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Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Published by Del Ray Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In a static society, the most dangerous threat may be the mere knowledge that things can be done differently. Gammadis is just such a society, closed to the rest of the universe, comfortably set into its static little pattern -- until the day people arrive from outside.
We the readers learn the tangled story in retrospect. The novel begins years after the first contact, with the discovery of a "bland," a Gammadian neuter, by the name of Tedla. It has just tried to commit suicide, and the investigators seek to find out what drove it to this extremity. Like an onion, they uncover layer upon layer of tragedy, compounded by lies and deceits. The people of Gammadis may talk a pretty line about kindness and protection, but under it all they prove all too happy to condemn and to exploit.
Many reviewers have suggested that this is a book about slavery. To me, it's more complicated than that. I think the author is exploring some of the social roots beneath slavery and other oppressive systems, but people are focusing primarily on the oppression, and not the social issues that create them.
I think Jacqueline Lichtenberg also missed the point when she said in her review of the book (originally posted on the Monthly Aspectarian site at Lightworks and now reprinted in the Rereadable Books area of the Sime~Gen (TM) site) that she didn't see the connection between the idea of denying gender to the third of the population who were judged to be unable to handle it and why they should also be forced into menial jobs under excruciatingly tight supervision (ie. slavery).
What really made me understand it was when Tedla said that every society has a grayspace, even if they don't explicitly designate it as such and pretend it doesn't exist. It seems that most readers have been looking at things backwards -- they start by focusing on why the blands are what they are and then try to figure out how this leads to them being put in the role they have.
Instead, we need to start by looking at the role. In every society, there are certain jobs that need to be done in order for the society to function, but are not the sort of jobs that most people will want to take if given a choice. They're dull, dirty, repetitive and all around unpleasant. However, to allow them to remain undone for want of workers to do them is to invite social collapse.
Most societies have not been able to pay workers enough to want to do these jobs if other jobs are available. Thus the solution has generally been to coerce some people to do those jobs. Because this coercion of a part of the population creates a strain on the culture, it must therefore manufacture some form of rationalization to justify its actions, to claim that the group of people being coerced into doing the jobs nobody wants somehow are unworthy and deserve to be the subjects of coercion. The basis of this rationalization varies (they are weak and got conquored, they are of an inferior race, they lack the moral fiber to handle being gendered, whatever), but it creates a stigmatized outgroup of dishonored people.
In turn it leads to the jobs they perform being regarded as dishonoring and unworthy, creating a vicious cycle devaluating both work and worker. The other abuse and oppression (like the sexual abuse that Tedla and other blands were subjected to) are partly opportunistic (a person who's legally deprived of their rights can't effectively fight back when someone with power decides to indulge an illicit appetite) and partly an externalization of the feelings of guilt on the part of the ingroup who benefit from the coercion and oppression of the outgroup.
Click to buy Halfway Human in paperback.
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Review posted December 14, 1998