Book Review: James Alan Gardner’s Commitment Hour

This book is so queer.

And the cover’s not even pink!

I use the ‘Q’ word in the most progressive sense, of course, in that I’m using it to refer to non-heteronormative issues of gender and sexuality. Just wanted to get the disclaimer out there right off the bat.

I’ll also note that the book’s inherent queerness isn’t a bad thing by any means- it’s just not what I expected. You see, I’m a bit of a fan of James Alan Gardener’s work. He’s a great sci-fi writer, and his books often chart out new and interesting alien worlds and societies and such.

All of his sci-fi novels (including Commitment Hour) are set in the same ‘League of Peoples’ universe. Gardner provides a pretty fun premise for the League of Peoples books- basically, one of the hard rules of the setting is that FTL travel is possible- but it’s policed by a bunch of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens. If you’ve ever killed another sentient creature, you die. No exceptions. To describe it in terms of another sci-fi franchise, it’s as if The Federation was run by the Q continuum, just with less John DeLancie.

Of course, there are loopholes. For example, while killing other sentients is right out, there’s nothing to say you can’t, say, torture them, so long as you provide the proper medical care to ensure that they don’t die from all the horrible things you’ve done. And that’s before getting into the Explorer Corps, a bunch of misfits who’ve been drafted into mucking around dangerous alien planets. Redshirts, basically. There’s a reason the first League of Peoples book is called Expendable. It all combines for a really fun setting that I’d best describe as “pacifist space opera.”

That’s what I was expecting going in.

That’s not what I got.

Commitment Hour is ostensibly connected to the larger League of Peoples setting, but it stands pretty well on its own merits. It’s set in Tober Cove, a little fishing village somewhere in a post-apocalyptic great lakes region. What sets Tober Cove apart from everywhere else in post-apocalpse League of Peoples Earth is the fact that every child in Tober cove switches gender every year, from the age of one to twenty- once year Twenty rolls around, they have to choose which gender they want to live as for the rest of their life.

And that’s why I used the Q word.

Not that one.

There’s a long history of using sci-fi to address gender issues, and Gardner himself has played around with similar ideas in his other books. Vigilant, for example, has plural marriage as a background setting point. In Commitment Hour, however, the gender stuff is the outright focus. One of the noteworthy things about the setting is that, even though everyone in Tober Cove has experience in both male and female bodies, gender roles are strictly enforced. Men are supposed to do manly stuff, women are supposed to stick to womanly things, and hermaphroditic ‘Neuts’ are hated and exiled from Tober Cove. Oh yeah, it’s possible to choose ‘both’ on one’s Commitment, but it rarely ends well.

None of this was mentioned on the back cover blurb, by the way.

In any case, Commitment Hour centers around Fullin, a young violinist still trying to make up his mind on which gender to Commit to. Gardner does a great job in characterizing Fullin; he starts as a thoroughly unsympathetic character, quick to blame any mistake or misfortune on anyone but himself. He’s pegged quite accurately as a weasel by other characters in the book. This said, by the end of the novel, Fullin’s a bit more tolerable- though it’s fun to note that for as much as Fullin puffs himself up as male, he’s ultimately an observer, as the book’s major decisions and discoveries are all made by other characters.

Commitment Hour was published in 1998- I can’t help but think if it were published a decade later, Gardner’s editor would’ve suggested pitching it to more of a YA crowd. I mean, the elements are all there: a post apocalyptic society governed by strange and arbitrary rules, and a rather wishy-washy protagonist who’s simply can’t make up his (or is it her?) mind.

Alternately, I could also see Commitment Hour as a piece of 1960’s sci-fi, only in that case the whole gender-flipping society thing would be explored from the point of view of the Capital S Scientist who comes to Tober Cove to observe the Commitment Ceremonies, yet invariably manages to screw everything up. (There is, of course, a Scientist who shows up- this is a sci-fi novel, after all) Hell, it might even make for an interesting Star Trek episode, if you could get it past the censors.

Gardner has a particular gift for creating alien worlds and societies, and Commitment Point is no exception. The book shows a whole variety of interesting little quirks, rituals, and traditions that rise up from a town where gender-flipping is A Thing. Some of the practices read as abhorrent or superstitious to the modern reader, while others are downright beautiful.

While Commitment Hour isn’t the planet-hopping, alien-punching space opera I was expecting, I still had a good time reading it. There’s the fun exploration/thought exercise of Tober Cove itself, not to mention a heap of other drama besides. I’m glad I read the book, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone else who appreciates thoughtful sci-fi.

I’ll just have to pick a book with a picture of a spaceship on the cover next time.

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