Nebula Award nominee Gardner (Expendable) gives a less-than-stellar performance with this silly look at the future of sex roles. In the 25th century, teenage Fullin, along with his lover, Cappie, and the other villagers of Tober Cove, enjoy the right of selecting what gender they will be for their adult lives: the "Commitment Hour" of the title, is the night when the two must make the big decision. Although Gardner lacks the finesse of Le Guin's anthropological SF, he packs his story with intriguing characters and numerous plot twists to compensate.
I wanted to like this since it's a very interesting premise. But ultimately it remains fairly conventional (perhaps showing its age). In addition, the unlikeable protagonist makes it difficult to care about what happens over the course of the book. However, I did quite enjoy the ending--it made me want to read a book about the aftermath. In fact, I think that would have made a much more interesting novel!
This book was pure joy for me to read. I loved everything about it -- the world, the characters, the very idiosyncratic voice. After I came down from my reading high I found myself poking holes in some of the assertions about the world, suspect of the ways Gardner chose his characters to discourage the reader from thinking about aspects of it, but that didn't dampen my love for the experience. However, I cannot talk about the book without spoiling something that the back cover plays very coy with: the nature of the Commitment. It's revealed on page two, but if you don't want that spoiled, don't read any further. (Also, don't read any other reviews; I've only seen one that avoided the spoiler.)
The Commitment Fullin must make is choosing his gender for the rest of his life. This year he is male; but last year he was female, and in fact every summer of his life he has gone off with his gods and had his gender switched. Every person of Tober Cove spends their childhood this way, learning what it means to be both male and female (all aspects of each -- sexual exploration is encouraged, and in every person's last year as a female she bears a child), and then at twenty each person must commit to one gender or the other for the rest of his/her life.
(Technically, a person can also commit to "both" and become a hermaphrodite; but 150 years ago that choice was outlawed, and any person that chooses both is immediately exiled from the community and can be killed on site if they return.)
So this book is one in the long line of SF novels that looks at gender roles -- one of my favorite SF conversations to have.
It's a first-person narrative, and that narration is, I think, the best thing about the book. Fullin is an incredibly well-realized character with a very distinct voice I found completely charming. The first page is an absolute gem; I'd quote it here, but that would take up way too much space. He's also a bit of a jackass, and the fact that I still loved reading him makes Gardner's achievement more impressive. And through a quirk I will not spoil, we also get to be inside Fullin's head as a woman. She is much more likable than he is; she is also, in both obvious and subtle ways, a very different person than Fullin as a man.
One of the many things that make Fullin different in each gender is that Tober Cove has very strict gender roles -- stricter than the rest of the world, where the gender-switching does not take place. Men fish and hunt; women are caregivers. Men are politicians; women are priestesses. But, because the characters have practiced both roles all their lives, the system is not dystopic; after all, if you really want to be Mayor someday, you can just choose to be male at your Commitment ceremony. If you want to be Mayor and a stay-at-home Mom, well, the Mocking Priestess has a saying: "You can get what you want most in life; not even the gods can guarantee you get your second choice too."
There isn't anything tremendously groundbreaking about the treatment of gender here; most of the book focuses on the lost third choice, and what that loss has done to warp an otherwise utopic society. Still, I loved the way Gardner handled it because many of the characters were so conscious of the processes at work; Leeta, the Mocking Priestess, and Fullin-as-a-woman all have wonderful moments where they become exasperated at the outsiders' confusion about how gender works in Tober Cove and break character, so to speak; they fill their roles to the hilt, but they do it consciously, because that keeps their society in balance.
That self-awareness isn't only limited to gender roles either. This is science fiction, for all the talk of gods and demons, and the characters know that too. The gender-switching process is a technological rather than mystical one, and generally in books like this the process of discovering the technology underlying the religion causes people to lose faith; I loved the way Gardner created characters whose faith is elastic. Early in the book an outsider dismisses the solstice dance as "charming" neo-Paganism, but Fullin responds with:
"Everyone knows its not hard to make the gods sound ridiculous. It just takes sarcasm, exaggeration, and a determination to be vulgar. . . But that's kid's stuff. . . After a while, as with most things at thirteen, the memory of how you behaved makes you squirm; even if you know that seasons come from a tilting planet whirling around the sun, the old stories still mean something to you. . . The gods aren't jokes; they're people you walk around with every day. Insulting them is like insulting family."
And the religion the characters follow, neo-Pagan or not, artificially constructed or not, is one I can believe keeps the characters warm at night. The solstice dance; the way the Patriarch's Man and the Mocking Priestess balance each other; the whole ritual Hush for Mistress Snow; Gardner shows how those pieces, so easily mocked, bind the community together. It's not a perfect community -- people are people, and every community has its misfits, its damaged souls; and, of course, there is the unsightly scar of the outlawed third choice. And as I mentioned at the beginning, Gardner shaped his world very conveniently so he would not have to address a significant chunk of his characters' identity -- their sexual identity. But my overall experience was one of warmth, and hope, and joy, and I loved that.
Quite an oddly interesting read. The bizarre nature of the novel's subject matter, a village whose inhabitants switch sexes every year until the age of 20, is what initially piqued my interest. This is not to say that I've ever had the urge to alter my own sex mind you, but rather I was curious to see how the author would pull off such a feat.
How weird would it be to change your sex on a yearly basis. Seriously, think about that for a second. To wake up one morning and find your body completely altered? To have vague recollections of your past year living as a man, but now finding yourself in a woman's body, feeling a woman's thoughts and desires. This is what the natives of Tober Cove deal with every year until the age of 20, when they finally need to make a choice as to which sex they would like to live out their remaining years as; male, female, or hermaphrodite (or as the locals call it, "Neut"). In order to ensure that each inhabitant has experienced every possible aspect of each sex prior to their "Commitment Day", the day they choose their final sex, each citizen is impregnated in their late teen years so that they can even experience the child birthing process. Yep, you read that correctly, and oddly enough, it makes sense considering the circumstances.
To make this tale even a bit more odd is the fact that the locals of neighboring cities and villages do not experience this same sex shifting phenomenon. What exactly is going on in Tober Cove? A well renowned scientist travels to the village to answer this very question, and thus all hell breaks loose as he begins unraveling the mystery.
In addition to the inquisitive scientist, the story focuses on the discrimination towards those who chose to become hermaphrodites ("Neuts") as well as the twisted story of two locals that are facing their "Commitment Day." They also happen to be lovers with two children of their own, which of course adds some additional intrigue. What happens if they both choose to commit as the same sex?? Yes my friends, drama ensues.
In my earlier days I used to devour Science Fiction novels at a rather rapid pace, but nowadays my tastes have typically shifted away from this genre. That being said, I did find this novel to be oddly entertaining and I'm glad I decided to crack it open. While the story did seem to drag on at times (the entire novel takes place over the course of one day) I think James Alan Garner did an admirable job of portraying the world through the eyes of characters who are faced with a very different type of lifestyle. The added mystery surrounding why the annual sex shifting occurs in the first place also helped keep me interested until the book's final pages. This definitely won't be everyone's cup of tea, but if you go into it with an open mind you may just enjoy it.