Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Maureen McHugh

Maureen McHugh is one of the best SF writers of our time, and I wish we would see more stories from her. Today is her birthday, and I'm reminded that she's one of a cohort of writers of a certain importance to me -- those that were born the same year I was born. In her honor, then, here's a selection of my reviews of her short fiction, mostly from Locus.

2001 Recommendations Post

My favorite short stories were Maureen F. McHugh's "Interview: On Any Given Day" (Starlight 3) and Daniel Abraham's "Exclusion" (Asimov's, February). McHugh's story not only describes a near future teenage milieu quite well, but it's particularly good at what it's really about, in kind of a sideways fashion: the effect of rejuvenation technology on people, particularly a sad older man who has a disastrous affair with the main character.

Locus, March 2002

The March F&SF is throughout a strong issue, with fine stories by Robert Reed, James Patrick Kelly, and Carol Emshwiller.  But the best story is Maureen F. McHugh's "Presence".  This is comparable to Shane Tourtellotte's story from the November 2001 Analog, "The Return of Spring".  Tourtellotte looked at the effect of a cure for Alzheimer's Disease on the person being cured.  McHugh's story is about the wife of an Alzheimer's patient.  We first see Mila's life with her husband Gus as he descends deeply into the abyss of the disease – hence her decision to pay for an experimental cure, even though she knows that the person Gus will be will not, in some sense, be her husband – so much of his brain and memories having already been destroyed.  The story plays out quietly, in McHugh's usual measured fashion, small details building a sensitive picture of these two people and their marriage, before and after, as it were.  There are no overwhelming epiphanies here – just a realistic and believable look at how real people can be affected by medical changes.

Locus Online, August 2002 (review of Polyphony 1)

Maybe the best story in the book, however, is by one of the most prominent names: Maureen McHugh's "Laika Comes Back Safe". This is pure McHugh, a quiet story about a girl growing up, and her best friend, who turns out to be a werewolf. Lots of SF is to some extent "about" the extrapolative idea; the rest (or most of the rest) is "about" the people in the story, with the extrapolative idea used to illuminate the characters and lives of those people. Naturally enough, I would think, most "slipstream" fiction falls in this second category — certainly this is the case with McHugh's story, which subtly and heartbreakingly portrays the narrator's quietly desperate adolescence amid a slowly decaying home life.

Locus, November 2002

Sci Fiction for October is highlighted by Maureen F. McHugh's afterlife fantasy "Ancestor Money". Rachel Ball is long dead, and living in a curious afterlife that much resembles her real Kentucky life, only emptier. She receives a letter telling her that her grandchild has left her "ancestor money" -- a Chinese tradition. So she makes her way to Hong Kong to claim it -- but what use is money in the afterlife? The story is wryly told, and quietly leads to a mild but telling epiphany about death.

Locus, May 2003

Sci Fiction opens April with Maureen F. McHugh's "Frankenstein's Daughter", a moving and honest and villain-free story of a divorced mother with a teen-aged son and a younger clone of her dead older daughter. The younger girl's developmental problems and the older boy's rebelliousness and the mother's quilt and sorrow and her ex-husband's sincere attempts to help her cope are all portrayed affectingly. There is no blinding revelation here, just a story of real people living with believable consequences of past tragedy.

Locus, October 2004

The September Asimov's features several contributors who could be described as "hot new writers". But let us not forget the great Maureen F. McHugh, probably not quite new enough to fit that description, who shows up with "Oversite", one of several recent stories by her that look at family life in the near future: always realistic, honest, affecting. This one is no exception, about a woman dealing with her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother and with her teenaged daughter – both candidates for a locator implant.

Locus, November 2007

Also, I’m delighted to see a new story from Maureen McHugh. “The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” is about a young man who disappears from his home in Baltimore after a terrorist attack, and ends up a mechanic in small Virginia town. Nothing earthshaking happens, in an SFnal sense, but his story, and his mother’s story, are briefly and convincingly laid out. Quiet work, yes, but very real.

Locus, April 2008 (Review of The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction)

My other favorite piece comes from Maureen F. McHugh: “Special Economics”, about a Chinese country girl come to the big city in the near future, who ends up more or less indentured to a shady corporation, but manages to come up with a surprising out.

Locus, August 2008

And “The Kingdom of the Blind” is a good new Maureen McHugh story, from Plugged In, published in honor of her and L. Timmel Duchamp’s appearance as Wiscon Guests of Honor. This piece intelligently speculates on the nature of spontaneously arising AI in a medical system – and even more intelligently looks at the work life of the computer system’s programmers, particularly the protagonist, Sydney, who learns to better understand the nature of her coworkers intelligence – and hers – as well as the AI’s.

Locus, December 2009

The overall emphasis of the book is less science fictional than in the second volume – and I confess that’s a mild disappointment to me, but Strahan has never been shy about desiring each of these books to have different emphases. Anyway, my three favorite stories were all SF of one sort or another. Maureen McHugh’s “Useless Things” is as usual with McHugh very quiet, understated. It’s set after a nearly complete economic meltdown. The story works to bring the consequences of that meltdown home … the narrator makes dolls, special dolls, sometimes ones that look like lost children. And she helps people with food and work when they come by. In different ways both those impulses betray her, and her reaction suggest, in the end, a feeling of uselessness in the face of a collapsed world.

Locus, August 2010

The Spring Issue of Subterranean Magazine, guest-edited by Locus’s own Jonathan Strahan, has completed its piecemeal posting. It’s a first rate issue. Maureen McHugh’s “The Naturalist” is a zombie story, and I admit my first impulse was to sigh. What indeed is the world coming to when even Maureen McHugh is writing zombie stories? But – as I might have trusted – McHugh has given us an actual good zombie story. Cahill is a prisoner abandoned in Cleveland in a sort of zombie reservation, though he himself is not a zombie. His daily life consists of survival, sometimes with a gang of prisoners, mostly by himself. The zombies, it seems, are rare – most have been killed – but a few remain, and Cahill – not really a good man himself, as we are shown – slowly comes to realize that there might be something different in the zombies than the cliché mindlessness. The parallel – abandoned violent prisoners, and abandoned zombies, both assumed to be lost to humanity – seems clear. McHugh’s execution of the idea is subtle, grounded, ambiguous – and as such all the more believable.

Locus, August 2013 (Review of Queen Victoria's Book of Spells)

Maureen McHugh's “The Memory Book” begins as seemingly conventional tale of a genteel young woman (who can do a little magic) forced into work as a governess due to her father's untimely death, but there is a distinct and effective dark side to things.

Locus, January 2018

But the prize story (in the revived Omni) is “Sidewalks”, by Maureen McHugh, which is a variation on one of my personal favorite time travel tropes, and which is grounded, as we expect from McHugh, in absolutely real characters. Rosni Gupta is a speech pathologist for Los Angeles County, and her latest case is a woman who speaks nothing but gibberish. Rosni assume she is perhaps autistic, but on meeting her she realizes that is not the case, and soon learns what the gibberish really is. I’ll leave the secret for the reader to discover – not that it’s particularly a new notion – but the implications are powerful.

McHugh doesn’t publish enough for my taste these days, so it’s exciting this month to see two of her stories, the other in the Global Dystopias special issue of the Boston Review, guest edited by Junot Diaz. “Cannibal Acts” is a quiet depiction of a small community in Alaska trying to survive after an engineered plague; and the decision of the narrator to join with those willing to eat one of their fellows who has died. No particular epiphanies are to be had here, nor anything much heroic, just an honest look at people at the likely end of the human world.

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