Commitment Hour

by James Alan Gardner

Cover image

Series: League of Peoples #2
Publisher: Eos
Copyright: April 1998
ISBN: 0-380-79827-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 343

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This is the second book in Gardner's League of Peoples universe, following Expendable, but it is largely unrelated to that novel apart from taking place in the same universe. Expendable follows the portion of humanity that has left Earth and embraced the universe and the advanced technology of the League. Committment Hour is set on Earth, in one of the remaining low-tech settlements that have become a backwater of humanity. Earth is governed by the Spark Lords, who appear to be a sort of scientific artistocracy empowered by the League of Peoples (Gardner gets into this more in later books in the series), but the community in this book is largely left alone.

The protagonist of Committment Hour is Fullin, a resident of Tober Cove. The Tober Cove community has a very unusual interaction with gender. Every year, all inhabitants under the age of twenty (starting at the age of two) are taken away by what are viewed locally as gods. When they return, they have the opposite gender. They live their childhoods alternating gender every year, including a mandatory pregnancy (created on one of those trips by the gods) and childbirth. Then, at the age of twenty, rather than being gender-swapped like the other children, they choose the gender that they'll live with for the rest of their life. Fullin is (at least at the start of this book) currently male, but as the book opens on the eve of the day of his final gender committment, he's still undecided on what gender he'll choose.

A review of this sort of book immediately requires a significant caveat: this story is all about social constructions of gender and about the implications of one specific transgender scenario. As a cisgender man who fits comfortably within society's normal gender construction, I'm not going to do the best job of judging how well it deals with those issues. It was on the long list for the Tiptree Award, which is a fairly good sign that it does okay, and a quick Internet search didn't uncover any significant dislike, but it's quite possible that I would miss places where it fell short.

That said, I found Gardner's presentation of gender fascinating, in large part because Committment Hour is told from deeply inside Fullin's perspective and Gardner treats the Tober Cove gender swapping mostly as the unremarked normal. Fullin and the other inhabitants are quite aware that gender doesn't work for them the way that it does for everyone else, but they consider their gender process entirely sensible and can't imagine how weird life would be without the chance to experience both genders and to have carried a child. And Gardner has several aces up his sleeve that let him, by the end of the book, position Tobin Cove's experience as a very specific and local experience that would not necessarily generalize to gender in society at large, which I thought was an ingenious way to avoid overreaching and excessive generalization.

This is not a gender utopia; Fullin's world is rather patriarchal and strongly gender essentialist. The village was, in the past, ruled by a sort of religious fantatic who laid down very firm rules about the roles of men and women, and the village largely stuck to them, but since anyone can choose which gender they want to become, the gender essentialism is also undermined in an interesting way. It becomes more akin to a choice of careers rather than an innate quality, albeit with only two choices and with a permanent decision at the age of 20.

Gardner complicates the situation further by introducing a neuter gender (at least that's what the characters call it; by physical description, hermaphrodite would be a more accurate description). People actually have three choices on their twentieth birthday, and although the Patriarch who ruled Tober Cove outlawed and banished all "neuts," it's still a choice. Near the start of Committment Hour one of those who chose the "neut" gender returns to Tober Cove in the company of a Spark Lord (thus making "it" — the pronoun used by the natives — untouchable and somewhat immune to the normal local prejudice).

Committment Hour follows Fullin and his close friend and possible future wife or husband through their last day before their committment hour, a day complicated by the incessant curiosity of the observing Spark Lord and his companion. Gardner has some rather neat world building and some revelations in store; this is the sort of book where, by the end, the curtain has been fully pulled back and the audience gets to peer into the machinery. But most of the book is about the social and societal structure of Tober Cove, about how it feels to swap back and forth between genders (and how specific that is to Tober Cove's unique situation), and how this complicates interpersonal interactions. It's an immersive sort of book that puts the reader in Fullin's head and shows his (and her) comfort with the Tober Cove culture and discomfort with the life choices that he faces as part of committment.

As with everything by him I've read, Gardner's tone in writing is unique and can take a bit of getting used to. His stories tend to have a light, almost flippant attitude with frequent touches of absurdist humor, which can give the erroneous impression that he isn't taking his story seriously. But there is depth beneath that tone. Fullin may treat some questions flippantly, but he gives them serious thought and works through the consequences. And I was delighted by how Fullin completely scuttled the Spark Lord's arrogant assumption of superiority around his scientific understanding of things Fullin treats as mythological.

Committment Hour is different fare than the typical SF novel, with a lot of focus on an unusual domesticity and small village politics. The technology and the world building are mostly saved for the climax, although are quite satisfying when they finally come. It's primarily a thought-provoking treatment of gender that avoids overreaching by grounding the story in a specific situation. I found it a bit slow in places, and occasionally wanted the characters to stop being stupid and stop dithering, but I ended up enjoying it rather more than I expected. Mildly recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-03-11

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21