Mothers and Other Monsters

Mothers and Other MonstersSince then I had learned that the world was more regular than I had supposed; birds did not amass outside the windows, preying mantises did not become tall, there was nothing under my bed except dust, and escaped lunatics did not crouch under the bleachers at the Catholic school.

If any writer is ready to pick up Ursula LeGuin’s mantle (not, we hope, that LeGuin is going to lay her mantle down any time soon . . .), it’s Maureen McHugh. In this collection of thirteen stories, McHugh shows that speculative fiction can be smart, warm, and funny, and so perfectly written that you hardly notice the “speculative” aspects at all.

The most affecting stories are near-future explorations of the social and spiritual impacts of advances in medical technology that may not be far away at all. In “Frankenstein’s Daughter,” we see the unintended consequences of cloning when in the throes of grief; “Interview: On Any Given Day” imagines the old living as irresponsibly as the young do; “Presence” explores Alzheimer’s and the untangling of the ties between brain and soul. The characters in these stories are so real, their experiences so true, that I found myself trying to recall whether any of these advances had actually occurred yet. If “science fiction” is taken to mean “fiction about science,” then this surely is science fiction at its best.

McHugh plays with straight “science fiction” as well (or at least more obviously far-future science fiction). “Nekropolis” takes place in a future world that suggests some evolution of Islam (the “Second Koran” is mentioned, and the gender stratification suggests traditional Islamic society), and explores autonomy and compassion and whether those are enough to define humanity. In what appears to be a near-homage to LeGuin, “The Cost to Be Wise” explores violence and tribalism, and what constitutes “appropriate technology.”

Not all of these stories are obviously speculative. “Eight-Legged Story” plays with form and voice, but is grounded in the material world; “Laike Comes Back Safe” has a putative werewolf, though we never see any outward signs of lycanthropy and are left instead with a sad and poetic story about childhood. Including these stories in a collection labeled “Science Fiction” in its Library of Congress data may have the effect of burying two fine examples of short fiction where readers who would never consider picking up a genre book will find them, but it also broadens the scope for people who read science fiction.

Brought out by
Small Beer Press, the operation founded by Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, “Mothers and Other Monsters” is one of those collections to set the mind spinning and the heart thumping, and to set the feet off in pursuit of more just like this. (Yes, I’m a bit biased toward Small Beer Press, but they’ve yet to steer me wrong . . .)

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