Commitment Hour, James Alan Gardner

EOS, 1998, 343 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79827-1

First, a truly horrible confession, then the review.

My truly horrible confession is that I don’t care all that much about Science Fiction that sets out to explore the limits of gender identity. It’s a theme that just doesn’t interest me. Now, this wouldn’t mean much to most, but in a field which has hailed works like The Left Hand of Darkness and pioneered feminism before it was hip, well, it’s a bit like claiming to be a heretic. Broadly speaking, I have a really hard time getting excited about anything that makes in on the Tiptree Award ballot. (“An annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.” says www.tiptree.org)

Which makes my reaction to Commitment Hour even more surprising.

Shortly stated, Commitment Hour is the story of a small village in a distant future in which the young ones switch, year after year, from one gender to another. After their twentieth year, they get to choose what gender they’ll remain for the rest of their lives.

Normally, I would simply shrug at the premise and grit my teeth at having to read hundreds of pages on the subject. But the wonder of Commitment Hour is how it quickly and efficiently draws its reader in the lives of protagonist Fullin and the rest of his/her village. Before long, their calm routine is disrupted by the arrival of an outside observer and his neuter companion, an especially troubling event given the village’s widespread hatred of neuters.

As the story unfolds, so do the layers of meaning and purpose behind the village’s unusual society. While the story may start in a cheerfully retrograde pastoral fantasy setting (another one of my pet peeves), Gardner slows strips away the false simplicity of Fullin’s life until we’re left with brushed steel and active nanotechnology. Good stuff.

All the while, Gardner’s voice does wonder at keeping the preaching to a minimum. A few lines are surprisingly funny (“As a forty-year-old woman, (she) actually had a remarkable body… then it struck me that I was ogling (…) my mother. I shuddered with a sudden case of the icks.” [P.151]) and the overall light tone of the novel is a welcome change from the dreary self-importance in which most Tiptree-Award nominees usually smother themselves. The accumulated goodwill created by the novel is strong enough that its impact isn’t soured when the story hakes an abrupt turn toward dramatic intensity during the course of its conclusion. Then again the conclusion is suitably uplifting, a minor miracle given the twenty or so ghastly pages leading to it. A lot of it has to do with the novel’s plot-driven thrust: Here, the genre-switching is an important part of the story, but certainly not the end of it; it’s only a part of a larger mystery and a good excuse for exploring other issues. Could this be why this book interested me despite elements I wouldn’t normally go for?

Technically, there isn’t much that’s wrong with Commitment Hour. The writing is efficient, the numerous character are well-sketched and the story steadily advances, page after page. The protagonist has a few unpleasant choices to make, and every chapter seems to be bringing extra complications. The only aspect where I felt a discontinuity between the author’s intentions and the actual execution were in presenting the protagonist’s different thought processes as s/he switched from male to female personalities.

But no matter. Commitment Hour is still an unexpected good read. In fact, it’s even more surprising given how little I had cared for Expendable, Gardner’s first novel. His second effort seems more compelling, more interesting and, yes, more successful. You can reliably bet that I’ll be taking another look at this author’s works from now on.

Even my reluctance to appreciate works lauded for the Tiptree award can be explained after all; while doing research for this review, I cam across the “long list” of works considered for the 1998 Tiptree, and saw that Commitment Hour had been dismissed as too conventional and mainstream. Go figure. Show’s em how much they know.

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