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Commitment Hour, James Alan Gardner, Avon Eos, 1998, 343 pp.
James Alan Gardner's second novel, Commitment Hour, represents quite an important step for his career, namely, a successful follow-up to a promising debut. Gardner's Expendable was funny, compulsively readable, and in the end, more ambitious than it first appeared. Commitment Hour may not be as overtly hilarious as its predecessor, but it packs more wit into its thematic punch. The tone of the novel is also quite accomplished, and dovetails with the character development and theme in a way that few books ever do, mainly due to its manipulation of the first-person narration. Interestingly, I'm guessing this book will raise controversy among both its more traditional and progressive readers (to use two highly debatable and probably useless terms -- but more on that in the section where I discuss the narration).
It's hard to know how much to say about Commitment Hour's story. For once, the back cover blurb does not give away the main premise of the book it is describing, a tendency which has cursed science fiction for many years. Often these premises are extrapolated in subtle social details, given ambiguity by the very fact of their inclusion in human behaviour, and so on, all only to be ruined by a baldfaced blurb. So I applaud Avon Eos' choice of putting a higher quality blurb on the back of Gardner's book. Even the mini-bio of Gardner, also on the back cover, doesn't give away the central premise of the book: "From the author of Expendable, a major new voice in imaginative fiction, here is a spellbinding adventure which dares to pose critical questions about the human condition -- and answer them." This leaves me, as the reviewer, with somewhat of a dilemma about how much to say. I certainly don't want to be the one to ruin the lovely surprise waiting for the new readers of this book, because I have heartfelt appreciation for the blurbwriter who let me get to page 2 and get my first inkling of which human condition Gardner was addressing. So I will reserve the next paragraph for more general comments, on which basis new readers should get a good idea of what lies ahead for them, and then use the rest of the review, with heavy spoiler warnings, for more indepth discussion of Gardner's main idea and how it plays out.
Commitment Hour is written in crystal clear prose, sometimes simplistic, but with subtle flourishes that always fit into the overall tone. Take for example the opening paragraph of the book: "The night before Commitment, I was down in the marsh with the frogs and the fish, sitting out the time on a mud-crusted log and waiting for the gods to send me a duck" (1). Matter-of-factly, the narrator tells us a great deal about himself, with a small hook -- why would the gods send a duck? And why is he waiting for a duck? The real hook of the novel comes on the next page, but we are already tumbling along in the flow of the writing. That flow keeps us reading through the complexity of the premise and some of its early incredibility. The main character, Fullin, is portrayed perfectly through the transparent prose, and other people often tell him he is obvious, and even once that he is interesting because he is so obvious. Part of the pleasure of the book is how immersed we become in Fullin's state of mind, whatever it may be at the moment -- Gardner displays remarkable control of his material. The other characters in Fullin's town, Tober Cove, are also sharply drawn, with enough detail to make the inter-relationships believable and the society interesting. The interlopers in Fullin's community are crucial to the plot, but are also fascinating beyond that, and often funny. When Fullin asks Rashid if he is a god, Rashid replies: "Young man, I'm not a god, I'm a scientist. We're like gods, but more irresponsible" (25). The story runs very quickly, with more than enough twists and turns, often blindsiding us along with Fullin, as he discovers more of the backstory of his own life and town. This book is situated nicely in the universe Gardner already established in Expendable -- Tober Cove is on Earth of the twenty-fifth century. All the "sentient" (read "civilized") humans have chosen to join the League of Peoples and have gone elsewhere, leaving humans just like us (or at least, almost like us) on Earth, with all the corresponding types of behaviour. I'm interested to see how Gardner will tell further stories in this milieu, with the strict imposition of morality by the League of Peoples (which, as we find out in the course of this book, humans have always been circumventing anyway). The novel's ending itself is a surprise, but more satisfying than any sudden-twist ending I have ever encountered. Gardner's skill at wrapping up the character dilemmas puts the book firmly in memory -- there's no forgetting this book once you've read it.
