Book Review: Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman

By Kyt Dotson

Halfway Human

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By writing the book Halfway Human, Carolyn Ives Gilman added to a strange short-list of science fiction books that settled on gender identity similar to how Ursula K. Leguin’s Left Hand of Darkness addressed a very similar concept. In this book Halfway Human a society exists that has species members who are truly androgynous—neither male nor female—and these individuals are raised from birth essentially as chattel to be traded, enslaved, and used. In a sort of way it’s an anthropological and ethnographic work examining the concepts of gender identity, slavery, dehumanization of the other, and what fundamentally makes a person a person.

The main character, Tedla, is a “bland.” Blands are the androgynous gender of Gammadis—who have both traditional male and female as well; although intersexed individuals are not mentioned—and they are literally cultivated into a sort of human slave trade in their society. The rest of the universe is a little bit more progressive about this sort of behavior but whatever interstellar governance as exists in the Halfway Human universe largely looks the other way at the enslavement of the Gammadis blands.

The way that genders work is presented pretty strangely. Apparently, the Gammadis species has offspring that are all androgynous until their gender expresses itself at puberty. As a result, until that time they’re kept together in crèches and raised without a sense of gender identity at all; or even an understanding that depending on the expression of their eventually gender with chose their destiny as a person or slave.

The story is told partially through the eyes and interaction of a xenologist—a sort of alien anthropologist—named Val who comes across Tedla and tries to heal it of a lifetime of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of its own people. The proper pronoun for a member of the bland gender is “it” as they have no gender and they don’t choose one. This language factors into the treatment of the blands as well; as they don’t have a differential pronoun that separates them from inanimate objects.

Tedla is presented as a compassionate, intelligent, and deeply naïve person who really wishes the best for the world and actively loved its former tormentors (although some less than others.) In fact, there’s several stories about Tedla’s previous owners, some of whom were good people uncertain of the treatment of the blands. However, the slave mentality had been so deeply engrained in their culture that even the blands argued against their own emancipation.

The story told from Tedla’s viewpoint can become a heartfelt rendition of a culture that relishes having a slave underclass and ignores the humanity of the servants under their feet. Val’s insertion into their culture, and attempts to actually study them, leads her to look for the factors that the society hinged on and also led her to feel a bit repulsed by the bad behavior that she witnessed. There’s even a funny segment where she gets in trouble for instigating an experiment by getting the blands drunk at one point in a bout of “chemical warfare” so-called.

Overall, this is a compelling book about politics, class warfare, a culture of the downtrodden, and ideally in the end—what it is to be human. It doesn’t offer any grand solutions; there’s no finale where the slaves are freed and everyone rises up to proclaim that they are Spartacus. But, for a moment, it did make me think about the plight of untouchable castes within other cultures, the fringe, the itinerant, who are disassociated from society and treated to the most menial jobs.

While it doesn’t really provide as much example of gender-issues as The Left Hand of Darkness did, Halfway Human does do a good job of portraying an extremely political culture that leans heavily on gender roles—especially the role of the blands as servants—and provides a compelling, sometimes jaw dropping, dramatic inquiry into the very human obsession with the body aesthetic.

In the end, I found myself liking Val and happy to have known Tedla—and I wondered too how I might have felt, ducking into one of the tiny doors set in the hallway of a Gammadian building constructed just for blands to duck in and duck out of a room without being seen entering or leaving (so that they could go about their custodial duties without disturbing guests.) To enter into their world and discover their inner thoughts; surrounding by an external culture who couldn’t believe that their little slaveling servants possessed the capability of inner thought or monologue.

No, I’d be a poor ethnographer indeed if I wasn’t curious about what went on behind those walls and in those minds and why—and Gilman does a good job in Halfway Human presenting it to the reader.

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