[Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen F. McHugh. Small Beer Press, 2005. 256 pp. ISBN 1-93152-013-5.]
Okay, before I start: no relation.
Right, now that any possible impression of familial bias or conflict of interest is put to rest: the Review. Maureen F. McHugh isn't your average SF writer and Mothers and Other Monsters is far from your average SF collection. In short, it’s the kind of book, both in its style and its sophistication, that you’d expect from Small Beer Press.
I guess if you had to categorize it in a speculative sub-genre, you’d probably label it “slipstream.” I’d rather not. If I were going call it anything, I’d call it “literary.” And I don’t mean that as an insult — this is the kind of book you can lend to your friends who persist in reading Umberto Eco and J. M. Coetzee and impress them with your sophisticated taste. (I’ve tried this with McHugh’s first novel, China Mountain Zhang, and it worked). Of course, if your taste in SF doesn’t extend past space opera and ethereal folk with pointy ears, this book will probably appeal to you about as much as Baudolino or Elizabeth Costello.
In most of the stories in Mothers and Other Monsters, the SFness is integral but injected in such a way as to appear almost incidental. So much so that one piece, “Eight-Legged Story,” which, from my multiple rereadings, is completely devoid of anything that might be considered SFnal, doesn’t appear at all out of place. As the title of the anthology implies, this is a collection first and foremost about relationships, of families, mostly, but also of lovers and might-be lovers.
It could, with a couple of exceptions, almost as easily be a collection of mental illness or disability stories as a science-fiction and fantasy collection. Of thirteen stories, there are two featuring Alzheimer’s sufferers (”Presence” “Oversite”), one about the impact of a developmentally delayed child on her family (“Frankenstein’s Daughter”) and three stories (“In the Air,” “The Beast,” and “Laika Comes Back Safe“) that could as easily be describing mental delusions as ghosts and werewolves. Add to this a number of stories (“Eight-Legged Story” and “Wicked,” for example) in which the protagonist is having so much difficulty keeping in step with their particular reality that you have to wonder if, while they have the full six-pack, they may, in fact, lack the crucial plastic thingy that holds it all together.
In case I’m deterring you, these thirteen stories include a Hugo winner, three originally published in Asimov’s, two from SciFiction, two from F&SF and most of the rest from high-end anthologies, including Polyphony and Tor’s Starlight series. For my money, this book is up there with the best short-fiction collections I’ve read over the last couple of years, namely: LeGuin’s Changing Planes, Mary Gentle’s Cartomancy and Kaaron Warren’s The Grinding House (an Australian publication that I believe is being picked up by Prime Books in the US). Mothers and Other Monsters is also as different from any of these as they are from each other. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that they’re all from female writers — and I’m even less confident that I can delve into that without sounding like a total dinosaur.
For McHugh, the “science” and the “fantasy” of her fiction seem, at first glance, to be very much tools through which to explore her principle concerns: ordinary people and the dysfunctional relationships and circumstances they find themselves in. SF is not an end in itself, here. There are no Big Dumb Objects, no aliens (although there are monsters and ghosts), no thaumaturgically-charged, all-balls-and-no-brains adventures and not a skerrick of a sub-space anomaly. The science of McHugh’s science fiction is mostly that of today and tomorrow, its application that of next year.
In “Oversite” and “On Any Given Day” she projects present trends in parental paranoia and over-protectiveness and couples them with the GPS surveillance systems that are just now being applied or considered for pedophiles and suspected terrorists. “On Any Given Day” also raises interesting ethical questions around that old SF staple, “rejuv,”, and what might happen when rejuvenated pensioners start hanging out with genuine teenagers. “Frankenstein’s Daughter” speculates on the consequences when cloning goes wrong — that is, the real consequences for an ordinary family, not some kitschy science-horror. “Presence” follows through with a cure for Alzheimer’s, but asks: how much of the original person will be left once they’re cured? And what price will their loved ones pay?
What these examples reveal is that, actually, the science isn’t just a tool, it is a central concern and McHugh is offering a very serious social critique. But the reader — this reader — gets too wrapped up in her characters to notice until afterward. For me, McHugh demonstrates over and again how powerful the juxtaposition of mundanity with future science and the fantastic can be. More so than most tales that strut their Big Ideas and Terrible Consequences on a scale of global calamity. Those are escapism (if not actual literary willy-waving). These require the reader’s engagement, because the characters are so close to the lives readers know. Of course, it helps that McHugh has an ear for authenticity in her narrative voices, which makes it very easy to engage with the characters.
