Book Review: Half Past Human, T. J. Bass (1971)

3.25/5 (Average)

1971 Nebula Nominated Novel

T.J. Bass’ Half Past Human is a flawed yet occasionally intriguing fix-up novel which was nominated for the 1971 Nebula Award.  I found that the atrocious prose overshadowed all the work’s positives and made it a chore to read.  Bass is a practicing doctor and thus apparently finds it fun to inundate his narrative with medical terminology.

Some particularly atrocious examples:

“Willie froze. Little warning reflexes were activated deep in his basal ganglia — thoracolumbar autonomics flared” (158).

“Myotonia and vasocongestion of the breasts — she was well into the excitement phase” (153).

“She had an ovum waiting in her tense follicle and had selected young Moses to fertilize it.  Her estrogen flushed body respoded to the presence of Moses — a sexually mature male.  Homologous erectile tissue in her nasal septum swelled… Capillary beads became engorged producing a maculapapular rash over her trunk” (123).

If this technique was applied in a more limited fashion it *might* have added to the general feel of the work — however, simply put, it is a frustrating distraction and a failed attempt at originality.

Brief Plot Summary

Future Earth has been transformed for the sole purpose of feeding a massive population.  Science has created a four-toed docile/”programmable”/and communal Nebish (still a “human” — or perhaps, a humanoid).  Trillions of Nebishes live in gigantic shaft cities with the surrounding farmable countryside (the Garden) operated by programmable mecks.  The shaft cities recycle all human waste, the dead humans, etc and are crowded and overpopulated.  Depending on the usefulness of various citizens the shaft cities supply the Molecular Reward and calorie allotments. The Nebishes are “polarized” at various points in their lives when they need to take on a specific gender.

Not all humans are Nebishes.  The five-toed varieties, called buckeyes, wander the surrounding fields.  The buckeyes are not all that superior to the Nebishes for they resort to cannibalism etc and live in primitive huts.  Drugged Nebish hunters continuously prey on the buckeyes and take back their bodies as trophies.

The novel follows a group of characters both buckeye and Nebish.  Tinker, a Nebish, is polarized at the order of the government.  After his wife gives birth to an illegal child he escapes with his family to a buckeye village.  Moon (a buckeye) and his dog Dan wander the countryside with Toothpick, an unusual mechanical being with a mysterious purpose.  Various other characters wander in an out at will.  None are particularly easy to emphasize with and when we finally do, Tinker for example, they don’t appear again for another hundred pages.

There’s a mysterious cult of Olga…

Unusual pied piper mechanical beings…

Final Thoughts

Half Past Human is plagued with the primary flaws of a fix-up novel — poor pacing.  The plot moves in no particular direction for the first 130 pages and then speeds up exponentially at the point where another novella was stitched in.

However, despite the atrocious prose and poor pacing Half Past Human is not completely without merit.  I found Bass’ unusual approach to mechanical beings particularly intriguing.  I also found his refusal to make the external buckeye society a utopian society — they are squalid and eat the dead Nebish hunters — an interesting choice.

But, my overall impression is a negative one.  If you’re in the mood for mucking through a biology textbook lexicon in order to get at one of two ideas then go ahead…

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16 Replies to “Book Review: Half Past Human, T. J. Bass (1971)”

    1. haha, they certainly do — I have no doubt that he’s using the medical vocabulary correctly…. Regardless, I DID get a maculapapular rash as a result.

      (I guess the problem is not so much the use of the medical vocabulary but the fact that it isn’t restricted to technobabble areas of the work — instead, it’s used everywhere without hesitation….)

      1. you do not have a sense of humor: the prose are tongue in cheek. this is one of the best books i have ever read. generally, i do not like science fiction, but i read this book over twenty years ago for an anthropology class. it has stuck with me ever since. it very well could be our future and i see it in our present.

  1. life copies art…article in the newspaper recently about the fact that the little toe is on its way to extinction & vestigialness (a word?). Rather chilling, that. It’s a great book; or maybe it’s because I grew up in a medical family and the terminology wasnt all that hard to get (Once I borrowed my mom’s medical textbooks).

        1. No I have not. I think if I reread Half Past Human I would enjoy it more. At the time it really bothered me — not sure why. I have so many books to read, probably around 400 unread SF novels. It’s perpetually a problem. And the fact that it takes a while to write reviews… And I have a pile waiting to be reviewed.

  2. This book floored me, this is beyond the simpleness of Brave New World. Lent this one to SF fanatic who runs the SF section at the Prelinger Archive, she picked her jaw off the floor. Not for the average ding dong sigh fi reader.

    1. “average ding dong sigh fi reader” — love the implication…. Always a nice, professional, friendly tactic to assault the intelligence of the reviewer.

      I read it years ago, and wrote the review years ago. Perhaps my opinions have since changed. Glad you enjoyed it — I have the sequel, The Godwhale waiting to be read on my shelf. Worth it?

  3. Have not read Godwhale.

    Insult meaning influx of syfy b.s. folks will hate the fuck out of this. Surprised the ‘clunky prose’ didn’t nab you, but maybe the streamlined Frankowski “Copernic’s Rebellion” might be more your thing. The explosions are genocidal mathematical purges, the damsels in distress aren’t carrying heaving bosoms & space marine gear. Your review is intelligent, don’t agree with it though. Glad someone is picking up, toting, Blue World. Started with this review of your site.

  4. It’s a flawed book, but the society is interesting. The character development is not the greatest, but I liked it better than things I’ve read by say, Stephen Baxter, who seems to only have characters of totemic wood.

    1. Thanks for your comment! As I read it so long ago, I’m not sure what I would think now. Some elements of the pseudo-scientific prose are poetic in their own way… I might have more appreciation for it now.

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