Mission Child begins on the other side of the Prime Directive. The first-person narrator, Janna, is a member of a renndeer-herding clan on a world that isn’t Earth but that was colonized by humans at some point in the unspecified past. Settlement took place long enough ago that an indigent species has been re-engineered to be domesticated and to provide sustenance to the humans who herd them. Janna’s people are settled, and live in an appropriate-technology mission. The situation read to me a bit like Peace Corps among the reindeer people. The clans live from their herds and from hunting, plus a bit of gathering the indigenous plants that can provide nutrition to humans. It’s a hard life, made hard by life in the world’s arctic zone, and harder still by what their fellow humans will do. Two technologies that are present among the reindeer people are alcohol and guns. Those two, plus a surfeit of testosterone and no small amount of greed, arrogance and stupidity lead to the first, defining, catastrophe of the book.
McHugh shows readers what warfare among the nomads looks like, and it’s brutal. Her portrayal is by no means gratuitous, but it is unsparing, and as hard as the northern winter is cold.
Janna survives, but on her long trek out of the tundra and taiga she decides that appearing to be a man is safer, so she becomes Jan, and it is as Jan that she spends the middle of the book as a kinless foreigner at the margins of the teeming cities of the industrializing south. This part of the book reminded me very much of Peter Hessler’s portrayals of reform-era China, with Janna as a Uighur or Mongolian, trying to find a place in the city, discovering some of her own people on the margins, adapting to new ways and holding on to other parts of her upbringing. Her childhood at the mission also marks her as separate, even among the other nomads who have come to the city, and even more separate from the second-generation people who have grown up in the city but are still marked as foreign by the dominant culture. There are also wonderful illustrations of how something that looks like shiftlessness to job-holding city people is the fulfillment of solemn obligations when seen from the former nomad’s point of view. There are also clear-eyed portrayals of how structural conditions — impossibly long commutes, dependence on frayed networks of social support — can keep people excluded and on the margins, quite apart from conscious discrimination.
Later, Jan finds herself still further south, where her appearance marks her as even more exotic, which combined with continued presentation as male (and her background gives her the size and strength to make it convincing) leads her into manual work and being hired as an occasional guard. She suspects that the merchant who hires her wants the mystique of someone who looks like her more than the actual muscle and rifle that she provides, but in due course she is also called on to fight. The repercussions of that fight form the last third of the novel, one that brings her full circle into questions of appropriate technology for this world, and the legacy of her formative years as a mission child.
McHugh introduces rounded, human characters, likable, exasperating, full of contradictions and foibles, parts of the societies they spring from, but also individuals: Janna/Jan herself, first and foremost, but also her boyfriend from the clans, Aslak; the shaman from the refugee camp; Mika, a hunter of the city; Ming Wei, headstrong daughter of the south; the trio of offworld doctors, Lisa, Henri and Sasha; and many more. These lives intersect with Jan’s but they continue on their own (mostly, though some die), and I had the feeling that McHugh could equally have told their stories as novels set on this world. Neither the world she has created nor the other characters revolve around the protagonist, and I liked that aspect of Mission Child very much.
The book is in dialogue with The Left Hand of Darkness, but in an obverse way. A long solitary trek across forbidding wintry terrain forms a crucial part of Mission Child, but it is not increased closeness that Janna finds on that journey. And whereas in Le Guin’s book, most of the people experience life as both male and female at one time or another, in McHugh’s Jan is nearly the only person she encounters to be both, or in between. (Although the offworlders she encounters in the middle of the book are nonplussed at her in-betweenness, and offer support for whatever she chooses.)
Mission Child also looks at belonging and foreignness from multiple perspectives. Jan never sheds her identity as a clansperson from the far north. In part, that is because the societies she later lives in do not encourage inclusion or assimilation. In part, she is a solitary person, and being marked as foreign supports that tendency. Late in the book, she is asked whether she is lonely, and she thinks that she had a long (for her) conversation with one person earlier in the day, and here at the end of it she is having another, and thinks that is just about right. Other characters need other levels of contact, and find their own ways to belong.
I further liked how well McHugh showed characters at many different age: children, young adults making their first major life choices, old people looking back or trying to start anew, middle-aged people getting along while balancing demands from generations behind and ahead of them. McHugh gives readers a fully realized world, and if I sometimes wondered why she wasn’t just writing about contemporary China, that’s part of the price of having put together a world that feels so real. (I think the science fictional aspects help her tell her story more clearly and more forcefully, but it would be possible to do something reasonably similar as a fable of modern China.)
I can’t quite figure out why McHugh hasn’t had a huge career. Her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, is still an extraordinary book, and was even more so when it was published in 1992. Twenty-five years later, it continues to be in print, which is no small achievement. Mission Child is brilliant. She has published two more novels, and two collections of short stories. Maybe she said all that she had to say; maybe some publishing mishap befell her; maybe the market doesn’t want standalone novels of richly imagined, fully functioning worlds that don’t revolve around the books’ protagonists. Whatever the author’s story may be, I am very glad to have found her work.