Book Review – Nekropolis by Maureen F. McHugh
An American writer by the name of Maureen F McHugh came to my attention nearly a decade ago now when I read her amazing novel Half the Day is Night, a tense, claustrophobic thriller that seemed to me to offer something genuinely different in the field of science fiction. That something, in my opinion, was a real, visceral sense of entrapment, of being unfree. It’s an amazing book and I need to read it again sometime. Back in those days I was able to track down the author’s first and third novels (China Mountain Zhang and Mission Child), but I only read the former of these and it didn’t give me the same feeling that Half the Day is Night did. I recall that I was working in the now-defunct Supernova Books in Perth when Nekropolis came out, which must have made the year 2002. I didn’t buy the book then because it was exorbitantly priced in trade paperback, but then I never saw the mass-market paperback release (if there was one) and I forgot all about McHugh and her career.
Fast forward to 2010 and I spy a hardback copy of Nekropolis in the Alexander Library Discard Bookshop in central Perth for $1, which I duly obtained. A little research on the net informed me that McHugh hadn’t published a single novel in the 8 year interim, and furthermore she appeared to have stopped publishing fiction altogether (see her website: http://my.en.com/~mcq/ or blog: http://maureenmcq.blogspot.com/ – neither of which have been updated recently). Turns out McHugh only published four novels and one book of short stories, Mothers and Other Monsters, which I’ll have to track down forthwith. This seems a sad state of affairs to me, for I really feel that McHugh’s work is worth reading.
So is Nekropolis worth reading? In a word, yes. Herein we are introduced to Hariba, a young woman who has been ‘jessed’ (genetically enslaved) to a wealthy merchant somewhere in Morocco in some unspecified (though apparently not too far off) future time. Hariba falls in love with a ‘harni’ (a constructed human or ‘chimera’) by the name of Akhmim. Akhmim is basically made to be a prostitute and to make humans happy, but Hariba doesn’t know that. There’s a large cast of characters, some of whom are quite interesting, but the main thrust of the story focuses on these two. (If you want a better synopsis, try Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Nekropolis-Maureen-F-Mchugh/dp/0380974576) We begin to realise that Hariba’s Morocco is an extremely oppressive and backward one, a sort of theocracy reminiscent of that in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a world of endemic poverty, police corruption and brutality, and superstition.
What I admire most about Nekropolis is the same quality that impressed me in Half the Day is Night: McHugh is a master at creating a sense of oppression and confinement. On a technical note, McHugh deploys a series of limited third person narrators (5 separate sections). There’s no ‘big picture sweep’ common in so much old and new science fiction. This is a story about people, their foibles and their anguish. It’s also a story about motherhood, a subject on which McHugh writes expertly. The deeper implications of the SF tropes used are left to the reader to ruminate on. The characters themselves, being of this world, think little of them. And that is McHugh’s art. She offers us the small, closed worlds of small, closed lives. There’s no sense of wonder and no happy ending. It’s a bracing tonic and one that I can recommend wholeheartedly.