender roles, it really isn't. Certainly Gilman makes some such points, and it's not without value for its exploration of gender, but the central issue is definitely slavery and not gender. And it seems to me that many opportunities for a more probing (no pun intended, God help me) exploration of gender issues are missed: but I should emphasize that that's not a weakness, just a different focus than one might have expected.
The action of the story proceeds on two tracks. It turns out that a bland escaped from Gammadis when the ambassadors from Capella were expelled. This bland, Tedla, was to some extent adopted by one of the ambassadors, and has spent the last 12 years at university. As the novel opens, Tedla attempts suicide, and the treating hospital is very puzzled when they see a neuter human. The viewpoint character, Val, a struggling "Magister" (someone who sells knowledge, I think), is called in because she luckily knows a little bit about Gammadis. The present-day path follows Val and Tedla (and Val's husband and child and her mysterious mentor Magister Gossup) as they decide what Tedla is to do with its life: return to Gammadis as the Gammadians who have just shown up demand? be treated and debriefed by one of the information companies? or make its own choices, which under Gammadian law is literally inconceivable for a bland? As Val dodges various attempts to grab Tedla, she hears, in very long chapters, Tedla's story of its life on Gammadis, and we learn slowly the real nature of Gammadian society. The ending is a bit forced and hokey, with for example a rather contrived "courtroom drama", but the meat of the novel is wonderfully absorbing, and the central ideas are developed subtly and with the true SFnal rigor.
The book works because of the believable but horrifying society revealed on Gammadis, with its uncomfortable parallels with our history and even to an extent our present. In addition, the characters of Tedla; of her first mentor, the Gammadian Squire Tellegen; and of her second mentor, the Capellan Alair Galele, are very well realized. (Though I think Tedla's abilities sometimes seem to conveniently alter themselves as the plot requires, though again to be fair much of this is Tedla's own perception of its abilities, which perception is very much a result of what others tell it. And to quibble further, the final revelation about Alair drifts a bit into melodrama.) There are many disturbing scenes, and many moving scenes. The portrayal of the bland society, and the secret behind the Gammadian characteristics, is very well done, and at times has a "Ones who Walk Away From Omelas" sort of message to it: they have created a near-Utopia, at one level, and they try so hard to ignore the "screaming child in the back room": except it's not one child but 1/3 of their population. Much of the characteristics of the Gammadian society are very nicely shown, instead of told, and some important details are very subtly planted in the background. Details which seem trivial take on powerful new meaning later in the novel, after we understand the society better.
As I hinted, I had a few reservations with this book plotwise, but all in all it's a first-rate read, and very provocative. In many ways, this is a pure SF novel, in that its value derives mostly from the ideas it explores, rather than a particularly exciting plot (though the story moves nicely), or any outstanding "literary" values (though it's certainly well-written, and decently characterized.)
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