Friday, June 3, 2016

Cultural Genetics

Review: Half Past Human by T.J. Bass


Few science fiction readers "of a certain age" have not read this dystopian novel. The peculiarly ecological vision of Bass found expression in only two books (Godwhale is the other), and echoed contemporary fictions of future societies—Orwell's 1984, for example, and Huxley's Brave New World— in its view of human society as doomed to dark collapse under a weight of population and totalitarian control.

In a far-future Earth, our distant descendants have been altered genetically to allow them to live in ultra-crowded hives. The genes that code for aggression when people are pressed too closely together turn out to be linked to the gene for five toes, so the Nebish people are four-toed and complacent. They fill their dark underground warrens in their billions, despite another genetic shift (and social mores) that limit reproduction.

They are also cannibals. Unapproved children are allowed to exist until they begin to walk and talk. Then they are thrown into the "patty press," producing "flavors" for the Nebish who reports them. Other flavors come from rats and Nebish corpses tossed into the patty press. Aside from the taste of flesh, Nebish society is fed by the world-covering gardens of algae, and the lack of protein in their diet makes them weak and soft-boned, prone to die after only 25 to 30 years of life.

Within the Nebish genome, though, the five-toed gene still thrives. Occasionally, children are born with all five toes, or with "the bud of a fifth toe." These children are allowed to mature, because the hive needs their mechanical skills, but they are not allowed to procreate.

Without help, the Nebish are neuter. This gives Earth Society (the "big ES") control over reproduction, for in all except a few Nebish, hormone therapy is required to "polarize" into male or female. Tinker, an ingenious Nebish mechanic, has been authorized to produce a clone-type bud-child of himself, and is polarized male. He finds his attitudes about other Nebishes and life in the hive changing drastically; he fixates on the female, Mu Ren, who was assigned to carry his bud to term, and instead gets her pregnant with a hybrid child. Their child is born with five toes.

To save their child, Tinker and Mu Ren must escape the hive, and join the savage wild humans who live on the surface and steal from the world garden. Once there, they encounter a host of curious characters: the ancient human Moon and his equally antique dog Dan, the spear-shaped robot Toothpick, a liberated mechanical harvester, the wild human shaman with his cybernetic Ball, Moses the escaped hive pipe-master, and Nebish Val the human-hunter.

Bass gives us a chilling view of the future of humans under the foot of the Big ES, but also offers hope. Olga is coming, and her purpose is to save the five-toed humans from the Big ES. But what shape will that salvation take?

This is a classic novel that ought to be in every thinking reader's library, and studied along with Burgess and Orwell, Huxley and Harrison. If you've read it once, it's time to read it again, especially now that all these novels are available on Kindle.