Friday, September 17, 2010

Beginnings: The Halfmen of O

I remember slimy tasteless food. I remember grey. I remember ugliness, of the soul and of action. I remember fear.

I remember a river and a mine.

When I was contemplating New Zealand SpecFic Blogging Week and the theme I wanted to explore, I re-examined my media history. I asked myself what were the first Science Fiction and Fantasy I encountered. These included the original Battlestar Galactica, Lou Ferrigo/Bill Bixby's Incredible Hulk, Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman, watching original Star Trek reruns on a Saturday morning, a bit of Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee, Peter Davidson), and of course most children of the 80s has a history with Star Wars. In my early teens it was Indiana Jones and the BBC's version of John Christopher's Tripods.

However, I wanted to focus on my earlier media history narrative, from before I was 12, and before media and pop culture has an impact on your teenage years. So I asked myself what were the over-riding images I remember of SF&F before that age, and the answer came up distinctly kiwi - Under The Mountain, Children of the Dogstar, and Maurice Gee's other 80s children's classic "The Halfmen of O".

I find it indicative of my imagination, and the writer I would become, that it was books that created lasting impressions on me, and New Zealand books at that. Embarrassing considering my rejection of NZ literature for the longest time.

It had been a long time, twenty five years or more, since I last read The Halfmen of O and I could not remember the story clearly, so I sought out a copy from the library. My image memories were confirmed.

I was also a little dismayed to find tropes and stereotypes that informed my socialization.

The pros:
- The Protagonist.  In Susan, Gee wrote another strong female character, an adolescent coming of age, and struggling to find her place in both worlds. Susan wrestled with her fear and power, with her relationships, and with her task. Susan proved herself moral when using her power, expressing regret at its use to kill people, even the bad guys. She proved herself a good judge of character by working with and debating her cousin Nick, a previous childhood enemy, as well as taking the time to really get to know and forgive her betrayer Jimmy Jaspers. She expressed emotion at the difficulty of her task and the expectations put upon her by people that were not her own.

While Susan received assistance from many people on her quest, the final task was all her doing. She alone struggled to harness the magic required, no man came to her aid during her final task nor did she ask for "protection", and she was the one that used the great magic to "save the world".

- The Imagery. Gee drew a vivid picture of a world gone grey for Susan when she entered O, before she was given a special magic to help her see and taste properly again. Looking back now, I see this as a marvellous allegory for female teens waking up into a feminist society - with support for their special strengths they can be shown the magic and colour of the world around them.

Gee's imagery was usually done in simple terms so that children readers could understand "X was like Y", but there was a smattering of lovely poetic moments - just enough to challenge a young reader. For example, at the start of chapter three when Susan is entering O through the portal:
It was like being sucked into a dream of red lights streaming in water; then going deeper, until light was water, all colour gone, until water was mud, jet black, and mud had turned to earth and earth to stone, and stone was everything, stone was the world and life, stone was air, stone was past and future, stone was the screaming sound she tried to make.
Gee's O was full of familiar fantasy imagery tropes and easy descriptors - Wildwood and Woodlanders, Morninghall and Birdfolk, Stoneworld and Stonefolk, Seafolk, Deathguards, Sheercliff - easy concepts for children to grasp. Considering I never read Lord of the Rings or the Narnia Chronicles (gasp all you like, I rejected spec when I was younger), this all seemed new and fresh to me as a kid.

Of course, O has its specific "evil place"/Mordor. Called Darkland, the human city is contaminated by pollutants from Otis Claw's Pit, creating an oily miasma over the city that renders people evil and compliant. For the early 80s, this is very prescient of modern day climate concern.

If there's one name I did like, it was "Odo Cling", Otis Claw's right hand - err, claw - man. His name felt like Glad Wrap, encompassing a particularly foul stench. I wonder if subconsciously it was because of this name that it took me a long time to warm up to Rene Auberjonois' Odo on Star Trek Deep Space Nine.

