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.
People have talked about how Mission Child shares themes with some of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels–the ones featuring anthropologist characters, like The Dispossessed, for example, and in more recent reviews of the book, it gets praise–sometimes mixed praise (as in this one by Jo Walton) and sometimes rather gushing (as in this one by Alex Dally McFarlane). But the latter reviewer very consciously claims the book as being ” the only good science fiction book about non-binary gender I had found” which somehow leaves me nervous–in part because for me the book is more about interstitiality along a bunch of different binary axes, more than it is a book about “non-binary gender.” There’s cultural, political, technological, moral, and social axes as well as gender, and the narrator, Janna/Jan, is constantly working through in-between in terms of all of them, finding a way of being interstitial along all those axes and still maintain, I don’t know, integrity is the word that comes to mind (in all of its senses). I think other words would come to other peoples’ minds, though–the reviews beat that out.
(Incidentally, this book has what I think are likely to be the most prophetic observations on English teaching as an industry–a very credible future for of computer-assisted language learning is enacted in the middle section of the book–and “The Cost to Be Wise” similarly has stuff that is very recognizably drawing on McHugh’s experience as an English instructor in China in the 80s… there are so many TEFL expat moments in that story, if you know enough to recognize them.)
(And it’s also a fascinating look at the problems inherent in colonizing other worlds so often glossed over in other fiction, like the local flora and fauna being incompatible with human biology–McHugh mentions reversed chirality of the local amino acids–and how one deals with that on the level of logistics: how to make sure there’s a sustainable food supply, how one designs animals from home to be capable of living on the planet, and so on.)
But then there’s the other sort of review, exemplified by Jean-Louis Trudel’s review from 2000, which starts and ends with complimentary comments on McHugh’s writing and the memorability of the character Jan (and Jan’s experiences), but mostly savages the book with criticisms like this:
The undeniable truth, the burning sincerity of the novel up to that point fades in the last third. Still unsure of who she can be, poised between two cultures, between two genders, Janna moves on to a far part of her home world. Her adventures there, her slow unbending as she comes to find a new centre, are not entirely satisfying.
McHugh is presumably trying to say something about the encounter of different cultures, of a superior technological arsenal and of traditional ways. Janna is the human fulcrum where they meet, and where they can be melded together. The novel’s final third attempts to show the advantages that balance the grief attendant upon being a go-between for very different cultures. Yet, beyond the melodrama of a plague and Janna’s recurring angst, the story does not seem to be able to offer more than a certain species of resignation, if not submission to the inevitable.
The first criticism may have something to it: I’ve been paying attention to this structure, which seems so widespread in American fiction, of the character moving from one place to another in a series of episodic sections. Maybe because I’m a short-story writer, that’s kind of my instinct as well, to build stories up this way, but I’ve run afoul of it lately, and I’m searching for examples of how it is or isn’t done well. (I think it is well done in Mission Child, but I think even well-done, such a move almost inevitably robs some energy of a story; it’s a dangerous sort of thing to do twice in a book, even if you do it well, even if you build a picture of cultural otherness that is as powerful as the one Jan experiences in the different locales visited.)
But the latter criticism seems to be a carefully worded argument that the story isn’t really a “story”: that it’s about angst and about failing to offer some sort of solution to Jan’s problems. Now, I didn’t see “melodrama” in that plague, I saw horror. McHugh’s that sort of a writer: at the beginning of a reading posted on Youtube, she joked about asking the audience whether they wanted a story that was cheerful at the beginning and got depressing later, or went straight to depressing.
Which raises a question I’ve been wrestling with for a while now: that is, regarding how much room there is in mainstream SF for stories that ultimately have no easy, heroic, solutions? Are are we back to needing a black-hatted cowboy to shoot dead in the street again? (Back, because I feel like in the 70s New Wave era, for a while, there was a lot of rhetoric and mood about moving past that… but like so much, it feels as if we’ve backslid. I mean, if we have to start pointing all the way back to novels from the 1970s by Le Guin for precedents, then that suggests a dearth of similar work in the intervening decades, doesn’t it?)
