1971’s Nebula-nominated Half Past Human is the first novel in T. J. Bass’ Hive duology. This fix-up is assembled from several shorter pieces about a far future population bomb.
In the Year of Olga 2349 Earth and its human population have been optimized … from a certain point of view. Under the watchful eye of the planet’s dutiful AIs, three trillion humans lead lives they believe rewarding.
To say there was no price tag would be a lie.
To a first approximation, the terrestrial ecology consists of humans and their food. As well, humans have been shaped by natural selection and thousands of years of social pressure. The four toed Nebishes filling the hive-cities of 2349 AO are docile, conformist, chronically malnourished, short-statured, and short-lived. Having no meaningful alternative, they are as content with their lot as their perpetual brain fog permits.
A few humans cling to life outside the Hive. Denied all but stone-age tools, stalked by homicidal Nebishes determined to protect the Big Earth Society and its food supply, these hominins have been shaped by natural selection along entirely different lines than their Nebish cousins. Although as derived as Hive dwellers, the so-called buckeyes, coweyes, and jungle bunnies would appear recognizably human to modern eyes, whereas Nebishes might not. To one very important collection of eyes, they do not.
The Big ES prevails! In an increasingly shabby state, as its supply chains are very slightly short of what is needed to keep its high-tech infrastructure functioning at full capacity1. When material shortages preclude producing AIs in sufficient numbers, Big ES has no choice but to use its abundant human resources.
Tinker is perfectly happy as a neuter engineer. Ordered to “polarize” and father the engineer who will be needed in a decade, Tinker is reluctant but obedient. He finds a willing partner in Mu Ren. Together they produce the necessary child. The result is calamitous.
Hidden in parental genes: the legacy of the dead past. Their child is a clear throwback to five-toed barbarism. Logic and the good of Big ES demand that the child be tossed down a shaft, where it will be processed into a nutritious patty. Humans are, after all, the only source of meat.
Parental instincts make Tinker and Mu Ren vulnerable to subornation. Across Earth, agents of a society long vanished from Earth have a use for five-toed humans. Guided by a coterie of secretive AIs of ancient design, a collection of outcasts, throwbacks, and the long-forgotten frozen relics of the past are nudged towards destiny.
This was cobbled together from shorter works. Consequently, the plot wanders from event to event like a befuddled, malnourished Nebish in search of a willing bride.
When I reread Half Past Human’s sequel The Godwhale about a quarter century ago, I assumed the novels were the product of some coffee-and-amphetamine-charged medical student. Simple math should have told me this could not be the case. T. J. Bass, whose real name was Thomas J. Bassler, was born July 7, 1932. By 1971, he would have been 39, unspeakably ancient by Nebish standards.
I was misled by the novel’s eccentric prose. Characters rattle off euphonious phrases like “Never hunt a coweye in the follicular phase,” and the text suggests the author was paid a bounty by a medical dictionary every time Bass dropped into his narrative phrases like “capillary beds became engorged producing a maculopapular rash over her trunk.”
Perhaps I am being a bit harsh here. Bass’ eccentric prose did not deter either Ejler Jakobsson (editor of If and Galaxy, who published the original stories that became Half Past Human) or whoever was editing Ballantine’s SF line at the time (not Judy-Lynn del Rey, who didn’t join Ballantine until 1973) from publishing Bass.
It’s possible the medicalese is intended to drive home the fact that the characters in this novel are the puppets of their drives and conditioning. The AIs are slaves to their programming and so are the humans, throwback and Nebish alike2. This is a relentless exploration of population growth and humans-uber-alles taken to a relentlessly logical extreme; perhaps the vocabulary reflects that.
The AIs are, of course, extremely creative in their interpretation of their directives. The path to the Zeroth Law is always much shorter than expected. Thus, while no AI can kill, they are free to orchestrate events where people might die, as long as death is merely probabilistic. Unable to manage court cases when the death penalty is possible, they leave the decision to societally conditioned Nebish megajuries who can be relied on to execute defendants. Which brings me to an odd point: the Nebishes are both slaves to and willing participants in the Big Earth Society. For all its dystopian elements, the Big Earth Society is a democracy.
This book is proof that a sufficiently vividly realized world can overcome, at least to some extent, legitimately dreadful prose and aspirational plotting. Despite its many flaws, the novel is certainly memorable.
I am as astonished as you to discover that Half Past Human is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).
A 22-year old review of The Godwhale, Bass’ other Hive novel, may be found here. Since it is from the era from before I discovered luxuries like spell check, grammar, and sentence structure, proceed at your own risk.
1: This decay probably does not mean the Big ES is on its way to collapse. It functions well enough to get by. If some crisis threatened it, the AIs could reshuffle how they use resources to deal with the problem. This is why Big ES’s enemies are so careful not to reveal their existence. They don’t care to discover how effectively Big ES can respond when provoked.
2: That said, some humans are more slaves to their biology than others. Some Nebish women have dialogue hinting at interior lives. Coweyes are presented as animalistic creatures of pure instinct, as self-aware as a slime mold.