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Halfway Human
Carolyn Ives Gilman
Avon Eos Books, 472 pages

Halfway Human
Carolyn Ives Gilman
Carolyn Ives Gilman says that "Halfway Human is the most instinctual thing I have ever written. The six months during which I worked on it were like a protracted trance: I went to bed at night thinking about it and woke up thinking about it. The characters started dictating to me, and one even staged a coup, taking over my computer to tell his side of the story.

I did not intend to make it about any particular issues, but at the time I was taking a course in the anthropology of gender, and some of my reading crept into my subconscious. But more than that, I feel that St. Louis crept into the book."

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SF Site Review: Halfway Human

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

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Val Endrada is a xenologist living on the advanced planet Capella. She is barely eking out a living in its information-based economy, so when she stumbles across an asexual human from the closed planet of Gammadis, she realizes she's struck a bonanza. No one has ever seen a Gammadian before. All the big corporations will want access to Tedla, to get data about its peculiar world where there are three sexes -- males, females and neuters (called "blands").

But things are not that simple. Val finds herself drawn to the anguished Tedla and takes Tedla to live with her family. Soon she finds herself in conflict with the corporation she's working for when they decide to remove all of Tedla's memories -- allegedly to cure suicidal depression, but more likely for political reasons.

As Tedla tells Val its life story, the reader gets a remarkably vivid portrait of a slave culture. Blands are servants of the male and female minority on Gammadis, and are not considered truly human even by the most liberal intellectuals. But the untouchables and their masters are inextricably bound up with each other economically, socially, and even sexually, in a complex tangle of love, fear and hate. This precarious balance is threatened when the first Capellan anthropologist arrives and begins questioning their taboos, inadvertently tipping the blands into rebellion.

Carolyn Ives Gilman, who is a museum exhibition developer, has obviously done her research on slavery, and she also creates wonderfully complex characters who are all far more affected by their own societal prejudices than they want to believe. Her upper crust Gammadians echo the attitudes of Confederate slave owners, English gentry, or Indian nobles. And the blands, although they suffer terribly, nonetheless defend their society's practices and beliefs, and turn their anger and blame against their own kind. On the other world, Capella, Gilman also makes a credible attempt at portraying a future version of our own culture, but this is less successful -- probably because it's too close to home.

Halfway Human is a terrifically intelligent and complex book with only a few minor flaws, such as the last few anti-climactic chapters. A more passionate wrap-up was really needed to give balance to the wrenching intensity of earlier scenes. Still, this is one of the best SF books I've ever read and I give it an enthusiastic recommendation.

Copyright © 2001 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at http://www.donna-mcmahon.com/.


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