For days now, I’ve been feeling the need to write another review, but none of the books I’ve read recently has had that little something extra that makes writing a review a joy instead of a chore. Many were interesting, and provided an enjoyable read, but if I were into rankings, they’d be a 4 out of 5.
Today I’m pleased to announce that Hugh Howey’s science fiction novel, ‘Half Way Home’, finally woke the delighted child in my head. You know the one, it’s that little voice that jumps up and down, pumps the air and shrieks ‘Yes!’ without any thought to dignity. Well, my inner child is bubbling with happiness at the moment, and like it or not, I’m going to tell you why.
‘Half Way Home’ begins with a rather dark soliloquy, some would call it a prologue, and right there I knew this novel would be brave.
In classical fiction, writers were allowed to introduce place, time and characters gently. Modern style pundits however, are adamant that stories must jump straight into the action, hooking the reader in the very first paragraph.
Why? Because readers are supposed to have the attention span of a gnat. If you don’t hook them early, you will lose them.
Hugh Howey ignored that commandment, and that is why I say he is brave. The soliloquy/prologue is more than interesting in its own right, and I loved it, but I can see how it might not appeal to readers who just want to get stuck into the action.
The story unfolds in the first person, and we learn that the protagonist, Porter, is a colonist who was born when he was fifteen – fifteen years too early. Bear with me here.
Along with the other 499 fertilized eggs sent out from Earth, Porter’s development was suspended until the AI controlling the colony ship learned their destination was a viable planet. After that the eggs were allowed to develop, and the new colonists spent fifteen years in vats, living digital lives while they learned the professions that would be needed by the new colony.
The technology and logic behind this vision of future colonization is spot on. When just reaching the nearest star system will take multiple generations, the most logical and cost effective way of reaching the stars is to send eggs rather than fully grown humans.
Unfortunately, the corporations sending out these colony ships are seeking to maximize their profits, so if the AI controlling a colony ship discovers its assigned planet is unviable, it aborts the mission. In this context abort means destroy. The ship, the eggs, and the AI itself are nuked to ensure no rival corporation can learn any patented secrets.
But sometimes things don’t go to plan.
The action part of the story begins when Porter and the others are decanted from their vats. They take their first real breaths in a world of nightmare. The vat module is on fire, and of the original 500 colonists stored in the vats, only 50 odd manage to find the exit in time. The rest die in the aborted abort. Apparently the AI began the abort sequence but changed its mind.
Why? And what will happen to Porter and the other survivors now? With all their supplies gone, they are naked and starving on a world that is very different to Earth.
Before I continue with the plot, I have to say a word or two about the world the author created. Imagine a forest where the trees are as big as skyscrapers, and the canopy is two kilometres high. Now imagine the size of the ‘bombfruit’ that falls from those trees, and the pony-sized caterpillars that chew on them. This is science fiction at its most inventive!
The rest of the story follows the lives of Porter, and the other survivors as they unravel the mystery of their birth. The plot is strong, and I did not notice any niggling inconsistencies that can ruin an otherwise good story. Nonetheless, it is the characters who make it come alive.
As the survivors begin forming friendships, and relationships, we discover that Porter is gay, and like most fifteen year olds, he is bewildered by his feelings. He loves Tarsi, the girl who was born in the vat next to his, but he is attracted to Kelvin, a boy destined to be a farmer.
On the face of it, this eternal triangle should be trite, but the author never lets the relationships between the characters overshadow the rest of the story. This is not a romance thinly disguised as science fiction!
Porter’s secret feelings remain a side-note to the far more immediate needs of survival. In a very real sense they don’t matter. Who Porter is as a person, is far more important than his sexual orientation.
The whole issue of Porter’s sexual orientation was handled so well, I assumed the author must be gay. Wrong. If you read the acknowledgements at the end of the novel you will discover that Hugh Howey is a straight, married man with gay friends.
I’m female and straight, so I can’t attest to how accurately Howey portrays the thoughts and feelings of a young gay man, but I have gay friends too, and I think he does it well. More importantly, I believe Howey is a humanist who relates to people as people rather than as males, females or gays, and this comes through in his writing.
I’ve spoken at length about the gay element in ‘Half Way Home’ because it is one of the major themes of the novel, but it is not the only one. Uncaring corporate greed is another, and Howey pulls no punches in condemning it. I agree with him wholeheartedly, but… I think he could have been a tiny bit more subtle with the ending. It is a very uplifting ending, and I wouldn’t call it preachy, but I suspect ‘less’ would have been just as effective as ‘more’.
‘Half Way Home’ is not the novel that catapulted Hugh Howey to fame as an indie author, ‘Wool’ is the book which did that. Nonetheless I loved ‘Half Way Home’ because, for me, it had everything I look for in any novel – strong plot, strong prose, strong characters. But best of all, it had strong cultural and philosophical themes that made me think.
One of the reasons I love science fiction is because it allows authors to explore controversial themes in extreme settings that bring out the best and worst in all of us. We all believe we would be honourable and altruistic if push came to shove, but we are rarely put to the test. When we read good science fiction, it allows us to experience such extremes, at least vicariously. And it can make us question many of the attitudes we take for granted.
Having read ‘Half Way Home’, I intend to read everything Hugh Howey has written. Nonetheless, I am very glad I read this novel first. It has given me an insight into the thinking of the author, and demonstrated the calibre of his writing. I would recommend it to all fans of quality science fiction.