Story collections tend to get short shrift on my leisure reading list, largely because of the high volume of short fiction I read for Futurismic. But now that I have this blog going I’ve got an added incentive to work them back into my reading rotation, and I hope to do so now and then. First up is Mothers & Other Monsters (2005) by Maureen F. McHugh, and it’s an impressive book, both for the quality of its writing and the classy look of its production by Small Beer Press.
I’ve been a fan of McHugh’s for a while now, based largely on the strength of two of her novels — China Mountain Zhang and Nekropolis — both of which should be required reading for fans of “futurismic fiction.” Mothers & Other Monsters, however, shows that McHugh can produce excellent work across a much broader spectrum of genres.
Among the fantasy stories that impressed me here were “In the Air,” a deceptively simple, elegant story about a thirtysomething woman haunted by the memory of her stillborn twin brother; “Laika Comes Home Safe,” a dark and engaging tale of white trash werewolves; and “Ancestor Money,” perhaps my favorite, an eery, atmospheric journey through the afterlife. Even “Wicked,” a brief, sharp vignette that might be considered a throwaway, is an engaging read with a slick and effective punchline. (Stories of this length almost never work for me — this one did.)
It’s the science fiction stories in this volume that push my buttons the most, though. “Nekropolis,” which serves as the opening section of the novel of the same name, is a particularly strong scenario about the plight of programmed slaves in north Africa. There’s also dark, topical, probing stories like “Presence,” “Oversite,” and the particularly effective “Frankenstein’s Daughter,” which considers the ethics and ramifications of cloning. My favorite, though, was probably “Interview: On Any Given Day,” a “multimedia format” narrative involving rejuvenation treatments and their potential consequences. These near future tales aren’t flashy or full of eyeball kicks, but they’re evocative and powerful, probing, and well detailed, and they tend to resonate long after reading.
There is definitely a dark edge to most of these stories, and sometimes a sadness to them, but there’s also hope here, and insight, and a quiet strength. Overall it’s a classy and powerful collection.