Last summer, I was struggling to explain to someone I know about the utter banality of superhero movies. This was someone who declared to me that Marvel superhero films are “Good,” full stop, no room for dispute. That was the whole assessment, Capital-G good-full-stop. (My interlocutor was, obviously, a younger white middle-class male.) I was trying to figure out why I so viscerally disagreed, and of course, at first it seemed apparent to me the reason was the unremitting sexism and racism (and implicit conservativism about sex, gender roles, and sexual orientation). I hammered away at that in a conversation which really didn’t get very far, though, because, well… that is the problem, but it’s more than that.
I came to realize that it’s as much about the fact that in superhero movies, all problems must be solvable within two hours of screen time. (Or, okay, three hours if you’re Christopher Nolan doing a Batman film.) You must be able to catch the bad guy(s), restore balance, and right all wrongs (or many of them) and reinstate the status quo by the end of the film.
Which kind of presumes the status quo is fine and dandy. Which is a very white (straight male) middle class centrist position, really. And what do you know, most superheroes are white straight male political centrists heavily invested in the status quo. Sometimes they’re rich, but they’re always rich in the way white middle class aspirational imaginations conceive of wealth. (Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark don’t have to sit through interminable meetings with their dad’s lawyers about the family’s financial future, or play golf with decreipt zombies who callously head financial empires and feed on the blood of the masses, or being pally with people like Milton Friedman–all actual glimpses of the horror of ultra-wealth included in Jamie Johnson’s documentary The One Percent. Our imagined rich-guy superheroes are nothing like that: Wayne inherits his wealth and it takes care of itself while he lives indolent in a mansion; Stark represents the typical self-made man myth so popular among middle-class white people. These guys just have big fancy houses, nice cars, and shiny super-toys, and it all transitions naturally to having superheroic houses, cars, and shiny superheroic toys. They’re not really rich, so much as they’re super-middle-class-rich.)
When I was thinking about all this, I ran across a reference to James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” in an interview that Ethan Iverson did with Gerald Early back in 2010. “Sonny’s Blues” is a story well worth reading on your own–here’s a PDF of the story–but I must say something about it if I’m to make my point, so I’ll just say that “Sonny’s Blues” is about dilemmas similar to those faced by Jan/Janna in Mission Child: not the same dilemmas, but the same scale and impossibility of resolving in a single lifetime, I mean. The Baldwin story is a classic of 1950s American literature, and it concerns two African-American brothers faced with the question of how to live in a relentlessly hostile world… and concerns the divergence of their lives when each decides one path through the burning horror of the world. It’s about race, and identity, and about how there were no really good answers for black men in those days regarding how to deal with it, how to reconcile their decisions with the obvious need for a change that seemed impossible to bring about. It’s about living with the choice you make when you have nothing but bad choices, when you live in a toxic environment and need to sacrifice something to survive, when you need to decide which part of you will die in order to choose which part of you will live.
And, well: toxic environments, and the negotiation of compromises between your only options when they all seem like bad (or imperfect) solutions… that’s really a different kind of story than we see in SF, a lot of the time. I can agree that “The Cold Equations” is not a perfect story, that it has a kind of deep sexism, and it’s limited in a jaded, nasty way… but it at least attempts to gesture at that question of whether we have room for insoluble (or not happily-soluble) story problems in SF, whether we’re grown-up enough to talk about problems that cannot be solved in a heroic, happy-ending manner. This is obviously a response to something: popular fiction tends toward that soluble problem, the cowboy in the black hat, the murderer hoping to evade detection, the princess needing saving from the traditional gothic villain, the world that needs saving. Each genre has its own version of what happy ending means, and it’s not always “happy”: maybe in a mystery, the murderer gets caught but nobody’s really happy at the end. Still, that’s a decisive and clear solution to the story problem.
And this is how so much adult literature works now, that I can’t help but wonder if, in some ways, what we see now is the YA-ification of adult literature. There’s an expression in Korean, almost always said in a whining tone, that comes to mind: “귀찮아…” It’s what people say when something is unreasonably burdensome, annoying, and not worth the trouble. (You’d be surprised how often you hear it.) I kind of feel like that’s an attitude that has become just as reflexive in our culture, except we cover it up with irony and sarcasm and cleverness. It’s like adulthood has lost a crucial component: the ability to recognize that some problems can’t be solved in two hours, or might take a great deal of effort and consideration, and might be very unpleasant to confront head-on… but need to be faced, nonetheless.
