Maureen McHugh's Mission Child


Maureen McHugh's Mission Child is a book I deeply admire and so want very much to write about. But it's a novel of such subtlety and nuance that my very admiration makes me hesitate, lest I distort the work through inappropriate reductionism. Still, because I love and value this book and would like others to do so, too, I must try.

If there is a beginning in this book to get hold of, the beginning-- and the end-- and the middle-- lies in the story's center, namely the novel's protagonist, Janna. But what a character! At the outset the novel's protagonist is a teenager, bursting with the emotions, attitudes, and headstrong know-it-all-ness that put them so often at loggerheads with adults. The audacity of McHugh's narrative strategy is bold enough to take any writer's breath away. She adopts the highly risky strategy of putting this protagonist, Janna, through hell in the very first pages of her book rather than waiting until the reader has had a chance to bond emotionally to the character. And yet McHugh's writing is so fine, the depiction of this particular tribe-mission hybrid culture so thick and credible and vibrant, that one sticks with the immediately painful, wrenching story and its difficult, sometimes exasperating protagonist as gradually, inexorably, Janna and her world seep into one's bone and blood and Janna becomes a quiet presence struggling against all odds to be in a world so inhospitable she can't help but describe herself as, in another character's words, a person "death has spit out" and refused.

On Janna's world, four ecological categories rule human existence: that of plants and animals from Earth that nourish humans; that of "aunworld" plants and animals that poison humans and make them ill; that of plants and animals that are native to the planet and can be safely consumed but do not nourish; and that of plants and animals that have been genetically engineered to both nourish humans and thrive in the alien environment. Janna recognizes and comprehends these categories well; the first three compose a sort of rote-memorization catechism for her, but the fourth, which characterizes renndeer (all important for tribal life and economy) and which she consequently knows well but does not recite as a category, is the one that best characterizes herself and her mediate relations to the world around her.

Even before her society is destroyed, Janna is one of those people who live on the border, possessing an identity difficult to fit into the ordinary categories of her world, always neither one thing nor the other. The mission in which she is born and raised is a society of tribal people-- but bound by the teachings of the offworlders (from Earth) who came to the tribes to teach them the lessons of "appropriate technology" in an effort to prepare them for the onslaught of exploitation from Earthers (who had only recently "rediscovered" the planet that humans had earlier colonized). Janna speaks not only her native tribal tongue, but English (which she reads and writes) as well. Later, it will be English that serves as a bridge language between her and a series of offworlders who are unable to communicate on even a basic level with the natives they are attempting to train or heal or surveille, and it will be English in which she will know and understand things that she cannot explain in non-English tongues to other natives. Significantly, among the tribes from which the mission's first generation was drawn, mission culture is different and basically inexplicable to those who do not themselves live in the mission. Moreover, many of those who chose to live in the mission were people who did not feel at home in their own tribes. And yet even among people so thoroughly marked by difference, Janna is singled out by an offworlder teacher who bestows on her the dubious gift of three implants (without regard for her ignorance of what they are and her reluctance to suffer their injection into her body). When the mission is annihilated and Janna and her mate, Aslak, search for the estranged tribal relatives their parents had left when they joined the mission, they discover that they will always be outsiders, not only because they lack possessions and strong kin ties, but because they are marked by the difference of mission culture.

As is often the case with science fiction, Mission Child takes a metaphor and makes it flesh. The metaphor in this case is the Wolfean cliche, "You can never go home again." For Janna, the metaphor is in every way literal and true. When the unique social entity from which she came is destroyed, Janna is forced out into the world homeless, always to be a foreigner and stranger, never to be able to take for granted the multitude of things large and small that make up the chiefly unconscious components of our social selves and identity. If one were to strip away all the complexities of human (and nonhuman) relations on the planet, Mission Child could be described as the story of someone moving through her world from place to place, never at home, never even allowed the comforting nostalgia of knowing any kind of home exists to be returned to (even if in Wolfe's sense one can never really go home) or the ease of being able to assume a certain basic level of communication. In fact, the story McHugh tells is considerably more complicated even than that. Precisely because it is also about what happens when people from highly technological and powerful societies descend on a melange of societies with few resources and a preindustrial technology, the novel takes into account political and economic implications that sing resonantly with powerful relevance for current conditions in the global economy and ethnically conflicted arena of today's late-capitalist world.

If gender is a cultural construct, then it is intelligible only within a cultural frame. And for the individual person, that cultural frame is necessarily the one that has formed the individual's sense of her/him- self's own gender. One of the many questions Mission Child poses is what happens to an individual's sense of her own particular gender when the entire cultural matrix on which it depended is eradicated. Having passed, for a time, as male, even after she reveals herself as biologically female to the man she is sexually attracted to Jan(na) finds it difficult to define her own gender. Being female, she discovers, is not the same as being a woman. Jan(na) cannot explain why she can no longer present herself as gendered female, but she knows it is not because she rejects being female. Her practical solution to this immensely troubling problem is to acquire an implant that makes her androgynous-- and thus able to pass socially as male-- without losing her female genitals.

More complex, though, are the areas of Jan(na)'s life where advanced technology interfaces with strong cultural beliefs. An early example of this occurs after the triggering of one of her implants, the one that sends her into "stasis" whenever she is in danger of dying. In this instance, when Janna begins freezing to death, the implant kicks in and saves her life; she is then taken for dead and her body returned to the cabin. After she is revived by the heat, the shaman says, "I know why the dead won't take this one. She's bitter and they spit her out" (52). She is pregnant at this time; the baby she gives birth to is sickly and dies before she has been named. Janna carries this death with her as heavily as she carries all the other significant deaths she has survived. Silently, in her mind, she names the baby and feels the child's spirit inside her. When she goes to work for a pharmaceutical company and begins a computer tutorial, she inadvertently gives the spirit's name to the computer image that is teaching her, and before long, she becomes convinced that she has trapped her baby's spirit in the computer. And she grows desperate with the idea that the spirit must be freed from the machine and that only a shaman can do it. Her situation is further complicated by her already having been coopted as a sort of apprentice shaman (because of her transvestism, because of her inability to fit comfortably in the tribal society she finds in the city). Years later, Janna is told by an offworlder that her baby was most likely damaged in utero because of the implant. The consequences of offworld technology are never obvious. And yet while Janna never suspected that the stasis implant was responsible for the baby's illness, she understood enough intuitively to fear the spiritual consequences of her own investment in a very alien, strange technology-- which is, of course, exactly the sort of fear that the rational, logical modern individual considers sheer superstition. Repeatedly throughout the book we see that the interface of culturally foreign technology with culturally specific ways of perceiving and understanding reality is always difficult and unpredictable and fraught with danger and confusion.

And yet, for all the pain of Jan(na)'s border location and her lack of a clear, unconfused identity, it is only because of our privileged piggybacking on her perceptions and experiences that we can see her world as clearly and complexly as we do. Jan has no choice but to be always between, always culturally homeless, always indeterminately gendered. There are no quick identity slots for her to comfortably occupy, and she has no hope that there ever will be. This lack of a stable identity produces an ache that will never go away, but by the end of the book the ache, finally, is simply there, a part of who she is (and, for the reader, a part of the experience of reading the book). Jan feels the goodness of being alive and putting satisfying food in her belly and engaging in the dailiest of human intercourse. Since the very possibility of an easy, taken-for-granted identity is culturally constructed, she knows she will always be mis-taken, never perceived wholly, always seen as this or that piece of herself that is taken for the whole even by those with whom she shares relations of trust and respect. It is the acquisition and acceptance of this knowledge, finally, that awakens an empathy in her that connects her with her world in a relation that transcends mere survival. Passing through a neighborhood where plague has struck, she is hailed by a boy from a window, a child locked in quarantine, the only survivor among the dead who surround him:

I felt so bad for that boy. I didn't know which was worse: to die or to survive the plague and be alone. He was in the land of the dead, now, and when he came back nothing would ever be the same. I had brought Ming Wei out of the land of the dead, and that was good. But nobody was going to bring that boy out of the land of the dead. No one had ever brought me out of the land of the dead. Here I was, neither man nor woman, foreigner with no home. Maybe that was what I was for, to be a guide out of the land of the dead. Crazy thoughts. (312)

One of the functions of the tribal shaman is guiding people into the land of the dead. Jan, at one time an unwilling apprentice of a shaman, suddenly sees this other function, one that a proper shaman would likely never recognize since the shaman's role and functions are to serve the living society that produces him, while the mass death of an entire society necessarily negates its shaman's functions altogether. But given her very different vision, Jan takes on both functions-- helping the victims of the plague to die and trying to guide a child out of the land of the dead.

Significantly, Janna's special border location enables her to understand what is happening to her world as few other people can. Moreover, her familiarity with mis-communication and the unthinking arrogance of the dominant culture that judges everyone else by its own taken-for-granted standards enables her to communicate better with certain of the culturally subordinate offworlders than the dominant offworlders can.

