Mission, Child, Maureen F McHugh (1998)
Review by Martin Lewis
Before I discuss Mission Child I would like to begin by mentioning Maureen F McHugh’s debut novel, China Mount Zhang, published in 1992. This is a wonderful novel, easily a contender for one of the twenty best science fiction novels of the last twenty years. It won the Locus Award for best first novel, the Tiptree and the Lambda and was also nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula. It is out of print. McHugh’s third novel, Mission Child, published five years later in 1998, is also out of print. This issue, the disappearance of the midlist, is right at the heart of the reason why we don’t see more science fiction by woman. We don’t see it because it has vanished.
Janna is the mission child of the title. Her home is the village of the Hamra clan which has formed around a pair of offworld missionaries (ie, charity workers from Earth). At one point, Janna’s ancestors were offworlders too; however so much time has passed since their arrival on this alien planet that they now consider themselves to be the indigenous people and McHugh draws deliberate parallels between their way of life and those of real world indigenous peoples such as the Inuit and Sammi. An interest in colonisation is signalled by this but, to begin with, the fact that Janna is a child is much more important than the fact she lives in a mission. The first part of the novel takes the form of a compressed, brutal Bildungsroman.
The very first sentence of the novel announces the arrival of another clan, the Tekse. Notionally they are there to trade with the Hamra; more accurately, they are there to rob the Hamra; ultimately, fuelled by whiskey and resentment, they end up massacring the village. Janna is one of the few survivors and flees with her boyfriend, Aslak. This is a physical and emotional journey for her but it is also almost immediately a journey into womanhood.
I slid my leggings down around my knees and the cold brushed fingers across my privates until he covered me with his own weight. He fumbled and he couldn’t find where to put it in me, and when he raised up the cold came between us. It hurt when he finally put it in me, and I didn’t like it but didn’t say anything.
When he was done I was empty and alone and the only thing I could think to ask was, “Are you my husband now.”
“Yeah,” he said. (p 42 )
Janna soon becomes pregnant, the baby is born prematurely, it lives, she lives but doesn’t grow, she dies. Janna negotiates motherhood and bereavement whilst also attempting merely to survive. By know they have joined a new clan, one led by Aslak’s grandmother, but their lack of possessions (particularly reindeer) makes them a burden and they find little kinship. Janna experiences a coldness she had not known in her own village (this chapter is evocatively called ‘The Great Cold Room Of The World’).
The Tekse attack on the Hamra was not an isolated incident and the clans start to band together. There is talk of retaliation. However, when confrontation comes, it is utterly one-sided. The Tekse possess rifles and offworld technology and they lay waste to the clans’ camp. Janna and Aslak again flee but this time they are already weakened, food is even scarcer and there is no clan, however unwelcoming, for them to join. They journey through a wasteland and the narrative takes on aspects of the post-apocalyptic story but also of the refugee story (I was reminded of Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When?).
As they travel, Aslak slows and eventually stops. Janna continues on and eventually reaches a refugee camp. She has lost her parents, her sister, her clan, her child and her husband. At the gates of the camp, she is forced to hand over her rifle. Janna is sixteen years old and now officially has nothing.
In fact, it becomes clear that she has even lost her identity. Having learnt to be an adult in the world of the clans, she finds that becoming a refugee reduces her once more to a child. Not only is she dependent on others for survival but as a mission child she is ignorant of the culture in which she finds herself immersed. Although the camp is full of clan folk, the town it abuts is populated by town folk almost as alien as the offworlders. When she leaves the camp and walks to the nearest city, this is only amplified. (This also highlights the cultural differences: when Janna wants to go somewhere, she walks, even if it takes days; it is only later that the concept of a bus is explained to her.)
In the city, she finds her mission-learnt English is an asset and lands a job as a trainee technician. Here McHugh moves from interrogating the life of a refugee to the life of an immigrant: the paternalism of the public sector, the indifference of the private sector and the chaotic, compromised support of other people like her. At the same time, Janna must negotiate the radically different levels of technology and spirituality between the world she inhabits and her own upbringing. She adapts quickly to the AI and VR technology used to teach her but still feels the need for the guidance of the camp’s shaman (a spectacularly irritating man). In negotiating the conflict between them, she ends up estranged from both.
