Denver Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Club

Commitment Hour paperback Commitment Hour (1998)

Avon Eos paperback - 343 pages (left)

hardcover - Book Club edition - 248 pages (right)
cover art by Stephen Hickman
Commitment Hour book club edition

Excerpt from the back cover of the paperback:
In the twenty-fifth century, Tober Cove is a wonderful place to be. With most of Earth's population long since departed for other planets, and with them the technology that makes such a journey possible, life here is simple and serene - especially for Fullin, a gifted musician whose talent commands many times the wages of a farmer or fisherman. But Fullin is twenty years old. And at that age, each person in Tober Cove must make the most important decision in life.

Excerpt from the inside cover of the hardcover:
Imagine changing sex from year to year until the age of 20. Then imagine that you must choose a gender to commit to: male or female.

Read for group discussion on May 26, 1999

How we each rated this book
Dan 6 Amy 6 stack of books 10   Wow! Don't miss it
8-9  Highly recommended
7    Recommended
5-6  Mild recommendation
3-4  Take your chances
1-2  Below average; skip it
0    Get out the flamethrower!
U    Unfinishable or unreadable
-    Skipped or no rating given
Cheri 7 Barb 5
Aaron 10 Cynthia 6
Lindsey - Jackie 8
Kerry 5 Jeanne 6
Gene 5 Richard 7

Aaron's Commentary   James Alan Gardner - Commitment Hour

As demonstrated by the lukewarm ratings most of the group gave this novel, it might not appeal to everyone.  But I liked it very much.

For one thing, I give Gardner a lot of points for pulling off some very difficult challenges.  I think it's hard to write an engaging story built around such a self-absorbed and obnoxious, but not evil, protagonist.  I found that I liked Fullin, the main character, despite his obvious failings.  I thought he developed significantly over the course of the book, yet remained delightfully narcissistic at the end, and in a way that I suspect is unprecedented in all of literature.  This is also the first book I can recall reading that took place in 24 hours without seeming contrived.

Gardner managed to evoke all of the responses he was aiming for from me.  I laughed at his humor; I was furious at Steck's actions at the end; I enjoyed all of the outrageous characters and lines (including the opening line), many of which reminded me of a good Northern Exposure episode.

I was intrigued by the moral issues that Gardner raised.  Was it wrong to set up this society?  Is Steck's response in any way justifiable?  Is it okay to have rigid sex roles, if people get to choose which sex they're going to be?  Gardner's postulate that people would behave very differently depending on whether they're male or female at the time is not politically correct, but I'm not convinced that it's less plausible than, say, The Left Hand of Darkness, where people generally behave the same way regardless of their gender at the time.

This book certainly invites comparison to The Left Hand of Darkness, an all-time classic and a favorite of mine, because of its premise, but it reminded me of Ursula LeGuin for another reason.  The nuances of Gardner's society are reminiscent of LeGuin's sociologically oriented fiction.  (Of course, Gardner is not as elegant a writer as LeGuin, but who is?)  Little things like the "visits" at first snowfall, Father Ash and Mistress Snow, the ceremonies for the dead, even the tradition of taking pieces off the old car, all make this a believable and interesting culture.  And Gardner always introduces such elements in a way that illuminates the characters or advances the story.

Gardner is a newcomer and still relatively unknown (although he did receive a Hugo and Nebula nomination for his outstanding novelette "Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream"), but I think he merits much more attention from the SF community.

What do you think? Your comments are welcome. Please send them to

James Alan Gardner (1955-    )  is a Canadian science fiction writer.  He lives in Ontario.

1989 Grand Prize winner in the Writers of the Future contest
1991 Aurora Award short-form work in English for "Muffin Explains Teleology to the World at Large"
1998 Aurora Award short-form work in English for "Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Bloodstream"

Gardner is a 1989 graduate of the Clarion West Science Fiction Writers Workshop.

Commitment Hour (1998) is set in the near future on Earth, and it concerns choosing a gender to commit to after experiencing being both sexes.

Most of his books are part of the loosely connected Explorer Corps (or League of Peoples) series featuring Festina Ramos and the other misfits who do the dangerous job of investigating planets and contacting new life forms: Expendable (1997), Vigilant (1999), Hunted (2000), Ascending (2001), Trapped (2002), and Radiant (2004).

Short fiction collections:
--Gravity Wells (2005)

Other stuff:
--Lara Croft and the Man of Bronze (2004)

Aaron's book review of Radiant by James Alan Gardner on Fantastic Reviews
James Alan Gardner home page
James Alan Gardner - Wikipedia
SF Site Featured Review - Commitment Hour (1)
SF Site Featured Review - Commitment Hour (2)
Challenging Destiny: review of James Alan Gardner's Commitment Hour
Reading Group Guide Commitment Hour
strangehorizons - Article Interview James Alan Gardner
Absolute Write - James Alan Gardner interview

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