Nekropolis, by Maureen McHugh

I picked up Maureen McHugh’s Nekropolis in Seattle while I was there, and read it when I got back to Korea, finishing it during my recent flight to Australia (where my copy became a friend’s copy). When I met Maureen, I told her what a treat it was for me, since her China Mountain Zhang was one of my formative SF reads… I’d read a bunch of Greg Egan and Bruce Sterling and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and David Brin’s Earth, gobbled all of that down in the few years before I stumbled onto McHugh’s first novel, and when I read that, I realized it was possible to write the kind of literary, passionate, humane, and truly human SF that I myself really wanted to write (and still do want to write). Her response was funny, but I won’t repeat it here except to say she deserves to be better known than she seems to be.

Anyway, Nekropolis. It’s interesting, since the novel comes from a shorter work, and the shorter work seemed to be pretty much complete on its own, in some ways. Well, it was, and that seems to have dictated the overall structure. In some ways, the book is a kind of cognitive five-act play. You see a basic situation changing over time, but you also, at a pace faster than the pace of change in the story, are looking at a situation from several different points of view. The points of view all regard the situation in different ways, each of them with its own blind spots and biases. I really loved how it turned out, in the end, that nobody, even the most sympathetic protagonist whom you can almost see as “rising above her society’s bigotries” in some ways, is also blinded by certain assumptions and ideas. I also adore that “love” doesn’t conquer all, but in some ways turns out to be as complex and thorny as any of the other assumptions about the world. In some ways, this is about the most complex Girl-Meets-Boy story I’ve ever read, which is a high compliment. I did very much enjoy the book, and the ending surprised me remarkably. I’ll also say right now that I’m noting a pattern in McHugh’s writing, whereby emigration, especially problematic emigration, may well be life-saving but is also only life-saving if the lives being saved are able to bend and change because of the experience. Fascinating stuff for someone like me, who lives abroad in a very different culture.

Maureen said she hadn’t done much research on Morocco, beyond having a Lonely Planet type of travel guidebook (I think it was in fact Lonely Planet but I’m not sure), which in some ways is a very cool thing, because the setting felt concrete to me most of the time. Not quite as concrete as did the locales in China Mountain Zhang, but still quite immersive and believable. Anyway, it’s inspiring to me that it turned out that good with such little material in terms of research resources. It gives me hope that I’ll be able to write convincingly about places other than Korea, places I’ve visited in the past. Though I think I won’t be losing my research-holic pattern anytime soon.

Anyway, I won’t say more because you should find the book and read it for yourself.

Now Reading:

  • Space Lords, by Cordwainer Smith
  • Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin

One thought on “Nekropolis, by Maureen McHugh

  1. that’s an interesting explication of it, particularly your thoughts on its structure.

    I could’ve used maybe 5 more pages at the ending (tho at least I wasn’t expecting it ;) but I definitely loved the way the ending played out.

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