by Maureen F. McHugh
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Maureen F. McHugh’s third novel, Mission Child follows the plight of Janna, a refugee on a colonized planet which has long since lost much of its technology. Janna’s people have formed a tribal society which is threatened when the Tekse tribe suddenly escalates their raids against the other tribes. Janna is left an orphan when most of her tribe is slaughtered, but not before Wanji, a missionary from Earth, is able to implant Janna with some advanced technology.
However, even with these implants, which Janna doesn’t fully understand, Janna is a refugee fleeing for her life and holding on to the hope that her life will return to normal somehow. In many ways, she is the most atypical science fictional heroine since Elizabeth Moon’s Ofelia in Remnant Population. Unlike the Heinleinesque superwoman who know what to do to stay alive and flourish in any situation, Janna allows events to carry her forward, using them to figure out what she must do to remain alive.
In McHugh’s society, identity is so closely related to the tribe that Janna begins to lose her identity when the Tekse destroy her tribe, eventually going so far as to lose her gender by the time she arrives at a refugee camp. Janna spends a considerable portion of the novel masquerading as a boy while she tries to figure out what her place in her new society is.
McHugh’s tribal society is complex and well thought out. The broad rules of the society are relatively easy to figure out, but McHugh continues to put nuances into the relationships between tribes and kingroups which give her world a feeling of realism. This society, and Janna, must come to terms with modern culture. Nevertheless, McHugh does not dismiss the more traditional ways for advancement. Even as she learns to live in a big city, Janna must maintain her links to her tribe, despite knowing that it no longer exists. Her upbringing taught her to respect and care about the tribal traditions.
In many ways, Mission Child is a tour of the planet McHugh has created. Settled by a wide variety of ethnic groups from Earth, the planet has a multitude of different cultures ranging from the tribal culture in which Janna grew up to the Oriental culture of the South. With little in the way of plot to connect the various places Janna lives, it is a testament to McHugh’s world-building ability that Mission Child grips the reader to find out what will happen to Janna and where she’ll turn up next.
McHugh also follows Janna through several relationships, from her love for fellow tribesman Aslak to her “apprenticeship” with a shaman to her friendship with Mika in the city of Taufzin. Janna’s earliest relationships are her most enduring. As she is thrown around the planet and struggles to figure out who she is, realizing she no longer has a clan, her relationships become more and more ephemeral. This leads to McHugh leaving many loose ends as people move out of Janna’s life. The focus of the novel is so strongly on Janna, however, this rarely causes a problem.
Mission Child is a strange and unique novel which cannot, and should not, be easily categorized. The novel spotlights McHugh’s ability to create interesting characters and provide them with a complete and variegated world which exists on its own, not just to serve as a backdrop for the characters’ exploits. Places McHugh describes clearly have a history which occurs when her characters are not living in those places.
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