T.J. Bass – Half Past Human (1971)

Half Past Human

7.5/10. Imagine 3 trillion clones of Rick Moranis living underground.

This novel is completely bonkers. Both its imagined future and its writing style are completely out of control. Ok. So, Half Past Human is set in the 24th century, and humans have degenerated and now live by the billions in underground hive cities. Through the pressures of overpopulation and urbanization, humans are now small, pale, sexless, four-toed mongrels, named Nebishes. Three trillion of them shuffle through tube cities full of excrement and decaying bodies. Their lives are controlled by a central AI named Earth Society, while giant agro-machines farm the surface of the planet.

Real five-toed humans also still exist as scavengers in a prehistoric way amongst the agro- and hunter machines. But the Nebishes believe that they now rule the earth. By the way, Nebbish is a Yiddish word, meaning an awkward, pitiable, timid person. As I said, imagine 3 trillion clones of Rick Moranis.

The first chapter hit me like a brick – and not in a good way. T.J. Bass has a cryptic writing style, bordering on the absurd that makes his work feel overwritten. Half of the time I had trouble understanding what was going on. He jumps from one setting to the next at a very high pace. I wonder why this novel was ever nominated for any SF prizes, because this was not good. This is nonsense. But after 20 or 30 pages I started to understand why. There is a feverish vision behind this work; a strong imagination that demands our attention.

The story follows one of the last real five-toed humans who carries a talking spear-shaped robot named Toothpick. More robotic life is out there, waging a secret war against Earth Society, the AI that controls the Nebishes.

More peculiarities of this novel: there’s lots of medical and anatomical terminology in the text, dispersed rather randomly throughout the descriptions and dialogue. Also, only after maybe one third of the novel does a rudimentary plot become visible. Most of the book is a collection of vignettes set in the same world. But these peculiarities can be explained when we consider that the author, T.J. Bass, was a physician named Thomas Bassler, MD. And he wrote short stories in between his medical work, that were later stitched together Frankenstein-style to make this novel.

But I have to say, the anatomical descriptions do add something to the atmosphere of the story. It’s like Bass keeps insisting to regard the humans of the 24th century as a kind of animals, and that actually adds to the brutal world that he created. However, his female characters get the worst of it and he really goes too far there. He describes all of them as sex-crazed and driven by hormonal cycles, or they are designed for men. Calling them “coweyes” doesn’t help either.

It got better as I stuck with it. Most of the stories are a combination of funny and gross, and the strangeness of the stories did start to charm me. The Nebishes are bred to live in crowded places and their way of life is darkly comedic. In contrast, the primitive five-toed humans are not interesting at all. Another writer would have made the “real” humans the main characters, but Bass focuses on Nebishes on the fringes of the ES hive world and that’s a winning choice. It’s actually refreshing to read a dystopia that isn’t so heavy handed like most of today’s YA literature.

It’s glorious nonsense. I had my doubts, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Now on to TJ Bass’s second and last SF book: The Godwhale.

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