Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Woman on a Mission, a Review of Maureen McHugh's "Mission Child"

What is Colonialism, anyway? It'a word thrown around so much that it has become pretty devoid of meaning. Colonialism has become a dirty word. But, if you add the word "space" in front of colonialism, it becomes the greatest thing in the world: Space Colonialism! Colonizing space is not only a moral imperative, it is also probably going to be a messy affair, with waves of colonization following waves as the wide, vast distances we must cover to reach new worlds creates strange economic and social constructs once people get down onto the ground.

What is appropriate technology? If we think about a global economy, should we be flooding deserts with water to grow out-of-season bananas? Should we be flooding Africa with our cast-off clothes as charity until no African textile industry exists to make their own new clothes?

In space, colonialism can still become a problematic thing. Maureen McHugh brilliantly explicates the life and travels of a young woman, Janna, who experiences firsthand the effects of a colonial system that is hauntingly reminiscent of our own. Her planet was abandoned for centuries after initial colonization. When new waves of settlers come, the economic balance of native goods and services are torn asunder as guns, medicine, plagues, and computers sweep over a world that was not prepared for these things. The world that had evolved and settled into place is quickly destroyed and remade into something different, and often lesser. McHugh aptly portrays the marauding hordes that use guns to take what they want from the Mission that does not embrace off-world technology. The city, then, with refugee camps, and ill-prepared native peoples living in poverty working in low-paying, rote positions and dabbling in black markets and crimes, is no place to live with the old ways. Janna runs across a planet, always struggling to get ahead of the off-world technology that ruins everything that is beautiful and established in their worlds, until, in the end, a plague comes and the off-world tech is all that can save the people.

By presenting this familiar theme, of the technological imbalance of cultures in contact with each other, on a foreign planet in deep space, McHugh is able to sidestep a lot of the resistance to the ideas one would find by dabbling in anti-capitalist ideas. The economy of the planet is one of self-sufficiency, where things grown and produced on-world are kept on-world and people live in peace. Once that balance is destroyed, the power structures of the world are quick to turn against the weak and the helpless. Don't mistake that message for Marxist or anti-capitalist. It's simply a fact that when power is available over others, the weak and the helpless are quickly tossed aside. This message is an important one for anyone interested in acting appropriately with appropriate charity in a world where aid sent to regions can often end up in the hands of the warlords that cause the suffering. McHugh's message is human, and pro-human.

And heartbreaking. And beautiful.

Is this novel not in print anymore? That's a shame, if true. Someone should pick this up and reprint it.

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