Half Way Home, by Hugh Howey
by E. Branden Hart
If you are at all familiar with the self-publishing industry, you probably already know—and revere—Hugh Howey. Howey came onto the scene when his self-published novel, Wool, took the world by storm and ushered in a new age for self-publishers, proving that an author doesn’t need the backing of a major publishing firm to establish a substantial, lucrative fanbase.
Since then, Howey has continued to write—primarily science fiction with a philosophical bent. He also continues to work in innovative arenas: most recently, curating a contest with Wattpad and Booktrack based around fan fiction written in the universe he created for his novel, Half Way Home.
When I first saw news of the contest, I put Half Way Home on my to-read list, then promptly forgot about it. Two weeks later, I was looking for a new book to dive into, and there it was.
I’ll admit—I never got into the Silo series (of which Wool was the first book). It was an interesting premise, but there was something about it that didn’t grab me.
Half Way Home, on the other hand, had me from the first line. “I was a blastocyst, once.” As I do with many books these days, I didn’t read a synopsis and had no idea where the story was going. But there was something desperate about the first chapter in the story: even though I had just met this character, knew nothing about who he was, or where he came from, or what had happened to him, I could tell from the beginning that he had been through enough pain to know that the world is a terrible place to live—but a place worth fighting for.
Fortunately, Howey’s talent for quickly building endearing characters did not fail him in Half Way Home. After the first few paragraphs, he plunges us head-first into the action: in the far future, space is being colonized by legions of autonomous machines sent by countries on Earth in a search for resources. On each ship, five hundred human blastocysts are kept in stasis. If the ship finds a habitable planet, it lands and spends the next thirty years preparing the land for its settlers; meanwhile, the blastocysts are brought out of stasis and, for thirty years, grown into adults in vats, being taught particular trades via a series of simulations wired directly into their brains.
Sound complicated? It isn’t—at least, not the way Howey describes it. He lets the situation unfold organically as you realize you are reading about a settlement where something has gone wrong. The artificial intelligence that runs everything has decided to abort because the planet isn’t viable—meaning, to borrow a phrase from Aliens, that it’s going to nuke the settlement from orbit. But something stops it at the last minute, and in the ensuing chaos, only fifty of the settlers survive—all of whom are only halfway through their training.
So basically, you’ve got a kind of Lord of the Flies situation: fifty teenagers running around on a far away planet, trying to follow the orders of an artificial intelligence that may or may not kill them at a moment’s notice.
Got it? Good. So there’s your setting. Nice setup for a good sci-fi story, don’t you think? Any writer could have fun with this one, right? Lots of action to be had—throw some adversity at your characters via a hostile environment, mix in some teen angst and some crap about how hard it is to grow up, and boom, you’re done.
Fortunately, Howey doesn’t do that. In fact, the most memorable things about the book are the themes, and not the story itself. And here’s where we get into the spoilers.
IN CASE YOU DIDN’T CATCH THAT, THERE ARE SPOILERS AFTER THIS SENTENCE.
It turns out that the themes of Half Way Home are much deeper than the intricate plot. The story centers around Porter, who was trained as the psychologist for the settlement. Soon, the fifty remaining settlers adopt an intricate social system that pits some of the more qualified among them against those who were specifically designed to take orders. Porter navigates through this new social order and challenges his own understanding of human nature. The questions he is forced to ask are ours as well: is society always meant to be based on the aggressive and the subservient? Is true equality possible when human beings aren’t equal? And what role does genetics play in all of this: is it the case that some of us are simply made to be different from everyone else—and nothing can change that?
Porter wrestles with the last question quite a bit throughout the story, because as it turns out, he is gay. He was bred that way—the only blastocyst implanted with the genetic drive for homosexuality. This will ensure that, as the psychologist, he will form no romantic, emotional bonds with any of the other settlers.
This was the plot point that drew me most into the story. Sci-fi tropes like artificial intelligence, distant planets, and alien creatures that can rip you apart all make their appearances in the story, and they’re all very well placed and move the action along at a brisk pace. But what really drew me into the story was Porter’s struggle with his own sexual identity. How is he going to tell the girl who has fallen for him that he can’t ever return her feelings—at least, physically? How is he going to tell the others, who were all bred to breed? And how is he ever going to make peace with what he is, given that none of the other settlers will ever be able to truly understand the way he feels?
Don’t get me wrong: the world that Howey creates is harsh, majestic, and beautiful, and watching the settlers explore and die and overcome is one of the great pleasures of the book. But the greatest is watching Porter’s internal struggle as he discovers the person he was truly meant to be and reconciles that with the perception of his peers. It’s a struggle more epic than any of the others in the story, and adds another layer to what, otherwise, would have just been a nice sci-fi story of man vs. environment.
In fact, I would argue that this book belongs on the young adult shelf. There are strong allusions to sex in the story, and the crass language sometimes inches into the “R” zone, but honestly, what kid these days hasn’t heard the word “fuck” used in conversation or heard people talking about sex? And maybe that’s exactly why Half Way Home belongs on the YA shelf—it’s real. This is the stuff teenagers deal with ALL THE TIME. At its heart, Half Way Home is the story of every high school, every social clique, every awkward teenage conversation that you’ve ever heard or had. It just happens to take place on a totally different planet.
And doesn’t it seem like teenagers are from a different planet sometimes, anyway?
In short: Hugh Howey’s Half Way Home is a fantastic sci-fi novel, but is even better for the social themes it explores. I would venture to guess that other teens who find themselves in Porter’s position would be inspired by the bravery and leadership he exhibits at the end of the novel. It shows us that just because we were made a certain way and have our own unique faults doesn’t mean we can’t rise to greatness, and at the end of the day, that’s a message that ALL of us should take to heart.
E. Branden Hart is Executive Editor of EmptySinkPublishing.com. He lives and works in San Antonio. His fiction has been published in Toasted Cheese Literary Magazine, Calamities Press, Down in the Dirt Literary Magazine, and Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology, which is available on Kindle and in paperback by XChyler Publishing.