The world in Mission Child (and, really, all of McHugh’s novels) might need saving, but no more–and in no less complex a fashion–than our own. There are killers but they don’t wear black hats, and don’t really get tracked down or caught, much less punished. It’s not obvious who’s to blame for the crimes of the world, and its horrors: sometimes, the blame ends up being directed at offworlders, and at other times, it’s just the assholes of the world; and other times, it’s the world itself that is to blame. Nobody really gets saved, though the narrator occasionally gets lucky enough to survive things… or, maybe, unlucky enough, depending on how you see it. That’s very dark stuff, of course: it’s not fun to look the brutishness of the world, and the messiness of human beings, in the eye for too long. That’s something you need guts to do. It’s an adult endeavour.
But at the same time, I have to wonder if the vague sense of dissatisfaction that keeps coming up in reviews of the book–and which, yes, I felt–doesn’t say more about us as a community of readers than it does about the novel? Certainly, there was a vague sense of dissatisfaction I felt watching the Dardenne Brothers’ film Le Fils (as I mentioned here) , even though I could see it was a profound and important film. The dissatisfaction, I realized eventually, had everything to do with my own degraded palate and instincts when it comes to film. Mrs. Jiwaku found it difficult to watch with me at first, given my reaction: “What’s going on? What the hell?” It was the first film I’d seen in years that required that much work to understand, but when I got it, I realized: everything else I’d seen was watered down, was pandering, was infantilized. And, in a sense, I had been infantilized by it all.
Which is not to accuse Trudel (or myself) of infantilization (even if most of his work is apparently YA, I thought his translation of the more adult novel The Dragon’s Eye by Joël Champetier was great), or, necessarily, to accuse the SF world of it. But I wonder, how much room do we have for novels that talk about problems that cannot, and could never, be solved in any straightforward manner? Stories that don’t involve the saving of the world, but simply the process of someone working out how to survive in the sidewalk cracks of that world… kind of the way the vast majority of human beings do in all cultures? Don’t get me wrong: I value that aspect of SF that involves the creative, anti-fatalist impulse that if we think hard, study the world, master our machines, we can make the world a better place, or a radically different place.
But there’s also reality, and the reality is that we’re never going to solve all our problems that way. If Clarke’s third law holds:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
…. then I am forced to propose a necessary corollary:
Any sufficiently excessive conviction that technology will fix all our problems is indistinguishable from religion.
… for a value religion focused not on whatever moral improvements it ostensibly facilitates in individuals, but rather on the false promises–untestable, unprovable, and eternally just around the corner. Yes, I’m looking at you, Ray Kurzweil, though Kurzweil’s far from the only perpetrator of this meme. I’ve seen works that compare the ideology of SF to the ideology of religion, but surely this is not the faith we want, collectively, to espouse in the cloisters of SF? Surely we can do better than that?
If we tell ourselves SF is about the human condition, but exclude these dilemmas–the reconciling of uncomfortable decisions from sets of bad options, the living in the shadow of massive (technocratic and cultural) systems too massive to budge, too complex to fathom–aren’t we kidding to ourselves? Aren’t we excluding major parts of the human condition? And why might that be–is it because this stuff is just so far off the radar of the white middle class American reader (and writer) that we don’t know the human condition when we see it? I’m not preaching fatalism, mind, because I don’t think it’s fatalism to acknowledge these things are real, and are part of our lives–and will be in the future. I think that’s not fatalism, that’s adulthood.
(Likewise, the criticism that the “natives” on Jan’s world are somehow racist stereotypes… it’s funny, but they reminded me of actual people I’ve et and known hailing from postcolonial societies, people who live or lived in poverty, and who are, well… Matthew Hogan’s essay “Oppressed People Suck,” is kind of inflammatory and simplifying, of course, but it’s not really wrong. A lot of the things in Korea that I (and other expats) constantly complained about, and that a lot of the smarter Koreans I’ve known also revile, is stuff that’s held over from when Koreans were living under Japan, and under brutal domestic dictatorships. (Hogan’s essay has a list of traits, and pretty much every one rings a bell.) Oppression kind of shittifies people, and not just the oppressor: that’s part of the evil of oppression, that it messes the oppressed people up and makes them less able to function. That’s not a side-effect, that’s a strategy: there’s a long history of oppressors using that very dynamic to justify their oppression, and that, too, is something visible in Mission Child.)
