Carolyn Ives Gilman
Avon Eos / 474 pages / (February 1, 1998)
Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl. Blank. There’s a puzzler for you: how would we humans react to a creature that didn’t fit into that simple equation? Faced with a being that is neither male nor female, how would we behave toward it? Don’t think of a hermaphrodite or transsexual or any of those “third-sex” scenarios that pop up on SF series during sweeps week — we’re talking full-fledged asexuals. Neuters. Or blands, as the Gammadian society kindly refers to them.
Probably, we would handle them as cruelly as the society in Halfway Human, reducing them to a voiceless, choiceless slave class. Uh-huh. Before you leap to defend mankind, remember a few of the relationships we’ve wallowed through on this planet. Ask the African-Americans how their ancestors were treated upon arrival. Ask the Nez Perce tribe how they were greeted… No, wait, you can’t ask them; they were wiped out in one fell swoop. Face it, our record doesn’t bear any closer scrutiny than the Gammadians.
But, we’re so nice now. (Don’t bring up ethnic cleansing. I slipped once, but I think I got away with it.)
So, what would we do if a bland showed up, in dire need of assistance? Could we, at the very least, accord it the dignity of being neuter? Or are we evolved enough to understand exactly what that entails? I couldn’t do it. Try as I might, I was unable to think of Tedla, the main character, as anything but….but, I won’t tell you which sex it conjured up for me. Work at thinking of it as neither. It’s a challenge.
Halfway Human is full of challenges. Perhaps, none greater than those faced by Valerie Endrada, a xenologist on her way up, who’s given the task of examining Tedla, and making suggestions for its welfare. It’s a case such as she’s never seen, and it may be the case that ends her budding career. For the bland isn’t just some mental case from the gutter; some powerful people are on its trail, and they are willing to bend the rules and the law to get it back.
And Val may lose her fight to protect Tedla before she even has a chance to find out what makes it so important to two planets, two warring corporations, and a class of beings she hasn’t begun to understand. And why it seems to determined not to save itself.
Gilman takes us into these two societies: one where information is the only currency and your every utterance is copyrightable. Sell your rights and join the work force. Have nothing to sell and get used to life on the jagged side. And another where disinformation is the only thing maintaining the status quo. Where silence has become so crucial they have locked their planet away from the rest of civilisation. Creating a totally alien culture is almost impossible. So, how does Gilman make it look so easy?
Developing characters that readers will care enough about to become wrapped up in their struggles is another toughy. Gilman does it and she does it well. I find myself wondering how Tedla and the Enderas are doing even now, when none of us is keeping an eye on them.
And this is her debut novel. Ah! Life is so unfair!
Read Halfway Human. Think about it. Remember it. Rejoice when you see it on the Hugo and Nebula ballots this year. Yes, it’s that good. And more.