Delivering on an intimate scale can be more effective at selling a Big Idea and Terrible Consequence than if the stories had been pitched on the larger stage. The B.I. and the T.C. kind of sidle up to you while you’re busy empathizing at a personal level with the characters. Then, once you’ve finished reading, you extrapolate their suffering up to the societal level for yourself. A story that still keeps percolating through your brain for a while after you’ve done reading it, in my book, is a very good story.
McHugh’s first novel, China Mountain Zhang, told the story of Zhang, a Chinese-American living in a future American People’s Republic when the US of A has collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions and China has become the global hegemony. At one level, this is just (very interesting) window dressing. At another, it’s a political critique (á la Thomas More) of the present Chinese regime. At a third level, the story is just about Zhang, and how he happens to be gay and what he has to suffer because of that non-choice. Through Zhang, the straight reader gets an insight into what it’s like to be gay now and anywhere when gay still isn’t a safe thing to be. China Mountain Zhang is one of the best novels I’ve read — and the best debut, bar none. That’s maybe a redundant thing to say — it was nominated for the Hugo and won the Tiptree, Locus, and Lambda Awards, after all.
One of the most striking things about China Mountain Zhang — which applies to many of the pieces in Mothers and Other Monsters — is that it ended well before I expected it to. In both the novel and most of the short stories, McHugh avoids a conventional structure of beginning, middle and end and just concentrates on the middle. Rather than leaving the reader floundering at the start and disappointed at the finish, this has the effect of making you feel like you’ve been dropped, for a little while, into somebody else’s life. Which, of course, only adds to the impact of the stories McHugh is telling.
While I haven’t read her latest novel (Nekropolis), her intervening books (Half the Day is Night and Mission Child) didn’t grab me so much as her debut. Mothers and Other Monsters does. There aren’t really any weak moments in this book — although the two flash pieces (“The Beast” and “Wicked”) can’t quite hold their own among the meatier pieces. That said, I do have a number of particular highlights (like, about half the book):
The novellas “Cost To Be Wise” and “Nekropolis” are interesting, not because they’re the best stories in the anthology (they’re not) but because both of them grew up and got published as novels. “Cost To Be Wise” is essentially the first chapter of Mission Child with the addition of an anthropologist character to make it hang together in the shorter form. “Nekropolis” the novella presumably has a similar relationship to Nekropolis the novel (although I haven’t read the latter yet). While the star-crossed lovers plot didn’t interest me as much as the future world of techno-slavery in which it was set, the novella did whet my appetite to try the novel.
“In The Air” is a ghost story for dog lovers. It makes the highlights list because McHugh understands that all dogs are basically Homer Simpson with fur. (Okay, that should really be “Homer Simpson is basically a dog in yellow man-skin,” but seriously — who alive today can be confident that The Simpsons don’t actually predate the existence of dogs? Haven’t there always been The Simpsons?). “Laika Comes Back Safe” is another dog-friendly story. It’s also an example (among several in the book) of how perfectly McHugh executes a teenage point-of-view. And it’s about the most down-to-earth-human werewolf story you’re likely to read.
“The Lincoln Train” is the Hugo winner, a period piece set just after the US Civil War. This is Lesson no. 1 For Aspiring Alternative History Writers: Picking The Right Moment For Your History To Diverge. McHugh’s moment is the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Booth botches the job, leaving the president alive, but an invalid. Into the power vacuum steps Secretary of State Seward, sidelining Andrew Jackson. What creates the story is Seward’s real-life ambition, his political pragmatism, and his prior membership of the Radical Republicans (who wanted to immediately enfranchise blacks and redistribute the properties of Southern landowners among their former slaves).
Seizing power, Seward reverts to his radical leanings and begins the mass deportation of white Southerners to Oklahoma — amid which upheaval the story is told. Very little of the back story is made explicit. For a non-American like myself, this meant I had to do some quick Googling to find out who the hell this Seward character was. On the one hand, I guess that means it’s quite a culturally exclusive tale. On the other, it grabbed me enough that I went and did some research after finishing it to make sure I understood why it won the Hugo.
The award-winning company notwithstanding, the very best story in this collection is the first: “Ancestor Money,” the only piece of pure whimsy in the whole collection. This is one of the two SciFiction publications in the anthology and it’s everything you’d expect with that pedigree: wry, quirky, bemusing and full of pure wonder and strangeness. I recommend this whole collection, but if nothing else I’ve said about it makes it appeal to you, pick it up in the bookshop and read this story.