Review: Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman
I thought I'd do something a little different this week and review a science fiction novel I read for the first time a little more than ten years ago. Halfway Human is set in the distant future--a future where people travel via devices called 'wayports' and the human race is so widely scattered throughout the galaxy that some populations have been isolated from the rest of the species for long enough that they have evolved (or been genetically manipulated) into something that the rest of humanity regards as 'aliens.'
It is the story of a xenoanthropologist named Valarie Entrada, who is asked to study Tedla, an alien human who has unexpectedly turned up in an alley. Tedla is suicidal and all but incoherent at first, and is something that is completely unknown to science--a completely genderless human.
Val takes Tedla home and helps it to recuperate, and she gradually learns its story. On Tedla's home world, humans come in two forms: gendered people and sexless 'blands.' Blands are treated as a dull-witted slave caste and have no rights or status. The story revolves around the trust and friendship that slowly grows between Valarie and Tedla and the gradual emergence of Tedla's strange and tragic story. Ultimately, the reader will learn of Tedla's reasons for fleeing its homeworld.
This book flows well and the author did a good job of handling the shifts in point of view and voice between Val and Tedla. The characters and their responses are believable and well drawn, from the behavior of the blands in slavery to the relationship between Val and her dissertation advisor. I liked the fact that, even without going into a huge amount of detail about their pasts, she managed to portray even some of the more minor characters as complex and multidimensional.
This was, I believe, Gilman's first published novel (unless she has written under a different name), and I read it for the first time two or three years after it came out. I remember being quite frustrated that there was nothing else for me to read by this author. I re-read the book a few years later and was disappointed to discover that it was still the only published novel by this author. But when I recently pulled this book from my shelves with the intent of re-reading it yet again, I did a little research and discovered that she has written some novellas in recent years and that two new novels (Isles of the Forsaken and Ison of the Isles) have come out just this year. If the character and societies in her newer works are as well-drawn as the ones in her debut novel, they should be well worth reading.
One of the frustrations of discovering a brand new author shortly after he or she has written a first novel is the waiting period that one must go through to read more by the same writer. Even when a first work is a runaway commercial success, one usually has to wait a year or more before another novel is published. When a first novel is only modestly successful, the author is obviously not going to be able to write full time, and he or she may have as much, or more, trouble finding a publisher for subsequent works as for the first one. I suspect that in Gilman's case, it will have been worth the wait and I hope that she is now embarked on a long and prolific writing career.