Science Fiction, Fantasy & Utopia
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Review: Commitment Hour by James Alan Gardner

warning: spoilers included

Commitment Hour is an interesting thought-experiment about gender. The premise is that in the 25th Century, on Earth, one village--Tober Cove--has a different way of doing gender. Children are born one gender, and then swap every year till their 19th year; have a baby; and then in their 20th year they commit to male or female--or "both."

Within this community, gender roles are defined and observed, especially by the men. Although Tober Cove has had its arrangements of gender for 400+ years, 150 years ago The Patriarch established new rules. Under the Patriarch's rules, males can do some things; females can do another; and hermaphrodites, called "neuts," are driven out of the city. Sex is casual and a balance in mythological roles keeps Tober Cove from feeling like fundamentalist Christian patriarchy.

The novel centers on Fullin, who is arriving at Commitment Hour with his long-time friend and lover Cappie. ("His" because he spends most of the novel male, although sometimes his "female self" takes over.) When a mysterious Neut and its companion shows up at Tober, things start to get crazy and the history of Tober Cove starts to come out.

Spoilers below:

So what's wrong with this? Seems like an interesting idea; people switch back & forth, and then choose; there's some oppression to be fought; there's intrigue, adventure, etc. The book kept my attention & I liked Gardner's writing style; the humor in the writing & the flakiness of the characters.

But although I kept waiting for the revelation of what, exactly, was going on here, I had a sense of let-down when it finally happened. Okay, so some know-it-all people set up a social experiment 400 years ago. So the Tobers' mythology is all bunk. This is not surprising. The fact that The Patriarch co-opted the system 150 years ago seems under-explored. The notion that people have adapted to the Patriarch's laws, and let themselves go along with having their roles determined by their gender (admittedly their gender choice), wasn't really explored. And most troubling, all the violence in the novel was committed by the three Neuts, who each turn out to be capable of rather gruesome murders and violence. Ultimately I felt the book fell short of its promise, of exploring gender. It had fun with its Tireseian ploy but it didn't end up doing as much with it as it could have.

--lq, 5/3/2002

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critical resources: Tiptree Award | Wiscon | Broad Universe


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