Given the immense degree of similarity (the parallels simply too large to be ignored), it would seem Maureen McHugh’s 1996 novella The Cost to Be Wise is an open homage to Ursula Le Guin. Featuring an anthropologist entering a foreign environment, internal culture clashes, personal struggles within an alien society, and even one subtle but communicative piece of technology (not an ansible!), McHugh wields the elements of Le Guin’s fiction with aplomb, a quality story told in the process.
The Cost to Be Wise is the tragic story of Janna, a teenager living in the primitive village Sckarline on a planet colonized by humanity so long in the past Earth is only now sending representatives to restore contact. On the opening page, an anthropology student named Veronique arrives at Sckarline to begin study for her graduate work. Possessing clothes and technology the people of Sckarline do not, there is likewise a language barrier; Janna stumbles along in broken English to introduce Veronique to her family, boyfriend, and the ways of the village and their distilleries. Veronique’s studies do not go as planned, however, in the whiskey drenched community. A band of outrunners from a nearby village suddenly appear and begin causing trouble by stealing liquor and livestock. Both young women’s eyes opened wide in the aftermath of the raid, nothing will ever be the same, the cost of wisdom truly dear.
Utilizing the same knowledge present in the “Baffin Island” chapter of China Mountain Zhang, The Cost to Be Wise has a strong Arctic feel. The village of Sckarline, despite possessing a Nordic-esque name, has many elements in common with the stereotypes of Eskimos. Sunlight present only part of the year, cold an inherent part of life, and society organized into clans and villages, there is strong aboriginal feel to Janna’s people and a palpable chill in the description of the setting.
But the focus of the story is the gender and cultural conflicts which occur within Janna’s community—conflicts exacerbated considerably once the outrunners arrive. The drama at times emotional and at other visceral, Janna’s family life is not ideal. The treatment of women harsh, Janna’s mother reacts with equal severity, making life difficult for Janna and her siblings. Though a mix, many of the men in the village are drunken boors, a fact that becomes tinder to a fire when the aggression of the outrunners comes full circle.
In the end, The Cost to Be Wise is a solid novella that reads ever-so-strongly in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin. With hints of Planet of Exile, McHugh tells a poignant story about a tragedy two young women and their village undergo in the icy cold of a snowy planet. The title slightly pretentious, the cost is nevertheless something quite dear, and will leave an impression. And regardless whether homage or not, the novella is worth a read for sci-fi readers interested in culture and traditional ways of life.