Back to adulthood: that’s what I feel like Jan achieves by the end of Mission Child, this ability to balance on the edge of a knife, not knowing what tomorrow holds, not defining oneself in terms of the neat boxes provided by others, not succumbing to the urge to make everything about identity politics when there’s, you know, plagues on the loose and wars and all manner of concrete horrors to stand up and deal with.
Which is why I don’t see the last third of the book as “adventures” (to use Trudel’s word), any more than I see the years friends of mine have spent doing NGO work in Mozambique and Tanzania as “adventures.” They were times of self-sacrifice, times of doing something moral even though they knew the systems they were part of were also a mess, and even though on some level they knew the work was, on a systematic level, kind of hopeless. They were periods punctuated by the struggle to find a way to do something real in a world where all action seemed to be circumscribed by human stupidity, human greed, by the seeming malevolence of power and dysfunctional systems, and by uncertainty (which they had to resist, but also to acknowledge) about whether one can really make a difference in the world regarding the systems and the natural and human obstacles to safety, happiness, and common good that exist.
So why, “adventures”? Where does that word come from? It seems to me to provide a window into something that’s been nagging at me for about a year now. I feel like we’re not good at thinking about or listening to grown-up themes and questions much anymore in SF. We want shiny things and things that go boom and amazing gadgets and “adventures.” (We includes me, by the way. I’m talking about myself, too.)
I have nothing against adventure, and I think it can be a fine thing, but I think it behooves us to maybe have other itches needing scratching, other needs that maybe cannot be met by sexified, technofied retellings of Treasure Island. That’s not to castigate Treasure Island–it’s a fine, wonderful book for its time and I loved it as a child–but it is to acknowledge that adulthood is a state of being capable of encompassing more than Treasure Island. I sometimes wonder if that’s why authors who approach things another way don’t get as celebrated as I think they should: Maureen McHugh and the late Patricia Anthony being good examples. (Each has gotten celebrated in her own way, mind you: McHugh was recognized along the way and is talked about a lot now; Anthony was a big deal in the 90s, even if the world has mostly forgotten about her since. So they’ve not gone completely unsung, but I think they both warrant more attention and praise than I’ve seen either get, either in the past or today. Though I’m more partial to Maureen’s work than Anthony’s, some of the latter’s books mean a great deal to me.) Surely there are other examples: Carol Emshwiller is one McHugh mentions in in interview with Locus from 2008 that I found while digging around online while I was preparing this review. All three authors are known for being as literary as they are genre, and maybe more the former in some ways than the latter, but, again, what is literary? I think it boils down to this aesthetics: genre readers tend to seek out (and genre conventions privilege) stories with plottable solutions, while literary readers and conventions skew in this other direction I’m talking about.
Maybe? I don’t know.
In that same interview published in Locus in 2008, I ran across another interesting comment:
The big difference I’ve noticed lately is that I’m now of the generation of writers which is established, and that’s very strange! I still feel like a newbie, very much so. And yet, teaching at Clarion I spend a lot of time with the New Turks and I’ve realized we’re not shaping science fiction any more. They’re the ones. I can still do good work, still do great work, but it will be work in a tradition which is now changing underneath me. You’re shaping them in the sense that often they react against you — you become a place from which to push off.
“We’re not shaping science fiction any more,” she says, and… well, on one level I think that’s not really true: that established authors can shape the genre, and do shape the genre–when they take the kinds of risks establish authors tend to avoid, at least–but you know, I’m also attracted to the feeling of a positive conspiracy. Evolution isn’t a conspiracy theory, but it has the attractive feel of one: the weird secret history of life on Earth. Maybe science fiction has a similarly weird, secret evolutionary history? I mean, a bit like Asimov’s Foundation books. (I’m not a fan of the execution, but the concept has long fascinated me as an analogue for all kinds of aspects of the SF subculture, as I mentioned when trying to pull apart why SF hasn’t taken root in Korea and other places the way it has in the English-speaking world.)
