Clara, the narrator of "Oversite," wakes up in the middle of the night and checks to see if "the girls are safe in their beds." 'The girls,' in this case, are 17-year-old Renata and Clara's senile mother. Clara is tracking them both with 'minders'—implants in their upper arms that tell Clara where both of her charges are at any given moment. "Oversite" charts a period of flux for Clara's family: Renata tries to pull away and assert her independence from her mother, getting a bad scare in the process; at the same time, Clara's rapidly regressing mother wants only to come home, to become her own daughter's child. Clara is caught in the middle, uncertain as to which of the two should be pushed away and which one embraced, and always worried.
"Oversite" establishes most of the recurring themes in Mothers and Other Monsters, Maureen F. McHugh's first short story collection. McHugh, who won the James Tiptree Jr. Award for her first novel, China Mountain Zhang (as well as being nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula) here offers twelve previously published short stories. An equal number of stories seem to have been left out, but the collection includes the 1996 Hugo winner, "The Lincoln Train," two stories which McHugh later expanded into novels ("The Cost to be Wise," into 1998's Mission Child, and "Nekropolis" into the 2001 novel of the same name), and adds one new piece, the vignette "Wicked". Mother-daughter relationships, rebellious children, parents' warring desires to shelter their child and see them independent, and the conflict between duty to an enfeebled family member and the desire for freedom show up, in various guises and permutations, in almost every single story in the collection. As the title suggests, most of these stories deal with the ways in which the people closest to us—the ones we take care of and the ones who are supposed to take care of us—can turn monstrous.
McHugh's mothers are unconventional ones: the reluctant stepmother in "Eight-Legged Story"; the wife who becomes mother to her husband, an Alzheimer's sufferer, in "Presence"; the teenager caring for her senile mother in "The Lincoln Train". The families they hold together are also frequently unconventional—in "Frankenstein's Daughter," a grief-stricken couple's attempt to clone their dead daughter becomes a cruel joke when the baby turns out to be mentally disabled and unlikely to live past 12; the narrator of "In the Air" forms an odd family with her dog and the ghost of her dead brother.
In McHugh's stories, motherhood has been boiled down to the act of caring for another, regardless of the exact biological connection between the caretaker and her charge. McHugh is enormously talented at describing the tedium and exhaustion that can result when one dedicates one's life to another. Many of the families in her stories are bound by obligation, with members who would rather be anywhere else than tied to a thankless, difficult charge. The quiet desperation of their lives is highlighted, not alleviated, by the introduction of SFnal tropes, and although McHugh is hardly the only SF author to combine the genre with the mundane lives of everyday people, she may very well be the most accomplished practitioner of this approach.
Inherent in the plight of McHugh's protagonists is the inability to find a simple solution to their problems. Consequently, many of the stories in the collection end abruptly and with very little closure. Although, by and large, McHugh's cobbled-together families find the strength to reshape themselves in a way that allows them to continue caring for their weaker members, a palpable sense of despair hangs over these stories—the best that these people can hope for is to continue managing and making do.
Because of this inability or unwillingness to introduce change into her characters' lives, McHugh often ends up with un- or under-used SFnal tropes. "Frankenstein's Daughter," for instance, would have been largely unchanged without the cloning angle. In "Laika Comes Home Safe," one of the saddest and loveliest stories in the collection, teenager Brittany discovers that her best friend Tye, with whom she has slowly been falling in love, is a werewolf. McHugh introduces Tye's 'condition' so quietly that it barely causes a ripple in the story's surface, allowing the gentle love story to proceed apace, but mingled with my admiration for her skill as a writer is the question of whether the werewolf angle was even necessary. It's impossible not to wonder whether McHugh has considered moving away from genre venues and topics, and whether Mothers and Other Monsters isn't a first step in that direction—certainly there's nothing particularly SFnal about the book's cover art, and its publisher, Small Beer Press, has in the past had great success with crossover marketing, most notably Kelly Link's much-lauded collections, Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners.
When McHugh goes to the trouble of constructing an elaborate imagined universe in which to set her stories, the results can be mixed. "Nekropolis" takes place at some point in the future, in a Muslim country in which the second Quran permits slavery so long as slaves are 'jessed'—chemically bonded to their owner, eager to serve him or her—and vat-grown clones are bought and sold as servants. McHugh combines this fanciful premise with a painfully human story—Diyet, the narrator, sold herself into slavery because she feared her own ability to make bad choices and cause herself pain, and now finds herself longing for freedom and love—and the result is haunting and engaging. In "The Lincoln Train," on the other hand, McHugh erects an elaborate alternate history—after surviving his assassination attempt, a weakened Lincoln is used as a puppet by hawkish, vindictive members of his government, who transport former slave-owners to work camps—but uses it to tell an underperforming story. McHugh describes a young girl's hellish journey to one of these work camps, building up our sympathy for her only to shatter it with the reminder that the girl's family kept slaves. It's a simple, perhaps even facile point, unworthy of the intricate groundwork that built up to it, especially when one considers that in our own history, slave-holding families often suffered terribly during and after the Civil War, and the question of whether or not they deserved that suffering is hardly a new or an SFnal one.
Even the weakest stories in Mothers and Other Monsters, however, are at least partly redeemed by McHugh's skill with words. Other, more heavy-handed writers, faced with the grim realities that McHugh describes, would have allowed despair to overwhelm their narrative, but McHugh has a light touch, a gentle sense of a humor, and a keen wit. She doesn't succumb to sentimentalism even when her characters do, and she maintains a distance from these troubled, overburdened women that allows us to see them as they are—not saints, put-upon by an uncaring world, but ordinary women who have had a bit of bad luck and are doing what they can to deal with it. In a way, McHugh's elegiac stories are a more difficult balancing act than that of writing energetic, frenetic fiction—she has to vigilantly guard against the temptation to let her protagonists slip into malaise and self-pity, losing the readers' interest in the process.
For all its melancholy and its grim realism, for all of McHugh's refusal to use SF tropes as quick fixes for impossible problems, one can't help but walk away from Mothers and Other Monsters with a feeling of cautious optimism. McHugh's mothers, daughters, sisters and loners, bound by duty and love, frequently leave the stage carrying terrible burdens, and yet even in their despair there's a hint of strength. At the end of "Eight-Legged Story," the harassed narrator is meeting a counselor to discuss her troublesome stepson, whom she looks after but doesn't quite love or even like. Guilt-ridden and uncertain of herself, the narrator plaintively announces that her stepson "needs a mother."
"And he doesn't have one," the therapist says. "But he has a father and a stepmother."
It is what we have.
Faced with impossible problems, McHugh's mothers do their best with what they have. It isn't flashy, it is rarely happy, and there are no neat solutions—but there is grace in this quiet strength, and just the faintest glimmer of hope.
Abigail Nussbaum is currently wrapping up a Computer Science degree at the Technion Institute in Haifa, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in the Israeli SFF quarterly, The Tenth Dimension, and she blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.