Friday, January 21, 2011

Review: Mission Child, by Maureen F. McHugh

Science fiction has a strong tradition of short story writing. It's a great length to elaborate an idea, and in the best cases, a writer can build the tension around the underlying concept as effectively as with the more conventional constructs of characters or plot. I think the desire to elaborate these quick poses must be common among many writers of the form. The Missionary's Child, the short that this novel built from was published in 1992, and I read it about ten years ago in a science fiction anthology. I liked it enough to try and remember to find the novel version, which evidently I did at some point in the intervening decade, because there it was in the pile. I have usually enjoyed McHugh's short stories when I've found them, but it is difficult to formulate a readable novel whose only purpose is to exhibit an idea. It's hard to support a story in the long form when there is not any special plot. There's a character and setting, and there's conflict here—our protagonist, Janna, has no shortage of external or internal struggles—but these do not really suggest or deliver any clear resolutions. It's more a matter of unfolding the understanding the character and where she lives setting, but here too, there's not a well-conceived pace of the discovery, it's really more like a tour. The world is not earth, but it is earth-like, populated with human societies that have been around long enough to be considered aboriginal, now struggling with a cultural invasion of well-intended colonial types. Maureen McHugh creates an environment with enough intimate and honest detail that it makes the outré circumstances of the story take a back seat to the cultural and personal issues. On one hand, it's an impressive accomplishment to make the unreal realistic, but on another, it sort of takes the fun out of it. It's difficult to generate a (cheap) skiffy thrill when the book features believable people who spend most of their time going about their boring lives. The only other novel of hers that I read was utterly sunk by the mundane: it had a city under the sea, cool Voudon rituals, and it bored me to the point of depression. Mission Child is much better than this, chiefly because it's a central character that is sympathetic, troubled, resourceful, accessible, and alien—you know, interesting.

McHugh is making some direct comparisons to known societies here, a couple that are chosen to reflect less a background of outright conquest and more the unintentional casualties of European expansion, which suits the mood she's trying to build. The story starts on the cultural fringe of a fictionalized version of the nomadic Sámi people (I had to look that one up—Lapplander is considered derogatory these days), comprised of a tribal Scandinavian-ish population moving between semi-permanent settlements up north of that planet's arctic circle, supported by an economy of genetically engineered reindeer which have long since run as wild as the people. The push from more recent Earth settlements in the south is probably, inadvertantly, the cause of the violent consolidation of the nomadic clans that claims Janna's family, the early tragedy around which she's forced to define her character. Janna starts her life in an ecumenical mission (run by an Indian couple, trying to teach the white locals technical culture at a non-threatening rate), a mixed background from the start, and is lucky enough to survive an encounter from a neighboring clan that escalates to the murder of nearly the whole settlement. The poor kid flees into a war (which also has few survivors) and then from it (even fewer), becoming a wife, a mother of a sick baby, a pariah, a widow in the process. While her age is purposefully left indeterminate, she can't be more than sixteen or so by the time she wanders into a refugee camp two (local) years later, and decides, for her own protection as well as psychologically complex reasons she is unable to assess, to compartmentalize her gender and present herself as a male. This gender confusion eventually gets reinforced by her spiritual practices, and later by some modern magic as well. Janna makes it out of the refugee camp to another mission, now in an industrial city further south, where she's sharp enough to expand her English and land a job and a training program for a factory technician. The story here is more of a back-country girl skirting the modern urban culture and counterculture. The final setting brings us to something of a South China Sea that Conrad might have recognized, an already robust trading economy recently beset with new pressures from outside. (Or maybe it's more like the end of the 20th century than the end of the 19th, a handful of hopeful NGOs have also recently arrived of the scene.)

For all this not-entirely-unfamiliar changing of times going on, McHugh does a very good thing with Janna, letting her take on a "native" view of the cultural invasion, and an individual one. This may be one of those cases where science fiction is a good tool to explore an otherwise sensitive or typically ill-informed setting. Coming from a survival culture, Janna makes for an interesting narrator. She is pragmatic instead of introspective, is relatively stoic, and has difficulty forming an internal conception this character of hers, divided between both worlds and genders. She lends herself to terse matter-of-fact descriptions of violence, death, and hunger that leave it more poignant. Janna has a moral sense, but she impressively (and believably) maintains little investment in foreign cultural baggage (both the good and bad kind; the author isn't given to the sort of moralizing that lets her character adopt modern notions of charity and tolerance while rejecting the general bullshit of working for a living or the danger of street culture), and mentions them as irrelevencies or sources of confusion, or in some cases finds the right analogy from her own experiences. We sophisticated readers can spot a great deal of childhood trauma in her, but she gives us a worldview that doesn't include the concept that our character is defined through formative events.

I wonder how much of this thematic weight can be pinned on female authorship. We have endurance trumping triumph here, and flight a bigger motivator than exploration, neither of which is the usual stick used to poke around brave new worlds. We have some gender identity issues, a focus on how those affect relationships, a theme that is much more self-acceptance than it is self-discovery or self-motivation. We have an ambiguous opinion of charity and conquest and culture, which worries more about lost self than it does lost dignity. Mission Child is a view of cultural change from the receiving end, with some clear connection to our own history. Anyone want to recommend a similar novel in a real historical setting? (All I can think of for the moment are one or two stories about Native American that I didn't read in high school. It'd be interesting to compare science fiction vs. the historical kind, or male vs. female writers.)

No comments: