Monday, November 1, 2010

Halfway Human

Rhetorically speaking, Carolyn Ives Gilman's science fiction novel Halfway Human is the most interesting thing I've read since I first moved to the north and found Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in the public library. It's not until page 313 of this 325-page novel that you'll realize how thoroughly she has trapped you, how she's using your emotions about a fictional alien character to show you something important about what you notice and how you act towards others on your own planet.

I really want to gush about this novel; I went to bed with it one night and had to force myself to put it down, two hours after I would usually have been asleep. And the next morning I got up and started reading it again. At that point I felt I had to see how it came out, even though I had guessed all the important parts already. I had to know what happened to the main character, Tedla, and everyone it affects on two worlds.

Yes, "it." Tedla is a neuter from Gammadis, a planet where neuters are used as slaves and not considered human. The story of its early years on Gammadis and its time on Capella, a planet more like our own, is horrifying and compelling, especially because of the "human" lens through which the portrait has to be viewed. Before the age of 14, when all Gammadians are neuter, the children (proto-humans, or "protos") passed around rumors like that "eating beans will produce male genes, the bite of a needletail will make you female. There were diagnostic tests: If you looked at your fingernails palm up rather than palm down, you were sure to be a man. Looking over your shoulder to see the sole of your foot was a sure sign of a woman."

On Capella, the planet I think is most like our own (although a character points out that all people call their planet some variation of "earth"), "knowledge was its principle export, and its only major industry." Like the country of Gilead in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the planet of Capella has things in common with our own planet, but they're obviously far in the future and much more exaggerated--showing where we could be headed. The problem with the knowledge culture is that "the companies need us all to be alienated from each other, because it cuts off routes of communication they can't control. If everyone shared information openly, it wouldn't be a controllable commodity, and no one could profit from it."

Tedla's story is masterfully told, moving backwards from the point at which she attempts to kill herself, alone on Capella. As she tells stories that reveal the horrors of slavery on Gammadis, we react along with the xenologist to whom she is telling her story, Val. It's clear that what happens to the neuters, "blands," as they are called on their own planet, is wrong. Even though Tedla denies that it was a slave-- "we weren't slaves. Neuters are never traded for money"-- it's clear that blands are treated as such, and the details (including torture scenes) are right out of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Told from birth that "blands" are less than human, Tedla believes it, despite growing evidence, as her story continues, that its intelligence is greater than that of the gendered humans whose every whim it must anticipate and gratify.

I keep typing "she" when referring to Tedla, and I think it's because the reader identifies with this character; I assume that a male reader might stumble over calling Tedla a "he." There's another reason I think of "it" as a "she," though, and that's the way the humans (both Gammadians and Capellans) want to use it sexually because it is extraordinarily attractive; that makes me think of stories about the lot of beautiful slave women in the American south before the civil war. Tedla is frustrated by the degree to which "we have to think about your sexuality all the time." She says:
"Some humans--maybe all--are actually attracted by asexuals. Even your standards of beauty tend to be androgynous. I don't know why it is--the ambiguity of identity, perhaps, or the novelty of a transgender experience. Then there are people who are attracted to anything dangerous."
"What is dangerous about it?" Val asked.
"On Gammadis, sexual encounters with neuters are absolutely forbidden," Tedla said. "The idea is horrible, shameful, disgusting. Anyone found molesting a neuter would be ostracized, and penalized by the harshest laws we have."
"But it's done?"
"All the time," Tedla said bitterly. "Everyone condemns it, then they do it anyway. It's the central hypocrisy of my planet. They all learn not to see it. The only thing more forbidden than doing it, is talking about it."

About halfway through the novel, Tedla meets its first alien, and the events that lead to it escaping to Capella commence. The reader is increasingly implicated in the view that what the "alien" Gammadians do is bad, and what the more "human" Capellans do is good. Val asks her husband Max, after hearing most of Tedla's story:
"Do you think we deserve to be human?"
"God knows what the test is, if Tedla couldn't pass it," Max murmured. "I'm glad we didn't have to take it."

What drives Tedla to suicide on Capella is partly what she learns about the "blands" on that planet:
"It is not just a matter of poverty, as you seem to think. Here, where people can inherit money, or get it from partners or royalties without earning it, you have many well-t0-do blands. But most of them are poor. They live shabby, circumscribed lives--aware of, but never aspiring to, the humanity around them, though they will live off it parasitically if they can. They are the eyes behind all those windows in the housing tower you saw. They take whatever chances others give them. They complain, but not so that you hear them."