- Socialized Tropes - evil. Gee's uber-villain Otis Claw is a poorly drawn evil. Fat is used as a stand in for sloth and ugliness:
Twenty years of power and gratified lust had made him foul...serried jowls melting on his breast, and a belly sagging sack-like, and thighs that quivered in their black silk casings 
 And disability is used as stand in for power and evil:
With his ruined hand, his claw, the Paingiver, Otis Claw toyed with a broken chain about his neck
In the end, Claw is foiled by his carelessness - he could have easily threatened Susan's companions as she struggled to finish her final task, much like Gee's Wilburforces threatened and killed Rachel and Theo's cousin Ricky. Compared to Gee's Wilburforces from Under The Mountain, Claw comes across as childish and stupid, an unsatisfying cartoon villain compared to how carefully drawn the hero and the world are.

- Socialized Trope - beauty.  Susan is very much described as your pretty, white heroine - she has blonde hair and blue eyes. The Woodlanders are your cute, helpful pixies - they are small, sweet and mystic. The Birdfolk are enigmatic mystics as well - handsome, powerful.

The Stonefolk fall into a "grey area" - as the most Other with no eyes, odd skin, impatience and arrogance, they are mystic and helpful only to a point, wanting nothing to do with other folk in the world. Jimmy Jaspers is also a "grey" character - originally described as whiskery, with a dribbling bottom lip, paunch stomach, and stinking breath (indicating alcoholism and/or smoking), Jaspers comes across as more grandfatherly by the end - regretful for his past, wiry in his fighting skills, a bit of a rapscallion in his demands, but tolerated because of his experience and age.

People may ask why we should be concerned about such socialization in children's books. "They're kids, they don't know any better. Let kids just be kids!" That's just it, they don't know any better, and it's our responsibility not to lumber them with pre-conceived notions of physical tropes being stand ins for beauty, health and good/evil.

This is what leads to indoctrinated sexism, racism, and ableism. For example, look at how activists today are fighting hard for Fat Acceptance and Health At Every Size. It is small socialization's like Otis Claw, built into our popular culture, these indoctrinations from a young age, that makes the fight a hard, uphill battle. If kids are going to read this story today, it may be best to have a conversation with them about these tropes.

In conclusion, Maurice Gee's "The Halfmen of O" is a good book when it comes to themes like a girl's coming of age, literary imagery and warnings about industrialization, but it is not as strong in characterisation as "Under The Mountain". It still ends with a dystopian twist  familiar to kiwi spec - the world of O has a lot of rebuilding to do, even after it is "saved", and the humans of O still have to deal with the "grey areas" of their nature.

In a video at this link, Maurice Gee and Richard Tayler of Weta discuss their enthusiasm for turning Halfmen into a movie project. (dated March 2008)

This post is part of New Zealand SpecFic Blogging Week, September 13th to 19th 2010. Introduce yourself to more great New Zealand specfic and writers.


  1. The later books in the trilogy provide a more nuanced view of evil and its various forms: the 'big bads' of Priests of Ferris and Motherstone are physically unassuming to the point where Osro's physical appearance is barely described, and the threats they present are more applicable to the reader's world: the dangers of organised religion, in PoF, and 'nuclear' war as a result of human obstinacy and MAD-type psychology.

  2. Now that's really interesting. I didn't read the sequels because as a kid I didn't understand the whole "trilogy" concept.

    I ran out of time to read PoF and Motherstone because I made to the decision to read and blog the first book about a week before hand (heh), so I think I'll read them and blog them later.

    Thanks! (again :) )

  3. I hope you do! Halfmen was my favourite when I was little, but Priests of Ferris has usurped its place on the reread.

  4. Ppl over analyze a good thing. I liked all the books because they were:
    Easy to read
    Could relate well with everybody who listened in on a reading
    Excellent imagery for a readers perception of maurices world
    Was never boring

  5. People analyze literature because it doesn't exist in a cultural vacuum. You can enjoy something and be critical of parts of it at the same time. It doesn't take away anything - in fact it enhances your understanding of the time/place/culture the book was written in (NZ dystopias are an interesting niche all their own) and allows writers to build upon and better their storytelling abilities.

  6. Did they make the film "the halfmen of o"? All I can find is under the mountain. I hope they did or do so.

  7. A shame, but no. I would definitely like to see Halfmen made into a movie or TV series.