Fri
Aug 21 2009 3:58pm

Planet, colony, home: Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child

Mission Child is an example of the category of serious thoughtful SF. It’s beautifully written, like everything of McHugh’s, and it has chewy ideas rather than shiny ones.

It’s surprising how many planets, colonies and homes there are in SF that aren’t at all reminiscent of what those things really are. McHugh tells the story of Janna and through her opens up all these things. There’s a planet whose name we learn only in the last chapter, which was colonized from Earth and has been relatively recently rediscovered. The indigenous cultures (which of course are not...) are being helped by the people from Earth, who have better technology and different ideas. Janna is born in an mission up on the arctic circle of her world. Some people from India have set up the mission to teach the clans appropriate technology—their own technology and culture are similiar to the Lapps and other northern first nations people of Earth. Janna travels from the mission first among the clans, then in cities further south on her own continent and eventually to tropical islands where the culture is Chinese mixed with Indian and Indonesian. This is a planet that feels as if it’s the size of a planet, and has the kind and complexity of cultures found on Earth.

Janna’s story is that of searching for a home and an identity and an appropriate way to live. The story is told first person, deeply rooted in Janna’s worldview. This is what makes the story so successful: Janna’s very human, but culturally from a very different place, with very different priorities. McHugh treats Janna’s culture and the cultures she encounters seriously and with depth. As the book goes on Janna has issues with gender presentation—at first she disguises herself as a boy for protection, later she comes to identify herself as neither male nor female. She finds a way to live with that, and a way to live between all the things she is, belonging to her world that is also between.

After Permanence I was looking for other things balanced on that cusp of science and anthropology. This qualifies. The world has right-handed amino-acids but some plants and animals have been genetically engineered to be able to use the onworld proteins to make proteins humans can eat. The whole process of double colonization has been worked out in detail. The entire issue of colonization and adaptation is part of the background—at one point there’s a plague which is killing the planetary natives, a minor disease spread from the Earth people. McHugh explores the whole question of appropriate technology and sustainable culture and unevenly distributed technology—we have glimpses of very high technology. We also see people living on the streets dealing in illegal drugs and stolen tech because that’s where they can carve out a niche to be themselves. McHugh knows what colonial and post-colonial societies are like, and sees no reason why it would be different on another planet.

This is a difficult interesting book. I don’t love it like I love China Mountain Zhang, but I admire it. Every time I read or re-read something of McHugh’s I feel that she’s on the edge of producing a masterpiece, and that she’s definitely a writer to keep watching. I wish she’d write more.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

6 comments
Jon Evans
1. rezendi
Me too. Mission Child isn't flashy, and as you say it can be difficult, so it was one of those books that I thought merely good while reading it; but it's stuck with me far more than most in the fifteen years since.

I also liked Half the Day is Night an awful lot, though I get the impression that that's a minority view.
p l
2. p-l
I wouldn't be surprised to find out it's a minority view. I couldn't get through Half the Day is Night, and I love everything else I've read by her. The short story that Mission Child is adapted from, by the way, is also great. It doesn't go into any detail about the rest of the planet, leaving the impression that the whole world is arctic and low-tech.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
p-l: That story, The Cost to be Wise in Starlight 1 is, as you say, also great. I re-read that as well, and was surprised to see that it wasn't the beginning of the novel but a kind of variant alternate beginning, with all the novel's themes reproduced in miniature. I really like that it's a whole planet in the novel, but the novella is a starker vision.

Also, you should perhaps give Half the Day is Night another chance. I couldn't get into it the first time I tried it, but once I got past the beginning I found myself really enjoying it.
Aquila G
5. Aquila1nz
I read Mission Child recently and adored it - my reaction was "why did I not know this book exists, because it was written for me". I'd read China Mountain Zhang a year earlier, and liked it, but it didn't really speak to me (and I can't really remember what happens in it, whereas Mission Child will stay with me for a long time to come).
Ken Scholes
6. kenscholes
This was the first of McHugh's books I read. Really great stuff.

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