Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review of Mothers & Other Monsters by Maureen McHugh

There is a lot made these days of cultural diversity and social representation in genre fiction. The problem is, the majority of the books and stories which reviewers praise as progressive are generally formulaic fiction with a thin veneer of political correctness layered on. Emily Foster’s The Drowned Eyes or Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, among many other examples, garner rave reviews about their portrayal of women, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, etc. But at their core they are extremely familiar stories with little actual examination of the humanity behind the social justice buzz words. More indicative of the problem is that books like Maureen McHugh’s Mothers & Other Monsters (2005), books that portray real human concerns in diverse social and cultural arenas without the lip service, get overlooked by the majority of mainstream readers.

One example is that McHugh portrays non-heroic characters. “Laika Comes Back Home” is a great example of fiction that addresses the social concerns of poverty. Perhaps the most gut-wrenchingly piece in the collection, it describes the life of a teen girl in rural America. Her broken family, her lack of prospects, and the actions of the teens around are related in near perfect terms. (Seemingly the only thing missing is a meth addiction.) Touching and relevant, McHugh presents an empathetically real scenario without ever condescending to cheap tricks. The story “Presence” does something similar. About a woman dealing with a husband with Alzheimer’s, McHugh does an amazing job bringing the realities of the disease to the page, all the while incorporating a subtle genre conceit to brighten the day. Great story.

One of McHugh’s most recognized stories, “The Lincoln Train” is an alternate history Civil War story about a Southern girl forced to move west with her mother after the North has won the war. Not McHugh’s best story, and quite weak thematically, it nevertheless is written in the author’s confident, minimalist hand. One of two stories in the collection to later be developed into a novel, “The Cost to be Wise” tells of the anthropologist Janna and her time on a distant, Arctic-like planet that is only just beginning to see human traffic from Earth once again. Tragedy unfolding in her village, the story feels strongly of Ursula Le Guin—particularly the ending note. (See here for longer review.) The second is “Nekropolis.” Science fiction in a future Middle East (something that has been done before but not a lot), it tells of the bonded slave Diyet, the decisions that brought her to bonding, and the circumstances she finds herself in as a result. While the story cannot escape its daytime drama scaffolding, McHugh breathes some life into Diyet, enough at least to keep matters relatable.

At several points in Mothers & Other Monsters the reader can feel McHugh working through personal issues—issues countless others are also facing. “Frankenstein’s Daughter” tells of a family who made a poor decision in the wake of a tragedy. Having a huge affect on everyone, there is a divorce, and the son quickly becomes a delinquent. When the daughter has an asthma attack one day, things start to spiral out of control for the son and mother. “Oversite” tells of a family struggling with the freedom of its women. One a victim of Alzheimers and in need of close scrutiny and the other a teen on the verge of adulthood who feels restricted by her parents, both are subject to chip implants that track their whereabouts, but with entirely different results.

Channeling Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, “Interview: On Any Given Day” tells of one teenager’s experiences in a world where rejuvenation therapy can make the old young again. Meeting a seventy year-old man who looks seventeen, she is faced with some tough decisions, and doesn’t always make the right ones, which in turn makes for a very human story—even as wild as the technical possibility is. While technically a ghost story, “In the Air” carries only a fraction of the weight of the cliché. A story about a woman trying to adjust to a new life by purchasing a dog, the obedience classes she subsequently attends introduce her to new people—people who force her to come to terms with her past. A simple, touching story, for sure, but a story that could have resolved itself in different, more comprehensive fashion. (“Are ghosts real?” the question I ended asking myself, that is, rather than focusing on the woman’s outcome.)

A bit of China coloring the collection, “Ancestor Money” tells of a woman living in the after-life who is contacted by someone from China who wants her to pick up a blessing that has been offered by someone from the real world. A bit of Buddhism rendered fantastical, at heart the story remains about the woman and her view to the future. Equivocal, yes, but better for it (mainstream readers will surely think differently). Another story with Chinese influence is “Eight Legged Story”. A riff off the traditional Chinese formula for the eight-legged essay (i.e the conclusion (the eighth leg) should be inherent to the seven steps leading to that point, no need to point out the obvious), McHugh’s hits this note perfectly. About a woman coming to terms with the relationship she bears to her new stepson, this approach, as McHugh indirectly states in the essay “The Evil Stepmother” closing the collection, feels like the author sorting through her thoughts and experiences becomg a step-parent herself.

In the end, Mothers & Other Monsters is not science fiction for big-screen entertainment. This is not slavering aliens and damsels in distress. This is not space ships blasting each other out of the cosmos. And, most importantly, it is not contemporary genre paying lip service to progressive social values, wll the while peddling conventional narratives and characters. Mothers is human-centric stories that flitter along the edges of genre, locking in on key realities of contemporary Western life—Alzheimer’s, broken homes, dysfunctional families, teen delinquency, step-parenting among them. There are interesting science fictional ideas, but they provide more color or hue than crux or anchor. Combined with McHugh’s minimalist hand, the tales that emerge become all the more relatable and relevant for it. Put more simply, the people in Mothers exist in real life, and McHugh portrays them in all the gray of reality. There may be a couple of contrived entries (“Nekropolis” and “The Lincoln Train”), but the effective and affective nature of “Oversite”, “Eight-Legged Story”, “Presence” and especially “Laika Comes Back Safe” more than balance the whole toward being a collection of works with real human emotion and meaning. McHugh’s later collection After the Apocalypse showcasing how her talents in short form would develop technically, there’s no denying the strength of content in Mothers. A heavy collection at times, to be sure, but one well worth reading.

The following are the thirteen stories collected in Mothers & Other Monsters:

Ancestor Money
In the Air
The Cost to Be Wise
The Lincoln Train
Interview: On Any Given Day
Laika Comes Back Safe
Eight-Legged Story
The Beast
Frankensteins Daughter
The Evil Stepmother (essay by Maureen McHugh)

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