Michael Blumlein's new book, The Healer, is set on a world which may be a far-future Earth or may be an unnamed planet circling an unknown star. The dominant race living on this "every planet" is human. All too human, really, as they are full of all the selfishness and nobility—all the hubris and fears—we have here on this earth and at this time. Another race lives among them, a race of not-quite-humans who co-exist with the humans in the uneasy and tainted dance of a majority who will take and a minority who must give.
The minority are the "Grotesques," of whom Payne, the Healer of the title, is one. He and the other Tesques, as they're known, are marked by cranial deformities and an extra orifice on their chests—the Os Melior, or Healing Mouth. And marked they are, because some of the Tesques have the ability to effect miraculous healings on the humans with whom they co-exist. The human majority want this ability to heal and will take it from the Tesques by whatever means necessary. This includes segregating the Tesques in the desert slum of Gode, testing Tesque children as they come of age, and ripping them from their families if they prove to be Healers.
Blumlein introduces us to Payne at the age of fourteen as he is tested by a human physician and found to have great potential, even for a Tesque. He is taken, as was his brother Wyn before him, leaving his grief-stricken parents behind. Tragically, Tesques who can heal do not return to Gode.
The physician in charge of Payne's testing tries to console him; the boy is destined for a life of service, and what could be nobler than the saving of lives? Yet in truth the life of a Healer is little more than the life of a slave. Neither Payne nor any other Healer has a choice about where he or she serves, who is treated, or even whether or not to use their abilities. And given that the process of healing drains the Healers and can drastically shorten their lives, not using their healing abilities is a choice that many Healers would be glad to have.
The novel accompanies Payne from assignment to assignment as he wrestles with the inherently conflicting elements of his situation; the grace afforded him by his ability to heal, the unfairness of his condition of servitude, the premium that the humans place on him as a Healer while almost completely discounting him as an individual. With simple, yet lyrical prose and an absolute compassion for his Healer, Blumlein enables us to follow Payne's journey as he tries on and discards identity after identity, from "noble public servant" to "exploited underclass," to—for a brief, tragic time— "revolutionary."
But when a final encounter with his long-lost brother Wyn gives Payne the chance to transcend even the identity of Healer and discover what he is capable of when he dares to define himself, The Healer moves far beyond a novel of political or social awakening. Nor is it a novel of revolution. It is a much more heartfelt and personal work. The Healer is a journey to the Self.
Lori Ann White is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area who has decided to go back to school so she can put actual science in her science fiction, but she may just end up writing more stories about crazy people such as herself. Her work has been in Asimov's, Analog, and The Best of the Rest 3, and she is married to F&SF cover boy Gary W. Shockley.