We who live in the world of SF, as a community, have not really celebrated a fair number authors who dig into these kinds of themes as vigorously as their work–in my opinion–deserves. That’s not to say they’ve all be laboring in obscurity: McHugh has won (and been shortlisted) for plenty of awards, after all, and most serious SF writers know of her, have read her, and respect her. It’s just that in my opinion, the celebration doesn’t scale, and I’m not sure the word has gotten out. The books I find the most profound and important, don’t seem to get received that way… and yet, perhaps they shape the genre nonetheless. Perhaps they have had a quiet, important influence. Perhaps the best writers in our field are those whose influence has been quiet.
Maybe it’s romanticist–maybe some sort of consolation for myself, since I’m so far from that celebrated mainstream and don’t expect to join it anytime soon–I have begun to think of the great, less-celebrated-than-they-should-be authors as part of a quiet, powerful conspiracy to reshape the genre from the inside out. That’s less dramatic than one one writer friend of mine proposed, years ago: to artistically decimate the older generation and take the reins from their tired old hands, but as strategies go, it has its advantages. The topic has come up occasionally, especially in trying to figure out why this or that author doesn’t get the recognition that so many believe she should… and while it’s not always women, lately a number of the examples that stick in my mind are women writers.
Though, as Justin Howe points out in that last link above, maybe it’s also a case of being ahead of the wave, or of gender. Plenty of female SF authors get less recognition than male ones. Hell, this year I’ve been making a concerted effort to read and talk about more female authors, and authors of color, and so on, because I’ve noticed that, demographically, my reading over the last few years looks far too much like a Victorian men’s club (mostly male and white, and though that hasn’t been a conscious decision, at the same time, I don’t want to live in a bubble).
I don’t know how it looks from her perspective, but Maureen’s recent work seems to be getting more recognition now. The growth of the internet and of SF-focused web portals (like io9, and Tor.com, where several of the links above appear) seems to have something to do with that, too, and I think genre has caught up with her somewhat. That’s not to discount McHugh’s persistence and hard work. (It’s just that, obviously, persistence and hard work aren’t always enough; there are big forces that determine the fate of a book, or of an author’s career… and there we are, back at big systems and small, discrete individuals faced with them.) So maybe things are getting better–maybe my prognostications about the limits of genre and the YAification of adult audiences is just misplaced, or dated. I don’t know. I am behind in the field, so that’s entirely possible.
But I also sometimes feel as if another thing that’s arisen, in part fueled by the internet, is that we seem to want books that neatly manage to be ideologically congenial to our own personal political convictions. Mission Child isn’t, not quite, though I’ve seen some people try to shoehorn it into fitting in their own worldview. The truth is, it’s not exactly a novel “about” coloniality and postcoloniality, or “about” non-binary gender. It’s about this character Janna, who becomes Jan, who struggles to make a way through the world, to find a sense of home and of identity, and whose insights about gender and about colonial and postcolonial structures of power actually don’t neatly fit with anyone’s. Janna/Jan is the kind of character who kinda confounds some of the things we might want the book to be about, at times, and that’s good, I think. It means we have to stretch the limits of ourselves to follow the story. But I think that makes some people uncomfortable on a level they may not even be able to articulate.
Somehow, this ideological anxiety seems subcutaneously to link to this weird escalation in expectations we have of books, this sense that books are either “perfect” or “flawed”: as if any book is free of flaws. I’ve been struggling to teach myself to learn to read without this kind of dichotomy in my head: to learn not to immediately let discomfort mar the experience of reading a book, to learn to listen to my discomfort and interrogate it and figure out where it leads me in terms of understanding a text and my reaction to it. Sometimes, a text seems “flawed” because it makes me uncomfortable in ways I should be grateful for, in ways that confound my lazy everyday way of thinking about something. I can’t help but feel that this dynamic leads to the maligning of a lot of books that maybe we should be living with, thinking about, appreciating.
I don’t know. I think if you’ve gotten this far, you should find the book and read it yourself. Since it’s out of print, and there’s no Kindle edition, you’re gonna have to hunt a little, but it shouldn’t be too hard. (It’s odd that there’s no Kindle edition: it’s the only book by McHugh not available as a Kindle ebook, which also raises interesting questions, though I’ll leave those aside. There’s been enough questions here for one day…)