At the same time as wrestling with her cultural identity, she is also struggling with her gender identity. When she arrives at the camp, malnourished and wearing men’s clothes, she is mistaken for a boy. Fearing the predations of the camp, she perpetuates the mistake. Janna of Hamra clan becomes Jan of no clan. (“A lot of us are kin to that clan,” she is told.) Once the need for such subterfuge becomes less pressing, however, she finds it impossible to drop the disguise:
My stomach tightened and ached, and I felt myself breathing. I felt myself draw breath instead and it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be a girl and I didn’t know why, but the thought was terrible. I could not be a girl again. Something would not let me be a girl again. If I was a girl again something terrible would happen to me, I was sure of it. (p 169)
At the camp she makes friends with a boy. Once he discovers her sex, their relationship is completely altered as he tries to impose a girl-boy dynamic on their friendship. Fearing that he will reveal her secret after she refuses his advances, she flees from the town. In the city, she makes friends with a man. This time, despite also enjoying the same platonic relationship as before, she starts to fantasise about having a sexual relationship with him. She reveals herself to him and they do indeed consummate their relationship. But Janna continues to dress and act as Jan. Whilst he is tolerant, he does not understand it, a confusion multiplied by the cultural differences between the pair. He presses her to assert her femininity:
“You don’t look like a boy,” he said. “You’re trying the implant thing to be a boy. Just once why don’t you try to be a girl? You might like it.”
“I don’t like it.”
“You haven’t tried,” he said. “Never with me. Except for sex. You like sex, Jan.”
I did like sex. “The counsellor says my gender is my choice.”
“What is that word,” the shaman asked, “gender?” (p 228)
That last sentence alludes to an area of the book that I found slightly problematic. At a compulsory work medical assessment (conveniently held some time after she started), her sex is finally discovered. The doctor immediately assumes she is trans and refers her to a gender counsellor. Two days later she gets her appointment. The counsellor is equally blithe and briskly outlines the physiological changes she can make. On the one hand, this demonstrates a society more accepting of gender issues; on the other hand, the speed of the process trivialises these issues. This reads like an authorial intervention from McHugh to force Janna’s hand and progress the novel. As that quote makes clear though, Janna maintains her ambiguity. She is adamant that she does not want to be a boy or a girl but rather both. So the second act of Mission Child sees Janna trying to reconcile the different facets of her identity. She is unsuccessful, overwhelmed, and once again flees.
She ends up, several years later, on an island whose inhabitants are descended from Indian and Chinese settlers. Now Janna is ethnically different, as well as culturally different; her blonde and blue eyes mark her out as a barbarous foreigner. This allows McHugh to subvert traditional stereotypes:
“I was supposedly good at soccer, for one thing, because sometimes a foreign team would come and play on the big island. They were foreign, they played soccer. I was foreign, therefore I played soccer, too. I didn’t even know the rules. (p 291)
At the same time, she is much more comfortable in her own skin. For example, early on in the chapter, Janna winks at another character. It is a shocking event for the reader because it represents the emergence of a confidence we have not previously seen. (The many gaps in the chronology of the story allow McHugh to cunningly make these paradigm shifts.) As well as learning herself, she has also learnt the world and she now knows enough to be angry:
She was doing what offworlders did to all of us. It was offworlders who had created the Mission. Offworlders who had made the guns available that killed us. It was offworlders who put us in refugee camps and fed us like pets… Here was an offworlder, faced with a problem, and all she could think to do was throw me a piece of silver. (p 257)
But she also knows enough to be accepting. In the third and final act, Janna finally finds a reconciliation with identity and peace with her life. The final word of the novel is “home”.
Jo Walton concludes her review of the novel at Tor.com by saying: “I don’t love it like I love China Mountain Zhang, but I admire it.” My view is much the same. It is only in the final section that my love for it emerged as Janna’s personality emerged fully. But, of course, this could exist without the preceding parts and perhaps I am also falling into the trap of privileging active over passive characters here.
Mission Child remains a fascinating novel; a novel of “chewy ideas rather than shiny ones”, as Walton puts it. It is also not the sort of science fiction novel you see very often. Perhaps that explains the hilariously inaccurate blurb on the back of my copy in which the Orbit sub tries to twist the story into a conventional SF narrative. This is not a story in which a special individual shapes the world, it is a story in which the world shapes an ordinary individual. Mission Child is not the sort of science fiction novel you see very often but I’d like to more of them. It’d like to see new ones but I’d also like it to be easier to see the old ones; where is the Orbit Masterworks list?
This review originally appeared on Everything is Nice.