Book Review: Mission Child, Maureen F. McHugh (1998)

April 27th, 2012 11:43 am by Kelly Garbato

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An epic masterpiece!

five out of five stars

Mothers & Other Monsters excepted, I’ve read the entirety of Maureen McHugh’s oeuvre. (“Devoured” is more like it; after stumbling upon her latest release, After the Apocalypse, I requested every McHugh title my local library owned – including any scifi anthologies containing her short stories – and consumed them all within the space of just a few months. She’s the greatest thing since Margaret Atwood, yo!) Mission Child is far and away my favorite of the bunch.

Hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years into the future, the citizens of Earth have pushed their settlements forever outward, colonizing other planets throughout the universe. Young Janna lives a sparse existence on the north pole of one of these “offworld” planets. In Hamra Mission, she and her clan learn about “appropriate technologies” from earth-born missionaries. When her village is attacked and destroyed by a hostile band of raiders, Janna must struggle to find a new home – first with her husband’s clan, later in a refugee camp for indigent peoples, and finally in the “civilized” world. Throughout her journey, Janna struggles with her self-identity and gender expression.

Born a female, Janna begins dressing and “passing” as a man as a teenager in the refugee camp; she makes the astute observation that women traveling alone are at great risk of gender-based violence. Eventually, she begins to identify as both a man and a woman. When offered (by her employer, which provides gender counseling to its employees!) an implant that will impart some male characteristics, enabling her try out another gender without undergoing surgery, Janna jumps at the chance. Throughout the story, she resists others’ attempts to label her; neither woman nor man, Janna is just that: Janna. (Grandmama Lili’s name for Janna is my favorite: “son-in-law.”) Novels featuring transgender and/or genderqueer protagonists are few and far between, making MISSION CHILD the rarest of gems. (FYI: The titular character of McHugh’s debut novel, China Mountain Zhang, is a gay man. Pass ‘em along to those in search of good LGBTQ fiction.)

Mission Child is a masterpiece with true epic potential. Though I don’t know of any plans for sequels, prequels, or the like, I sincerely hope that McHugh revisits Janna’s world – or, better yet, introduces us to the inhabitants of another of Earth’s sister planets. Mission Child sets the stage for what could easily be an epic series. McHugh’s knack for creating fully realized future worlds is on full display here, and Janna and her kin will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page on her story.

Major trigger warnings for violence – especially sexual and gender-based violence, though rape is thankfully implied rather than described – sickness, death, child loss, poverty, and speciesism.

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(Crossposted on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads.)

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Mission Child, Maureen F. McHugh (1998)”

  1. Book Review: Mothers & Other Monsters: Stories, Maureen F. McHugh (2006) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] (2002), China Mountain Zhang (1997), Half the Day is Night (1996), and the epic masterpiece Mission Child (1999), which I cannot recommend highly enough. It seems only fitting that I finish off her oeuvre […]

  2. Review: Lightspeed Magazine, June 2014: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] hers is a reprint of “The Cost to Be Wise” (which went on to become the opening chapters of Mission Child, a book I cannot recommend highly enough), leaving me bummed but not surprised. (I still read it […]

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