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Mission Child by Maureen F. McHugh

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Humanity once boldly pushed outward from the Earth to establish colonies throughout the galaxy. But humankind reached too far – overextending, faltering, and ultimately failing – leaving its distant settlements to fend for themselves. Now, after many centuries, the progenitors have returned to reclaim their lost territories.

For Janna, raised on the icy northern plains of a world that has forgotten its history, the arrival of the offworlders marks the end of everything she has ever known – and the beginning of a remarkable journey into a strange and terrifying new life.
~~~~~
Mission Child is, so far, the best of the novels I’ve read under the Queering the Genre rubric; it’s also the most interestingly queer, in that it approaches questions of gender from the position that is most familiar to me: both nonbinary and not biologically essentialist, but also with the attitude that being genderqueer is simply an aspect of being human. Spoilers will inevitably form a part of this review, but I’ll try to keep them minor or only for the early novel.

Jan/na is the genderqueer character who this narrative centres on; over the course of the novel, McHugh writes Jan/na as a cisgendered female, as passing for male, as a transgender man and as a post-binary character who on asked her gender replies “both”. The journey through gender McHugh writes into Mission Child is a fascinating one; Jan/na doesn’t suddenly wake up and realise they aren’t female, but rather, over the course of the novel goes through a process of realising their gender identity, travelling through a series of different gender presentations and gender identities. McHugh’s presentation is a sympathetic one; over the course of the novel, Jan/na’s first-person narration tends not to focus too much on introspection, especially about gender, but at the same time they do tend to raise and discuss some questions; the process is one the reader, rather than the characters, see.

Jan/na is far from the only rounded character in Mission Child; despite a first-person narration, we really get a good grip on McHugh’s other characters, who are well-rounded figures even when seen through Jan/na’s eyes; their motivations, characterisations, cultures, gender presentation and more are brilliantly written. From the lowlife Mika to the shaman who forms a large part of Jan/na’s journey of gender presentation, and from the Grandmama Lili to Sasha, we see a wide variety of cultures, including those of and those completely changed by the presence of offworlders; McHugh presents a fascinating picture of the way an alien culture, even one attempting to be benign, affects, changes and often destroys the cultures onto which it intrudes.

That anticolonialist theme is the core of the plot of Mission Child; the whole novel is a fascinating study on the tensions between the benefits and the damage that outside cultures bring by contact, especially on their terms, with cultures of different technological levels or different social organisations. The slaughter of Jan/na’s clan, centred on an offworlder Mission, by outriders using guns provided by offworlders is one such example; the plagues – but also their medicinal cure – that occur at the end of the novel are another such. The whole novel takes a very ambiguous view of this interaction, and McHugh refuses to come down on either side of it, as Jan/na travels through and sees different cultures and different interactions on her planet; it’s a slightly episodic novel, and doesn’t entirely hang together, but as a fictional autobiography, Mission Child works rather well, including in its acceptance of the focuses a person brings to their own life.

Mission Child isn’t flawless; at times it gets repetitious, and the writing sometimes drags especially in the third quarter, but as an exploration of a journey through gender, as a discussion of colonialism and cultural interaction, McHugh has written a truly fantastic piece of writing, ripe for analysis and discussion; McHugh has written a novel very well worth reading.

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