Mission Child by Maureen F McHugh

Orbit, 1999, 385p.

On a planet whose name we don’t learn until the seventh last line of the novel (“What a foolish thing, to name a world”) there are three kinds of things: “onworld that will fill you up but not feed you, in-between things like renndeer and potatoes that we can eat but can live on onworld things; and offworld things like dogs and people.” (In its first appearance onworld was rendered as aunworld.) The onworld life, then, can variously be eaten for sustenance, for bulk with no sustenance, or is poisonous. Its amino acids are right handed – the opposite chirality to Earth’s.

Janna of Harma clan is the titular Mission child, brought up in an appropriate technology mission in a polar area where the main source of food is herded renndeer. To trade, her clan makes whisky (spelled whiskey.) Another clan called Tekse is becoming over powerful. Tekse outrunners arrive at the Mission as the novel starts. They have rifles whereas Harma do not. The inevitable destruction of the Mission and the clan follows. In the meantime Janna has been given implants by former offworlder Wanji. These help her survive the trek to other clan grounds and her subsequent adventures wherein she manages to roam far over her home world. Early on she has to put on a dead man’s clothes as hers are ragged. To protect herself in an offworlder run refugee camp, where she subsequently takes up with a shaman, she decides to stay dressed as a man, calling herself Jan.

The novel is episodic and as a result does not feel like one story but a fix-up. For example the shaman is only present for the middle portion and may as well not have appeared in Jan’s life as far as the last chapters of the book are concerned – except in so far as Jan tries to help people affected by a plague. What stays with Jan is hir background in the clans of the north, hir middling sense of gender and hir mistrust of offworlders, though these are almost always a benign influence on hir life. (My use of the indeterminate pronoun hir.)

It did seem strange that humans would bother to travel so far that it is all but impossible to return to Earth and then display the same sorts of follies they had left behind, in many ways living worse lives in this new world. Then again that may simply be an allegory of the European migration to the Americas. We are told, though, Earth still has many problems such as pollution.

The societies Jan lives in are observed only obliquely, the only one which is fully fleshed out is the Lapp-like existence of the renndeer herding clans. McHugh’s interest in Earth’s oriental cultures (as in China Mountain Zhang) comes through, though.

Pedant’s corner:- I spotted only one typo (abut for about) but there was a “lay” for “laid”, and (twice on one page) “shined” for “shone” where shoes were not concerned.

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