Novel Review - Half Past Human by T.J. Bass
Half Past Human
by TJ Bass, 1971, 260 pages
TLDR: 4 of 5, for a wonderfully imaginative setting and a curious tale, but convoluted at times, and with interesting but emotionally flat characters.
I picked this book up because after reading the excellent Mockingbird by Walter Tevis I was still in the mood for some future dystopia, and this book certainly delivers, though it couldn't be more different from Mockingbird.
Where Mockingbird is fast-paced, elegantly written, and tightly focused on a few characters you grow to care about, Half Past Human is convoluted, difficult to parse in places, and contains many characters that are fairly flat. A few characters stand out (like Tinker, Val, Walter, and Toothpick) but none really get as much attention as they deserve.
And yet, Half Past Human really manages to shine in spite of these flaws, thanks to really evocative world-building. It was nominated for a Nebula award, as was its loose sequel, The Godwhale.
The novel is set in the far future and the earth is populated by trillions of people, now evolved into the four-toed Nebish, who have tissue for skin and rosewater blood. The Nebish live in underground silo-like colonies connected by a vast network of tubes, pipes, and ramps, called The Hive, run by the CO (Class One) of the ES (Earth System). The entire surface of the planet has been given over to a massive (and largely automated) agricultural system.
Living on the surface of the world are feral and renegade five-toed humans, eking out an existence under the cultivated canopy, hiding from hunters, riding agromecks, swimming in biosludge-filled canals, and avoiding pesticidal agrofoam. The two societies live in tenuous balance until a mysterious cyber-spear from a bygone age named Toothpick starts to manipulate things.
There's no easing into this setting - you're thrown in head-first and it takes some time to acclimatize, but once you do you may well find yourself mesmerized by what you find, both inside and outside of the hive. Here are a few examples:
This is a scene from inside the industrial workings of the hive.
Moses Eppendorf steered his minisub carefully through the mile-wide interior of the anaerobic digester... Flexing the craft's surface charge, he shook off the sticky trail of yeasts and mycelia. He maneuvered close to a yellow translucent mass about ten times the size of his sub and extended his sampler tube. Aspirating a fragment of the gelatinous material, he moved on. So far it looked like a routine inspection.
And here's a scene from the living quarters, featuring a 'meld' - a sort of orgy/banquet.
Bitter stuck her head in the door.
'Meld time,' she smiled. Her body glowed from her long hot soak in the refresher. Even her finger nails had softened. Her vented robe hung in loose folds without its belt. Umbillicus and areola peeked out.
'Join us, invited Walter, nodding with three chins.
Val started to shake is head - no.
Bitter hooked her hand under his arm and pressed him with a bony knee. 'Certainly you'll stay. You brought the pressed rat. We'll sauce up the wafers and pour a little liqueur - might even pass around a little Molecular Reward. It will be a real warm meld.'
Walter took his other arm and the two of them swept a protesting Val into their living room. Neutral Arthur, nude sans genitals, was busy setting up ornate platters and tall goblets. The soft meld pad was unrolled on the floor beside the eating utensils. Jo Jo, young, thin and preoccupied, studied a small amount of sweet aromatic liquid in his glass. Busch, a slightly older, more roughly mannered male, stood against a wall. Val hadn't noticed Arthur's neutral body, but when old fat Walter began to struggle out of his muddy tunic his redundant folds of flesh were impossible to ignore. Although Walter was a polarized male, it was impossible to tell; for a fatty apron of meat hung from his belly to his knees - the panniculus. >He looked more like an unfinished clay statue than a human."
And finally, a scene from the surface of the planet.
They were seated on the bank, munching shellfish. A bulky robot straddled the canal silently - an Irrigator. Moses pointed to the robot's optic pickups.
'Don't we have to worry about that thing reporting us?' he asked.
'Toothpick says that it's only a class eleven. Goes around checking soil moisture and spraying water. No circuits for Buckeye detection.'
Toothpick put in, 'We must watch out for class tens, though. Anything that can run around without a track usually has enough brains to detect us. Harvesters, Tillers, Metal Gatherers, things like that.'
Moses continued to munch thoughtfully. The white flesh of the shellfish had a definite crunchy consistency. It gave him a rich, full sensation - lots of good amino acids.
The water in front of him rippled noisily. He watched the spot. A large, ugly, humanoid head broke the surface, stared straight at him and ducked under again.
Then he saw it again - a human child riding on the back of a non-human dugong. Before he could comment on the genetic arithmetic, the mother - a human female, puberty plus four - left the water and approached. Her wet hair clung in dripping tangles. Streaks of mint-green scum rimmed her neck and chin. Sullen, dark eyes glared. She carried a wooden blade low in her right hand.
Toothpick called: 'Back out, men; I detect a golden corpus luteum'
Moon jumped quickly to his feet and backed up the canal, picking up Toothpick. Moses followed...
'That was a coweye, 'explained Moon. 'They are dangerous in the luteal phase.'
TJ Bass, a physician, obviously took great pleasure in describing biology and anatomy. His future society exists in a biological extreme, where the food chain has been completely condensed to only a few species, and where good work is rewarded by having flavours added to your calories. Reproduction is regulated, and bad genes are to be avoided.
Walter is a DABber (Dirt-Adobe-Bamboo) and keeps live earth on the floor of his home, a sort of back-to-earther. Val works for Hunter Control and hunts feral five-toed humans. Tinker and Mu Ren flee the hive after they have an unauthorized baby and can't get their classification changed. Moses is a piper who goes renegade and is later tried for it. Moon and his dog, Dan, are ferals who live on the surface, and Toothpick, a cyber-spear, helps them out.
This book takes some work to read, but I loved the wild imagination and, once I got used to the terminology, I rather enjoyed the feel of the whole thing. It was a bit like a literary form of Evlyn M's art, for those of you familiar with it. At times it reminded Harrison's The Pastel City, Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer, and of some of the works of Karl Wagner and Brian Aldiss. It doesn't have the trappings of Sword and Sorcery fiction, but it does have that feel.
Recommended if you want to go places you've never even conceived of. 4 out of 5