Avon EOS, 1998, 472 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-79799-2
I usually try to stay away from novels nominated for the Lamba prize. This award, given each year to “the science-fiction or fantasy work that has most successfully investigated gender issues” usually seeks to reward works dealing with themes and issues about which I couldn’t care less. As they say, message fiction tends to be interesting only when it’s vehiculing your message; as a white heterosexual male, I don’t have a lot to say about gender or gay issues.
But I nevertheless ended up with Halfway Human in my reading pile, halfway dreading the prospect of yet another boring The Left Hand of Darkness knock-off. Certainly the back cover doesn’t inspire confidence, talking about “Tedla is neither he nor she… an asexual class of ‘blands’… shocking truths hidden inside this sexless, tormented creature.”
If I hadn’t already paid good money for the book, I most probably would have put it back on the shelf.
And while that wouldn’t have been a tragedy, it would have been missing out on a decent SF novel. While Halfway Human obviously carries a message, it’s not out to stamp it on everyone’s foreheads. It’s all too easy to be carried away by the storyline and stop trying to decode what’s the real underlying theme.
Most of the novel takes the form of a first-person narrative in which Tedla, our friendly bland protagonist, tells of his short and so far unhappy life. Colonized by humans and then cut off from galactic civilization for decades, Tedla’s homeworld has -we progressively learn- canalized its explosive population growth in the eugenic selection of males and females, assigning the remainder of the teen population to blandness—a servant class. While overly sentimental and predictably dark, it’s a good story verging on the fascinating.
The other half of the plotline is concerned with a xenosociologist named Val, who comes into contact with a suicidal Tedla, interviews it -hence the first-person segments- and eventually tries to save it from the authorities who would like nothing so much as to ship Tedla homeside to keep their eugenic practices secret.
The human society described in Halfway Human is separately fascinating because of its rigid control over information, where copyrights can be a prized heirdom, architectural style can be licensed, information is the only commodity that is worth its transport costs and a researcher has to be rich or employed by a gigantic corporation in order to be able to access the required literature. To myself, obsessed of late by the increasingly dangerous legal precedents in the field of intellectual property, this facet of the novel proved to be a chilling warning and an unexpected delight.
But the core of the book, make no mistake, is with Tedla and its story. Unlike most Lambda-running fiction, Halfway Human is told in a crisp, direct, accessible style that did much to raise my opinion of the book. Gilman also remains faithful to her characters; no sudden change of heart, unexpected romances or sudden gender-switch in store here. This being said, the ending is a bit of a cheat, though almost any trick is acceptable when a happy ending is concerned.
In short, Halfway Human is a good SF paperback novel. Not spectacular, a bit too long to be really effective but clear and steadily interesting, Carolyn Ives Gilman could have done worse as a first novel. Now let’s see how her second one will turn out.