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Commitment Hour
James Alan Gardner
HarperCollins EOS Books, 352 pages

Commitment Hour
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner's first novel, Expendable, was published in 1997. Commitment Hour followed in 1998. A Canadian author, James Alan Gardner has honed his skills publishing short works in Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, On-Spec, and the Tesseracts anthologies. He has won numerous writing awards, including Grand Prize winner of the Writers of the Future Award (1989) as well as an Aurora Award for best short story (1990). His latest accolade is a 1997 Nebula nomination.

James Alan Gardner Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Hunted
SF Site Review: Vigilant
SF Site Review: Commitment Hour
SF Site Review: Expendable
Excerpt from Commitment Hour
Excerpt from Expendable

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

One of the best science fiction novels I've read in a long time is Commitment Hour by James Alan Gardner. This book deals with a popular SF topic -- a society in which gender is organized very differently than in ours -- but it provides a new twist.

It's the 25th century and most humans have gone to the stars, leaving a small remnant population on Earth who live in relatively backwardness among the ruins of "Old-Tech." Fullin lives in one of the oddest corners of this world, Tober Cove, a remote East Coast fishing town. And in Tober Cove every child switches genders each year until the age of 20. Fullin is 20 years old. Tomorrow he must choose which gender he will remain for the rest of his life.

The entirety of this novel takes place over less than 24 hours. We meet Fullin and his childhood sweetheart, Cappie, on the eve of their gender Commitment. As if making the big decision isn't problem enough, a Spark Lord arrives in Tober Cove for the first time in history. He starts unearthing all the town's secrets and horrifies the locals by bringing a "neut" with him -- a person who made the choice of becoming a hermaphrodite and has been banished.

And the plot twists keep on coming. Right up to the end of this book, I wasn't sure what would happen (or which sex Fullin would choose), and the climax was both unexpected and far more complex than I had guessed. Gardner also leaves lots of things tantalizingly uncertain for a long time. For instance, exactly how do the inhabitants of Tober Cove change their sex? Or does it happen at all? Are they all perhaps collectively psychotic?

I have only the smallest quibbles with the book. For instance, I am quite sure that Gardner has never lived in a fishing village. He did a thorough job of describing the religious culture, but didn't capture the feel of a fish-guts-stinking rural subsistence economy. Also, he postulates that in a society with very rigid traditional gender roles, the sex ratio would end up around 50-50 even if each person was given a completely free choice. I sure didn't buy that.

But these are quibbles. The book is engaging, entertaining, funny and very well written. Don't miss it.

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

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