Which brings me to the second big theme of this book, viz what happens when two highly disparate sets of cultures come into collision (since such contact must always entail collision). Once, while she is dreaming, Jan says "Offworlders ruin everything." The Hamra mission, Janna's home, was founded by offworlders hoping to prevent the destruction of the larger tribal culture from which members of the mission were drawn. They taught the "six precepts of appropriate technology" with the aim of preserving at least part of the tribal heritage, but failed to take into account the effect on tribal politics and economy that the intrusion of offworld technology (in this case rifles) would have on the tribal system as a whole and the disadvantage and vulnerability the mission's difference would create for it. As the mission is being destroyed, Janna's teacher tells her that they, the missionaries, were wrong (i.e., that trying to preserve one small piece of a culture at large could never have been a viable strategy). After leaving the mission, Janna encounters more of the same terrible disruption and destruction and eventually comes to a camp crowded with refugees, all of them people whose nomadic tribal life has been completely demolished, located at the outskirts of a high-tech society. When Janna migrates from the camp to a large city, she allows herself to be inserted into the city's high-tech machine. Particularly interesting here is the demand that Janna submit to industrial work discipline. Historically, industrial work discipline was initially achieved through brute physical force and coercion. E.P. Thompson and Keith Thomas, among others, have described the techniques 18th-century English factory owners used to create a different perception and value of time, first and foremost by locking their employees onto the shopfloor for 12-14 hours a day and persuading town authorities to ban the sale of liquor on Sundays to prevent the nearly universal absenteeism on Monday (due to hangovers). Because understanding Janna's motivation depends on one's expertise in her alien-to-the-reader culture, despite the first-person narrative, Janna's motivations are seldom transparent to the reader (unlike, say, the motivations of Mary Russell's aliens). I found myself wondering why Janna submitted even for as long as she did. A minor reason might be her habit of submitting to English-speaking/teaching teachers at the mission. And, too, she certainly was attracted to the prospect of having a steady supply of meat and whiskey. But the primary reason may be that when Janna first arrives in the city, she occupies a sort of cultural and social vacuum, so that when her new friend Mika steers her into a job and conveys approval to her for having achieved it, she decides it's worth putting up with the discipline in her effort to "get a life" (so to speak). Later, when Mika is gone and the shaman drags her along with him, she abandons the job and its discipline without a thought. The job means nothing to her in itself. Nor do the values of work discipline-- keeping drug free and showing up for work on time-- which, for Janna, are simply rules without moral value. Ditto for having a "decent" room to live in (as opposed to living on the street). McHugh shows us that getting drunk or high or sleeping on the street is not necessarily invested with the moral judgments that most of the book's readers are likely to have internalized. What Janna feels in the city is pain. The whiskey and the drugs help her cope with the pain. Work doesn't make her feel good; it simply helps maintain an environment that she experiences as cold and alien and ultimately inimical. Why should she value it? Simply because offworlders consider it necessary and normal?

Perhaps the most ambivalent example of the clash of two sets of cultures is played out in the plague scenario. The plague disease is simply something "like a cold" for offworlders, for which natives have no antibodies to protect them. Janna, knowing as she does that offworlders "ruin everything," realizes that although the offworlders brought the disease, since it is already there and wiping out everyone it touches, offworlder medicine is necessary. (Just as she knows she wants the implant that keeps her physique androgynously strong.) She concludes:

Maybe it would cause problems. Probably it would cause problems, but I couldn't let people die. So if there were more problems later from all this offworld technology, well, then I would take those problems as they came. (384)

This is the native's, not the offworlder's, perspective and insight. Inundation with "inappropriate technology" is inevitable, disruption is inevitable, but once contact has been made, it is a fact of life for the native and the native's problem (and right) to deal with. Compare this to Russell's Children of God, where the disruption is seen primarily as a source of human (i.e., offworlder) guilt of a genie left inadvertently out of the bottle. Janna isn't interested in offworlders' feelings and perceptions (though she does dream that her teacher apologizes to her for the mission's debacle), but rather in practical reality (as, indeed, all third-world people are). Dealing with the effects of offworlders' technology is like making a garden on that inhospitable-to-humans, alien world-- from baking the soil and protecting it from native insects to struggling to grow worms and make compost to nourish it.

I think it's no accident that this book, though composed of words, succeeds in being so thoroughly, sensually embodied. (I'm reminded of a road sign I saw last fall while driving between Suquamish and Port Townsend, Washington. EMBODIED ROAD it said. I could hardly believe it. I feel as though while reading this book I somehow did turn left down that long, rural road and found myself taken, magically, to Janna's world and reality.) The text's sense of embodiedness is accomplished through the sensual experience and consciousness of Janna, not through elaborate, extended description. Remarkably, in scene after scene, a few spare words conjure up rich sensory impression. Because of this brilliant embodiedness, we feel just what work it is for someone like Janna to move in the world. We perceive every meal as significant, every new experience as a knot to be worried at. (Anyone who has lived for a time in a foreign, nonanglophone country will understand the knottiness of that experience.) I could almost feel the very breath in Janna's body. Certainly I did feel her heart.

This is a beautiful book, one that is desperately needed in the world we now live in. It has touched me and moved me as only the very finest art can do. Read this book, and let the wonder of its riches touch you, too.

January, 1999
©1999 L.Timmel Duchamp
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