That's as much as I can discuss without giving away more information. So if you have not read Commitment Hour as of yet, please do yourself a favour and skip to the concluding paragraph -- I will now try to engage Gardner's premise, with extensive spoilers. This premise accumulates a number of implausibilities, but most of them are smoothed out when Fullin discovers the explanation for it later in the book (which I am reluctant to reveal here). The children of Tober Cove alternate between male and female genders, changing once a year, until the age of twenty, when they must commit to one sex or the other for the rest of their lives. Fullin is nineteen when the events of Commitment Hour happen to him, and he has his own child that he gave birth to the previous year when he was female. Each eighteen year old of Tober Cove bears a child at that age, so that when the hour of decision comes, they will be informed about that aspect of being female. Further complicating the matter, the "male" and "female" spirits sometimes take control of the opposite gender's body, a process which happens more often as that person approaches commitment hour. Fullin has a complex relationship with Cappie, who happens to be currently female -- they are the only two residents of Tober Cove to make a commitment this year, so they are often undergoing the same pressures. The situation is tangled up further by the two interlopers, Rashid, a scientist, and his friend Steck, who want to discover how the society of Tober Cove works, and become heavily involved in the course of events.
There's something here to offend almost everyone, or so it seems at first. Conservative readers might be put off by the frank descriptions of sexual matters such as androgyny, hermaphroditism, and some relatively kinky sexual encounters (with variously gendered spirits and bodies). Progressive readers (and again, I am uncomfortable with these two categories) will be worried about how these gender concerns are put in a deeply patriarchal society, with the people acting in incredibly stereotypical ways depending on which gender body they currently inhabit. And in the end, Gardner seems to disown both camps. Or perhaps he is constructing a synthesis, and one that happens to lean away from tradition. The actions of Fullin and Cappie are stuck firmly in the roles of their current gender, but as they learn more about their society and its origins, they see clearly that these are constructed roles. Physically, the answer Gardner gives for the way out of this dilemma is impossible for most of us, but taken as a kind of metaphor, it's certainly good advice to step back emotionally from the influence of the body on the mind. Try to see the other's point of view, and so on. But it seems as if Gardner offers nothing beyond this dualism, nothing for us, the readers, embodied as we are. The body, a curious phenomenon, and one that Gardner treats oddly as well. Taken as a thought-experiment or a writer's showpiece, Commitment Hour certainly succeeds. Gardner takes us through a complicated set of internal events in Fullin's life with rather dazzling ingenuity of first-person narration. But even Fullin's newfound sense of perspective at the end can't escape his own embodiedness, and interestingly, originates from it. So does Gardner believe in socially-constructed gender roles or is he a biological determinist? Sometimes it's hard to tell, despite his clear-headed method of approaching the issue on the whole.
By jumping into this topic, Gardner invites comparison to other similar books in science fiction, some of them feminist works. The most famous comparison would be, of course, Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, and I'm guessing Gardner invokes that comparison consciously. How does he come off? Quite well, on the whole. The tone of the two novels are worlds apart, with Gardner often going for the laugh, whereas sometimes Le Guin seemed too conscious of her groundbreaking topic. Gardner's book seems juvenile perhaps, but he is dealing with adolescence, and he demonstrates quite a grasp of the mindset and actions of that period of life. John Clute has said that science fiction books tend to use the adolescent's rite of passage as a basic theme, and neither The Left Hand of Darkness nor Commitment Hour escape that tendency. As well, the epiphany reached by both Genly Ai and Fullin at the end of their respective rite of passage seem similar -- to look at others as human, outside of constructed biases of gender. It comes down to differing tastes, and Le Guin's seriousness has made her the favourite of academics while Gardner's lightheartedness makes his book highly readable. Both books demonstrate the flexibility and appeal of science fiction.
To conclude, Commitment Hour shows once again Gardner's mastery of a deceptively casual writing tone, and his ability to craft interesting characters. The story flows smoothly, and ends with a satisfying epiphany. The premise might not be extrapolated perfectly, but Gardner certainly succeeds at letting the characters live inside it and react against it. A flawed book perhaps, depending on your critical taste, but Gardner definitely writes a book worthy of attention.
Last modified: May 1, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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