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Mothers and Other Monsters, Maureen F. McHugh, Small Beer Press, 2005, 232 pp.

Mothers and Other Monsters collects the short fiction of Maureen F. McHugh, including the Hugo Award-winning "The Lincoln Train" and the novella "Nekropolis" that became the basis for her latest book, also titled Nekropolis. The stories here don't have the typical protagonists of science fiction -- most are women and most are powerless. McHugh's work doesn't rely on exploding spaceships and laser battles but rather on the intensely felt epiphanies of ordinary people. This effect is mirrored in McHugh's prose as well, which is not easy to describe. At first, her writing seems simple and unornamented, but it has a remarkable focus on voice. For me, I think of the prose in these stories as a modified Le Guin -- Le Guin tends to keep an even narrative voice across various stories, but McHugh alters her prose to suit the current narrator as much as possible. I'll talk about this a bit more in relation to the two versions of Nekropolis.

The major story here is the 50-page "The Cost to Be Wise." A girl named Janna lives on a colonized planet -- in a familiar scenario, the colony lost touch with Earth long in the past, and has been recently contacted again. In another fairly familiar wrinkle, the offworlders don't want to interfere, citing such policies as "appropriate technology." This is all background information, and what sets the story apart from others like it is McHugh's relentless focus on Janna's point of view. Janna hates the ideology of appropriate technology, even though she can't articulate it in that way. She doesn't see anything special in her clan's animal-skin clothing, and is totally fascinated with plastic and the other shiny things that the offworlders have. She goes so far as to think about how lovely a name Plastic would be for a child.

The main part of the story has to do with a time when an offworlder named Veronique comes to visit, a visit that coincides with the arrival of some violent outrunners who want to "trade" for the strong drink known as whisak. But Janna's clan doesn't have any guns; what will they do once the outrunners get really drunk and even more violent? I like how the story plays with all the received wisdom in the genre, testing truisms and showing us the consequences of ideas in one person's life.

I remember reading "The Lincoln Train" ten years ago when it was first published in F&SF. It's a chilling story about an alternate post-Civil War society in which slavers are rounded up and sent to reservations on the frontier. You would think that the alternate history genre had long ago exhausted the U.S. Civil War as a source of material. McHugh makes something new by not focusing on the battles but on the aftermath. And any story with the Quakers in full action mode is all right with me. Worthy of the Hugo that it won for best short story.

Two themes that struck me in this collection: Alzheimers and tracking devices. "Oversite" features a woman whose mother has Alzheimers and who is fitted with a tracker for the purposes of everyone's peace of mind. The woman's daughter has the same device, for the same reasons. The grandmother doesn't have the mental abilities to fool the device, but the daughter certainly does. An interesting look at issues of trust and family relations.

In "Presence," they call the tracking device the minder, and it's Mila's husband Gus who has Alzheimers. This is also a strong story; it deals largely with an experimental therapy that will regrow neurons in Gus' brain. He will be more functional and less forgetful, but will he be the same Gus? And the therapy is expensive... how far should Mila go to bring back someone who might not even be her husband anymore?

I've mentioned the novella "Nekropolis." It's about forty pages long and it forms the basis for the first chapter of McHugh's similarly titled novel. After I read the novella, I went back to the novel to compare. McHugh made a number of changes, including a few character names, as well as (obviously) making the story more open-ended. "Nekropolis" reminds me "The Cost to Be Wise" in its main effect: total submersion in one character's point of view. Diyet is a woman who has been "jessed"; that is to say she has been neurochemically altered to respect her master's wishes and not run away from servitude. She works in a rich man's household, and she is horrified to discover that she is supposed to work with a harni, an AI housed in a biological construct that is almost completely the same as a human. McHugh spends no small amount of narrative energy showing us the day-to-day details of Diyet's life. As science fiction readers, we are kept reading partly because we are trying to parse all of the details of this strange society from what Diyet knows and understands.

What makes the novel version so interesting is that McHugh gives us five different viewpoints, similar in intensity to what's on offer in the novella, but spread across the various people in the story. If you like the novella here, I definitely recommend the novel.

Other stories that I liked: "Interview: On Any Given Day," which reminded me of Ted Chiang's story "Liking What You See" and Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire; "Laika Comes Back Safe," which was a neat story of childhood and the tragic results of a friend's secret; and "Frankenstein's Daughter," which is one of those "social lives of the first clone in the neighbourhood" stories. Mothers and Other Monsters also includes a number of other stories, some as short as two pages.

This collection was published by Small Beer Press, and it's quite a lovely edition. I particularly like the cover photograph, which looks like an older woman reclining on her side. If you turn the book to look at the expression on her face, you'll get a surprise -- not everything is as it seems!

Last modified: October 22, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg (

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