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Halfway Human, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Avon Eos, 1998, 472 pp.

Halfway Human is a masterful debut in which Gilman proves herself adept at one of science fiction's trickiest skills -- dramatizing ethical issues. Gilman is in fact so skilful that, while I seldom paused to consider the events as I was reading them, I had a great deal to ponder once the book was done. What a pleasure! Halfway Human takes a place in a long tradition in science fiction, the tradition concerning first contact and all the anthropological and societal implications that follow. Gilman can be proud that her book stands so eminently in such a gallery, where we science fiction fans have encountered everything from Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness to Star Trek's Prime Directive. Cleverly structured, character based, and concluded satisfyingly, Halfway Human has no notable flaws. My only peeve with this book is the lack of indication (at least that I could find) of the identity of the cover artist. The sheer quality of the cover art is evident as soon as the reader encounters Tedla, the character who the cover portrays. Tedla is a "bland," neither male nor female, and the artist has captured Tedla's androgyny perfectly. When I look at Tedla's face, I can see either a male or a female, depending on what I project (just like a Necker cube can swap perspectives) -- Gilman couldn't have asked for a better portrait. Of Tedla, and of the dilemma that Tedla represents to gendered society.

In the opening scene of Halfway Human, Tedla attempts suicide. It is on Valerie Endrada's homeworld, far from its own world of Gammadis, and Valerie gets involved almost immediately. She has to deal with its problems, and they range from the linguistic (Gilman chooses to have Tedla argue for the use of "it" as a pronoun for "itself") to the political. How much trouble can one lost, despairing bland cause in interstellar politics? Some books incur my disbelief when an individual becomes a figure of galaxy-wide importance (that is, the plot inflates the characters past credibility). Gilman works hard to humanize Tedla, first of all, then makes it the centre of interstellar power struggles. And the ploy works, simply because flashbacks to Tedla's past make up the bulk of the book. In one sense, the evil information corporations and their machinations are only window-dressing, despite their oppressive, relentless warping of society. However, this extra layer of plotting helps make Halfway Human such an intense novel. Tedla's past life on Gammadis was full of desperation and grim events, and the framing story of the book, as Tedla and Valerie learn about each other, has its own share of dilemmas and disasters.

Valerie Endrada is our guide through all this darkness and moral gloom. She is an excellent character, forthright, compassionate, but certainly no superhero. Gilman makes Valerie ordinary immediately; here is how Chapter One of the novel opens: "When the call came, Valerie Endrada was in the bedroom pawing through a jumble of unpacked containers, looking for her daughter's swimsuit" (3). The call brings her into contact with Tedla, and it has its own share of insights about Valerie. For example, take the following line from Tedla: "'Humans always feel like they have to belittle themselves when they do something out of goodness or compassion'" (164). Valerie's family plays a large role in forging a healthy, healing relationship with Tedla -- Valerie's husband, Max, and her daughter, Deedee, might be minor characters, but they are important and well-portrayed. The relationship between Tedla and Magister Galele, one of the first "aliens" to land on Gammadis, is also extremely well-written. We know from the beginning of Halfway Human that Galele died in disgrace, but we are still just as stunned as Tedla when it finds out his secret: "Everything looked different now. I had thought he was my guardian, but he was the one who had needed protection" (457-8). Galele is a memorable character, with a tragic flaw. Characters matter in this book, and, just as in life, not everyone achieves happiness.

Halfway Human explores many issues of cultural sensitivity and first contact. The Gammadians resent the "aliens" and their inquisitiveness into Gammadian society, paired as it is with reticence about their own alien society. But Valerie tells Tedla several times that once information is free to flow, cultural distinctions are erased rapidly. It's easy to say that complete separation is the answer, that something like the Prime Directive is needed here. But Gilman makes it clear that such shortcuts are useless, and that what's important is how you deal with grey areas. And Halfway Human is deliberately set up as an extensive grey area. Do you go ahead and make the judgement that Gammadian society treats the blands unfairly? Many of the "aliens" seem to move into that position of judgement, Valerie and Galele included, based on their surmises that Gammadian society is a constructed one. But isn't any society constructed on conventions, from language (the most clearly arbitrary aspect) to taboos? As Tedla says of knowledge it learns from Galele (mostly cultural studies techniques) and its own personal journey out of "blandhood": "To see something you must cease to be it" (327). This would seem to unmoor the individual (and specifically, the culturally aware or meta-cultural anthropologist or sociologist) from all connection or responsibility to his or her or its own milieu. I don't wish to give away the ending, but Valerie's boss makes an interesting choice that helps conclude the novel. Is there a gap between Gilman and her characters? Is there such a thing as complete objectivity anyways? Or does Gilman recommend interventionism? I liked how Gilman throws some fuel on the fire -- the other blands on Gammadis are mythologizing Tedla, the bland who escaped. Does compassion for Tedla balance out the destabilization of an entire society?

Halfway Human gives us all the answers... or does it? Perhaps Gilman uses the apparently happy ending to show that our "natural" impulses cannot be trusted. And my own varied interpretation of the ending demonstrates why Halfway Human is such a strong book. No matter what Gilman intended as the meaning or message, the novel inspires some deep, divergent contemplation. Gilman has dramatized the issues in such a way that the reader doesn't mind doing some extra work. A powerful novel to be certain.

Last modified: October 15, 1998

Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (

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