Something I always end up doing after Wiscon is catching up on famous feminist fiction that I missed first time through. Halfway Human, by Carolyn Ives Gilman, is one such book. It first came out in 1998 and I can’t quite work out why I didn’t hear more about it at the time. As a story it has flaws, but as an examination of social issues it is excellent.
Before I go any further, however, I should issue a spoiler warning. It isn’t really possible to discuss the issues raised by this book without giving away two important facts about the background. Both of them are pretty well telegraphed, and I had both pegged early even though one is not announced until about half way through and the other near the end. So if you don’t like spoilers, stop reading now.
Halfway Human is the story of Tedla, the only genderless human ever to have escaped from the closed planet of Gammadis. It is well known in the galaxy that Gammadians have three genders, but the planet refuses to allow access to outsiders so no one knows how or why this happened, or much about how Gammadian society functions. Until, that is, Tedla turned up in a back street district of Capella Two.
Most of the book is backfill, describing Tedla’s childhood on Gammadis and the disastrous first contact with a Capellan expedition. As the story unfolds we learn more about Gammadian society, why the Capellan expedition went so badly wrong, and how as a result Tedla came to escape.
But of course the story is largely irrelevant, because the point of the book is to hold a mirror to human society by exaggerating certain parts of it in the created alien world.
The set-up goes like this. Gammadians are born genderless, and stay that way until puberty. Only when their sex hormones kick in do they develop distinguishing characteristics and become male or female. Except that in a proportion of cases nothing happens, the unfortunate Gammadian remains genderless for the rest of its life.
At this point you are probably thinking that Gilman is going to talk about the roles of nature and nurture in defining gender behaviour. After all, if young Gammadians are brought up identically because it is not known what gender they will be then any differences in behaviour must be genuine rather than socially induced. Sadly this issue is not really explored much. We see very little of adult Gammadians, especially females, so it isn’t easy to judge how different they are. Gilman does, however, address the subject of social conditioning. Indeed, it is central to the book.
Gammadian scientists explain to their Capellan visitors that the adult neuters, known as blands, remain childlike and simple all of their lives. They are not able to learn crafts and professions, and need constant supervision because of their lack of sophistication. However, they are able to learn simple jobs such as cooking, cleaning and looking after their gendered protectors and the children. The Capellans soon find out that what this means in practice is institutionalised slavery. Indeed, the blands are not even regarded as human.
There are echoes in here of how the enslavement of blacks was justified on Earth. Gilman lives in St. Louis and has probably got first hand experience of a few unpleasant Southern-US attitudes. She may also be having a sly dig at how many human societies make use of their children as household servants. But the main thrust of the book is clear long before she more or less announces it half way through. The blands fulfill the same role in Gammadian society that women fulfill in ours.
Got that? Cooking, cleaning, looking after others, always being told that you are not smart enough to go and have a career so you have to stay home and be looked after. The message is not subtle, but that way that Gilman provides example after example of how women are not only oppressed, but have long ago consented to actively participate in their own oppression is very impressive. Even after becoming a star pupil in a post-graduate xenology course at a Capellan university, Tedla still insists that there must be some mistake because it isn’t smart enough to do anything but cook and clean.
The really clever part of the book, however, is the way that Gilman initially portrays Gammadian society as a sort of feminist utopia. Gammadian females have exactly the same rights and opportunities as males, except that they can also earn additional money by agreeing to bear children. Once they are born, of course, the kids are sent off to the blands to look after. It is precisely the sort of scenario that many career-obsessed feminists dream of. “Do you oppress your females by forcing them to bear and raise children?” Tedla asks its Capellan friend. But someone still has to do the dirty work. On Gammadis it is the blands. In our society, as Tedla insightfully points out, it is the poor.
Gammadis, then, is both Utopia and Dystopia. It provides just what some feminists have been asking for, but it goes on to show that no matter what set-up you end up with for society, someone is likely to end up on the bottom of the pile. Furthermore, as Gilman finally admits, in the case of Gammadis it was quite deliberate. Genetic engineering allowed the Gammadians to create their genderless children, and how those children transform at puberty is mercilessly controlled.
This is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the book, and one which does not seem to have been fully explored. It is clear that potential sociopaths are forced to become blands. But from what I could see I think that Gilman is also suggesting that the Gammadians bestowed gender on the most ambitious, self-motivated members of their race. Any child who cares deeply about others is left to become a bland. The consequences for their society are fairly obvious.
So there you have it: social engineering, feminism, eugenics, slavery, even a bit of paedophilia. Halfway Human is a fabulous collection of pointed observations of human society, as seen by aliens. It being in many ways a Utopian novel, the plot is somewhat shaky in places. But as a piece of sociology it is fascinating. Heartily recommended.
This review originally appeared on Emerald City.