Beyond the Human Realm, A Novel by Gene Helfman
(Luminare Press, July, 2021
Review by JoeAnn Hart
It’s not an easy feat to write in an animal POV without the voice seeming weird or childish, but Gene Helfman pulls it off. Do I want to read an entire novel in an orca POV? Probably not. But in Beyond the Human Realm, there is just the right balance between human POVs and that of an orca, Makai, and a few other orcas in that swim through the story. Sam is the name Makai calls himself, reminding us that we call animals by names that are not “theirs.” Makai has spent most of his long, sad life in captivity, one of the many sentient and social sea mammals who have been captured and enslaved for human entertainment in marine parks around the world.
The effort to give him a better life is filled with sorrow and bittersweet joy, both for him and for the humans in the story who are trying to help, especially for the human protagonist, Rudy. The novel moves as fast as an orca pod during a salmon run, centering as it does on human interactions with orca whales, the repercussions of which are almost always tragic for the orca. But of course, as Rudy makes clear, in the long run, it will be just as tragic for humans if we lose them. With humor and intrigue, we come to understand the inner lives of the orcas as Helfman channels their voices, but we also come to know them through precise scientific information woven throughout the story. We learn, among many other orca facts, that an adult male eats four hundred salmon a day and that pollution is lethal for the calves. Surprisingly though, we also learn about the production and environmental costs of toilet paper. Americans, for instance, consume more than seven billion rolls annually, an average of 23 rolls per person. That’s a lot of trees. And yes, there is a connection between the lumber industry and the orcas. Helfman, who is an animal behaviorist turned conservation biologist, and is the author of non-fiction guides about fish, demonstrates by example the role fiction can play in helping to build a better understanding of the complex relationship between all living things. Not the least of the lessons learned is how to be a respectful whale watcher and not a jerk who doesn’t keep safe distance from the orcas. At the back of the book, Helfman explains his methodology, which is to mostly rely on the facts of orca biology, then fesses up about what he invented for the sake of the story. There is so much we don’t know about sea animals, sometimes a fiction writer must make an educated guess.
The title comes from an epigraph (there are excellent ones for every chapter) from Richard Powers The Overstory: “We’re living at a time when claims are being made for a moral authority that lies beyond the human.” Here is a book that braves into those minds beyond the human, helping to create the empathy needed to save them from ourselves.
Profits from the sale of Beyond the Human Realm will be donated to orca conservation efforts.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novel Float, which swirls around conceptual art, bankruptcy, and plastics in the ocean. Her most recent book is Stamford ’76, A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s. Her collection of short fiction, Highwire Act & Other Tales of Survival, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2023.