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Mission Child
Maureen F. McHugh
Avon EOS Books, 385 pages

Mission Child
Maureen F. McHugh
Maureen F. McHugh was born in 1959 in southwestern Ohio. She went to college at Ohio University, then got a master's degree in English Literature from New York University. After teaching as a part-time college instructor and doing temporary office work in New York City, she moved to Shijiazhuang, China for a year. She moved back to Ohio, met her husband, and they now live in Cleveland, Ohio.

Maureen F. McHugh Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

This last August, on a panel at Worldcon discussing literary hard science fiction, Maureen F. McHugh stated that she wasn't quite sure what she was doing on a hard SF panel. "I don't write hard science fiction," she proclaimed. "My SF is soft, soft, soft." Well, whether you label it "soft science fiction" or "humanist science fiction," the fact is that McHugh's literary skills and gift for characterization make her books, at their best, every bit as engrossing as the latest galaxy-roaming epic. McHugh is not concerned with speculating in cutting-edge physics. Her interests lie in exploring history and the inner space of the human psyche, and in Mission Child, she puts her interests and talents to their best use yet.

Janna of Hamra clan lives on a world which was colonized by humans, then fell out of touch with the rest of humanity. Now Terrans have returned to re-establish contact, and life is beginning to change for everyone. For Janna, the results are at first tragic. War and violence make her a refugee, fleeing across an arctic wasteland to life in a city she does not understand. Along the way, she is mistaken for a boy, and believing she is safer that way, she decides to continue the disguise. On her journey, she meets other refugees who have had their traditional lives disrupted, Terrans attempting to find ways to work with the native culture, and a shaman who wears a dress.

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel concerns what it might have been. It could have been a novel of gender issues, like LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, or the more recent Halfway Human by Carolyn Ives Gilman. But while the question of whether she feels more like a man or a woman is of great concern to Janna, who becomes known as Jan for much of the book, her concern is a personal matter, a result of experiences on her journey, and not the main theme of the novel.

Mission Child might also have easily been a book that adopted a popular political viewpoint, with the technologically advanced Terrans as the bad guys exploiting the low-tech, victimized natives. Indeed, our own history is full of examples of just such villainy and exploitation. McHugh's sense of history, though, is not nearly so black and white. The returning Terrans have rules against introducing technology too quickly and attempt to minimize the affects that technology will have on the native cultures. The point of Mission Child is that such attempts, even with good intentions, cannot be completely successful. The mere existence of the higher tech off-worlders causes disruption and change in the natives' lives, and such change is often painful for the individuals involved. The beauty of Mission Child is that we see this process not through a character who stands as a symbolic representative of her culture, but through the eyes of a woman whom we come to know as a unique individual, whose experiences and decisions are entirely her own. That is the difference that makes Mission Child an engaging story and exceptional novel.

Mission Child soars on the character of Janna and the artful writing of Maureen McHugh. Janna may make mistakes and doesn't always immediately understand everything she sees, but she keeps trying, keeps learning, and quickly earns the reader's sympathy and respect. McHugh's prose style subtly insures that Janna and her story remain the focus of our attention, as they should be.

Fans of McHugh's first two novels should find Mission Child to be better than either Half the Day is Night or China Mountain Zhang. Newcomers to McHugh's writing will find the novel to be the work of a mature writer, full of ideas and interesting characters. Pick up a copy of Mission Child and journey along with Janna as she grows to understand herself and the world she lives in. You'll be glad you did.

Copyright © 1998 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson lives in Minneapolis, which for much of the coming Winter will resemble the arctic environment that Janna calls home. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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