Maureen F. McHugh
HarperCollins Eos / 257 pages / September 2001
Maureen F. McHugh is one of those rarest of things: a genuinely important author. Everything she writes is important. Why? Because McHugh never takes the easy way out; she tackles tough subject matter and she does it brilliantly.
In Nekropolis she tackles the touchy subject of life in a fundamentalist theocracy. Gender bias, genetic bias, and ancient traditions combine for a society that leaves little room for personal preference, and no chance of forgiveness. Hariba, at the young age of twenty–six, has seen her life and future shattered by her brother’s illegal actions. Her lesser-of-two-evils choice is to be “jessed” to submit docilely to a form of slavery that will comprise the rest of her life.
As a jessed menial she is at the lowest level of society; equal only to the bio-engineered harni who also serves her master. Harni are not considered human, but Hariba finds herself hopelessly in love with Akhmim, and in her own beaten-down, timid way she means to have him. Whatever the costs.
In a hopeless, forgotten place like the Nekropolis where Hariba has spent her life, there are costs for every decision and reactions to every action. In a place like Nekropolis, the price is almost always far in excess of the worth. A fact that Hariba has learned time and again, but has never really accepted. Soon the threat of retribution is not enough to keep Hariba from defying law and reason to get what she wants. But, is what she hopes for anything like the truth?
For Hariba though, ignoring reality has become a way of life. Eye open, but averted, and mind closed is how she has survived thus far.
Nekropolis is a masterwork of tension, faith, and despair. It is a look forward into a time we all would like to assume will be better for everyone, but don’t quite believe in. History is too pragmatic a teacher. McHugh has a clear eye and portrays the possible future with unflinching honesty. Fans of her work know not to expect Hollywood-happy endings; McHugh writes to explore truth and reality, even if that truth doesn’t exist quite yet.
Life in fundamentalist countries is virtual slavery now for women. What will happen when you add artificially created human beings into the mix? What rights will these creatures demand? And what will they actually get? When you live your life in a subservient, subhuman existence, will you be ready for freedom if it comes?
Nekropolis asks an even more troubling question. Is it what we, the majority, want for people that matters? How can we know what is best, when we don’t even understand the ones we are trying to liberate? Perhaps we should listen more closely to what the objects of our sympathy are saying and not what we are hearing.
Always expect the very best of Maureen McHugh; she delivers every time — even if it isn’t the package we envisioned.