Hearing this is enough to cut an emotional reader like me to the quick. And as if that isn't enough, the satire becomes even more pointed. It points to me more clearly than the parents of my kids' friends who group me with "those college liberals":
"...I began to understand something about you Capellans. I had always thought--in fact, you always claim--that you are a perfectly secular society. But that's not true. The feeling you have for knowledge is very close to the awe others feel for the sacred. Faith in knowledge is the principle you will never back away from, the thing you protect when everything else is gone. Creating is your highest calling. Destroying it, or polluting it, is the unforgiveable sin. Learning is your righteousness, research is your sacrament, discovery is your revelation. You believe not in a trancendent God but in a transcendent truth that we all can strive toward through learning."

The genius of Gilman's satire lies partly in its indeterminacy--she doesn't even point her finger at Earth, and she doesn't suggest that the way we keep our "blands" quiet is evil. It's you who will suggest this to yourself, as you read Tedla's story. The story is rhetorically magnificent; it traps you like a slave who will inevitably be recaptured every time it tries to run away.

You must read this book! Because the only thing worse than mistreating slaves is shutting yourself off from the feelings of the humans who share your planet.

I got my copy of Halfway Human from Arc Manor publishers. Their free ebook for this month is L. Neil Smith's 'Tom Paine Maru--Special Author's Edition.' The Coupon Code for November is 9992224. Instructions and download link (as usual) at: www.PPickings.com. Tom Paine Maru will be available from November 2nd through November 30th.

14 comments:

Lori L said...

Great review! Halfway Human is now on my wishlist.

Jeanne said...

Lori, glad to hear it! I think it should be on everyone's wish list.

kittiesx3 said...

It's on mine now too.

I find it interesting that while you and I don't have a lot in common in terms of what we both love to read, but we both enjoy books like this (and Dark Water's Embrace).

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, I think we may not have similar taste, but we have good taste!

Eleanor had to read Porphyria's Lover for school last week, and I thought of you. She was reading My Last Duchess along with it, which is more to my taste. I like bloodless cruelty, I guess.

Jenny said...

Oh, goody, gender issues! (And other stuff, but I particularly love gender issues.) When I first started reading this review, it sounded too sci-fi-y for me, but you've totally convinced me.

kittiesx3 said...

Porphyria's Lover is bloodless! There's not a drop of blood anywhere in that poem.

What did Eleanor think of the poem?

Jodie said...

I might see how I get on with this. Gender seen through a sci-fi lens is really interesting to me and I seem to be collecting a whole heap of recommendations.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, figuring out the gender issues is what will compel you to read this novel, once you pick it up.

Elizabeth, there's more explicit death in Porphyria's Lover than in My Last Duchess. I like the veiled "I gave commands, then all smiles stopped together."

Because Eleanor had to fill out a worksheet about each poem, she didn't have much of a reaction. That just kills any good piece of literature for her.

Jodie, I can't imagine that you wouldn't like it. The gender issues are absolutely central, as I was trying to say to Jenny.

kittiesx3 said...

Yeah I can see how a worksheet would kill the reaction.

When I read that poem, I gasped out loud when I got to the part where he decides what to do with her. In fact, I laughed because it was so very unexpected and so very atypical of any other poem I'd ever read. I remember thinking "Poetry can be like this? Wow!"

Jeanne said...

Elizabeth, I'll have to think about other poems that might surprise you. Hmm.

Trapunto said...

This calls for an interlibrary loan request! I read some blurbs that compare Halfway Human to Left Hand of Darkness, one of my favorite books.

Your description of the way Gilman raised issues surrounding the oppression of neuters on Gammadis reminded me of the harnis in Maureen McHugh's Nekropolis, another of my favorite books. I don't see her on your sidebar list. Ever run into her?

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, I have not read Nekropolis, but have already taken steps to remedy that!

I remember liking The Left Hand of Darkness but haven't reread it recently enough to comment on whether that's a good comparison--it might just be a "here's the only famous book that's anything like this one" kind of blurb.

Nymeth said...

I DO need to read this! I love this: "the companies need us all to be alienated from each other, because it cuts off routes of communication they can't control. If everyone shared information openly, it wouldn't be a controllable commodity, and no one could profit from it." What a terrifying thought. I was thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness even before I saw Trapunto's comment, but it may very well be that it's the only thing that even remotely covers the same ground. Either way, I really need to read this.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, I think it's terrifying in a good way, but of course I love rhetorical traps. I may really have to reread The Left Hand of Darkness now.