I’ve loved Maureen McHugh’s writing since first contact. That was, like for many people, her debut novel China Mountain Zhang, a book I stumbled upon in the Chapters in downtown Montréal, I think sometime in 1999 or so… a couple of years before I left for Korea, where (back in the old days) I had to make do with reading whatever I happened to find. It was because Maureen was teaching a week at Clarion West in 2006 that I decided to take the plunge and go; it was because of China Mountain Zhang that I realized the kinds of stories that mattered to me–stories about people on the margins, people facing the problem of dealing with the oppression of massive systems that can’t just be shot and killed like a black-hatted cowboy–could be a part of SF, too, and that maybe I could write them if I tried hard enough.
(And, I’ll disclaim now: I think of Maureen as both a teacher and a friend, even if I’m terrible at keeping in touch with my friends.)
In the following years, I managed to track down a copy of Half the Day is Night, which I read back in 2006, which was also when I read her novel Nekropolis and most of her short story collection Mothers and Other Monsters, which contains a novella titled “The Cost to Be Wise,” which was on the ballot for both a Hugo and a Nebula for best novella in 1997. The book was released by Small Beer Press under a Creative Commons license, so it seems, and while Small Beer Press doesn’t seem to be offering it for download anymore, it is available over at manybooks.net. The novella is also available as an audiobook, if that’s your preference. Whatever form you prefer, I do recommend you check it out, not only on its own merits–it’s a great piece that deserved the attention it got–but also because it’s fascinating to read side by side with the beginning of the novel.
That’s because Mission Child is the novel that McHugh wrote based on “The Cost to Be Wise”–the opening of Mission Child is a significant revision of the novella makes up the opening of the book, with several characters dropped, a lot of names changed, and some of the dynamics of the world set aside to be revealed later. There’s a tantalizing hint of a theme of the novel when the narrator mistakes a female offworlder for a boy, and then realizes her mistake (and when the female offworlder doesn’t behave according to the gender roles of the narrator’s culture), but this theme isn’t really explored so much in the novella, while it is deeply explored in the novel.
Somehow Mission Child sat on my bookshelf for a long, long time. I don’t know why: I’ve loved every novel I’ve read by McHugh. I found an Amtrak ticket tucked into the book–the ticket I had to buy when I got stranded in Washington and decided to take a train up to New York City–which suggests that I probably picked up Mission Child in 2009, read part of it after my return to Korea (from a trip where I’d spent a good chunk of time with Maureen, no less), and then set it aside.
Maureen’s been enjoying a lot of exposure lately in terms of her short fiction, all of it well-deserved… but I want to look at Mission Child, right now, not only because I’ve just read it (and reread “The Cost to Be Wise”), but because I’m discomfited by the “Somehow” that begins the paragraph above.
Why didn’t I read this book before? I’m not sure, but I think part of it has to do with my own laziness in the past. And not just mine. Continue reading