Monday, January 16, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Cost to Be Wise - Maureen F. McHugh

Next stop in short fiction month is The Cost to Be Wise by Maureen F. McHugh, another author whose work I'm unfamiliar with. She is probably best known for her novel China Mountain Zhang (1992), which won her a Tiptree, Locus, Hugo and Nebula Award. In the years since, McHugh has not been terribly prolific. Four novels and two collections have appeared to date. Her short fiction is well represented on the Hugo and Nebula shortlist however. Apparently McHugh chooses the quality over quantity approach. This particular novella appeared in 1996 and shows up on both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists.

In the Sckarline colony, they believe only appropriate technology should be employed. Nothing that is not sustainable or cannot be replaced from local materials is used in their everyday life. One day, off-worlder anthropologists come visit the colony. For Janna, one of the few colonists to speak any English, it is a break from the monotony of her life . When a local clan shows up in search of booze, things get quickly out of control. The price for their way of life turns out the be very steep indeed.

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this story. It is a well written tale to be sure. There is a fine bit of worldbuilding in it for example. We are introduced to the colony through the eyes of Janna, who is well aware of the outside world but has never actually seen it. To her the colony is home. McHugh doesn't use her to spoon feed the reader the details of their life. What details we need come through the questions of the visitors and a bit of reading between the lines. That aspect of the novella was handled very deftly.

Janna is a bit of a sullen girl. She has a poor relationship with her mother and is clearly not satisfied with her life. The outsiders fascinate her in a way. They show her glimpses of what life could be without their reliance on only appropriate technology. The generational conflict and Janna's hopes and wishes for the future are not really developed in the story however.

The fate of the colony is the main concern of the author. Here, the plot turns brutal. I'm not entirely sure if this is what the author intended but what the story essentially shows is what will happen to those who cannot or will not defend what is theirs. There are all sorts of historical parallels to be drawn here. History is littered with the acts of those that feel power entitles them to take what they want.

What bothered me about this novella was not so much the tale itself, I can admire McHugh's craftsmanship, but more the feeling that I had been reading a few chapters in a longer story. There are so many open ends and so many unexplained motives in the story that it really does not work all that well as a novella. It is a well written piece but ultimately a bit unfulfilling. I think I need to find myself a novel by McHugh. That might be more to my taste.

Story Details
Title: The Cost to Be Wise
Author: Maureen F. McHugh
Language: English
Originally published: Starlight 1, edited by Patrick Hayden Nielsen (1996)
Read in: Lightspeed Special Issue Women Destroy Science Fiction! (June 2014)
Story length: Novella, approximately 19,000 words
Awards: Hugo and Nebula Award nominated
Available online: Small Beer Press

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