Wed
Dec 14 2011 4:00pm

Dealing Underwater: Maureen McHugh’s Half the Day is Night

Half the Day is Night (1994) isn’t a very cheerful book. It’s good and it’s interesting, and McHugh is a terrific writer, but it’s a bit of a downer and I don’t re-read it very often.

It’s hard SF set in the near future in an underwater city in the Caribbean. David, a French veteran of Vietnamese ancestry, has been hired as a driver and bodyguard to Mayla, a bank executive. She thinks she doesn’t need a bodyguard. He thinks the Caribbean will be warm and sunny. They’re both wrong.

One of the things McHugh always does brilliantly is work — jobs, those normal things people do every day and leave at weekends. It’s really rare to see work done well in any fiction, and especially in SF. It’s hard to have adventures while working nine to five, but McHugh manages to write about characters who feel real and who also have jobs.

She’s also great at writing about places that aren’t the U.S. China Mountain Zhang (post) has a future China-dominated world, Nekropolis is set in North Africa, and Mission Child is set on another planet but it’s all about post-colonialism. Half the Day is Night is set in what’s essentially an underwater Caribbean island, with the kind of corruption and bribery and coups that have historically been the case there. It actually takes place in two such islands and on a fish farm and in the sea around — but it’s cold dark sea.

The story alternates between the points of view of David and Mayla, and they are both fully rounded characters with complicated pasts. Their present is pretty complicated too. David’s having to cope with his memories of combat, the chill of the air and the water, working in his second language, and the lack of daylight. Mayla has always lived in the underwater cities and hated it when she visited the surface. So she’s at home, but terrorists are trying to kill her, organized criminals are trying to take over her bank and she can’t get rid of her ex. They are both insecure in different ways, and everything is getting difficult.

All of McHugh’s stories are small scale and personal, not about saving the world so much as coping with living in it. The cities and the technology here feel absolutely real, and the future doesn’t seem to have dated much in the seventeen years that have passed since the book was published — they have an internet, they have phones, and they have VR gaming and people making friends while gaming socially. The details and the extrapolations all dovetail perfectly.

As I said when I wrote about Mission Child, I keep thinking McHugh is going to produce a masterpiece. She has a new collection out (which I’m hoping to get for Christmas) and that’s exciting because some of her best stuff has been at short lengths, including the interwoven stories of China Mountain Zhang.

Half the Day is Night is a very good book, but I was glad when I finished it and could pick up something brighter and more cheerful.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. 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.

5 comments
denizen
1. denizen
I think China Mountain Zhang is a masterpiece. It's a marvellous investigation of the human within a beautifully realised future world. I agree about the subsequent books - great writing but depressing.
Peter Stone
2. Peter1742
At first reading, I thought the end was somewhat unsatisfying, but upon further reflection, I realized that she intended it that way. Mouse over for spoilers:
Unless I missed something, you never find out exactly why and what the villains are doing.
I think this is because she's tryting to deconstruct the thriller genre here. And unlike some of her other books, I thought that this one worked.
Irene Gallo
3. Irene
As an aside, this is the second cover I ever designed in my profesional life. The first being Summer King Winter Fool. I'm very grateful to Patrick for trusting the new kid with what was clearly one of his most important books of the season.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Irene: I have your edition -- but after CMZ I'd have bought it whatever the cover was like.
Bob Blough
5. Bob
Jo,
This is the only McHugh I have not read, yet. But as for the three others - I agree not quite masterpieces but fantastic enough to expect one someday from this author!

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment