Nekropolis by Maureen F. McHugh

Title: Nekropolis
Author: Maureen F. McHugh
Publisher: Eos
Publication date: 21 August 2001
My Rating: 6/10

Nekropolis is an unusal sci fi novel. The setting is 22nd century Morocco, but the culture is that of a timeless Islamic state. Aside from a few technological advances, the society of Maureen F. Mchugh’s novel is little different from the Islamic states of the past and present – it’s theocratic, harbours deep sexual divisions, inequality and repression, and shuns the western world, from which it has remained largely isolated.

Various forms of slavery are still permitted, as in the case of the protagonist Hariba, a young woman who feels she has no chance of getting married and thus makes the decision to get herself “jessed” – implanted with biotechnology that makes her loyal to her master. Although the practice is illegal in many societies, here it is validated by a verse in the Koran. Hariba gets paid for her work as a servant, but she is also owned by her master, and running away has potentially fatal consequences, as her body will revolt against the disloyalty.

Which is exactly what happens when Hariba falls in love with one of society’s other slaves – a harni named Akhmim. Harnis are artifical human beings, designed to serve human needs, available to be bought and sold, discriminated against for not being truly human even though, physically, there’s no difference. Because he’s not considered human and therefore isn’t considered truly male either, Akhmim is allowed access to the women’s quarters of the wealthy household in which Hariba works, and the shy, conservative servant girl slowly grows attached to the warm, gentle harni. But when they decide to run away together it becomes painfully clear that love is not enough to overcome the social, personal and biological boundaries existing between them.

The story is told by four different narrators – Hariba, Akhmim, Hariba’s mother and Hariba’s best friend Ayesha. Each of them offer distinct, compelling perspectives on the story, the society it’s set in and each other.  Together they bring a variety of themes to the novel – love, gender, motherhood, friendship – and while the narrative is slow and melancholy it is also a rich, living, breathing tale. As you might have guessed, there isn’t much focus on the science-fictional aspects of the story – technologies like jessing and harnis; the transition from present to future. These things exist in the background, providing the structure for the story and most importantly, the characters.

Nevertheless, as the most sci-fi-ish character in the story, I found Akhmim’s perspective to be the most interesting. He gives us a glimpse of life as a harni. It’s a tragic existence – harni like Akhmim are designed with a dependence on physical contact with other harni, but because they are used as slaves they’re usually forced to live separately. Even the comforts of human contact are unavailable to him, because he lives in a society where men and women are separated, where it’s inappropriate to even hug a woman in public let alone in private, and homosexual behaviour is obviously outlawed. In a sense, it’s impossible for Akhmim to be happy in any way that’s considered legal or even socially acceptable and thus it’s inevitable that he comes to live outside of Morocco’s legal boundaries.

Akhmim  is also designed to put the needs of humans before his own – a fact that’s constantly hovering over his relationship with Hariba. Does he truly love her and care for her, or is it just his biology? Despite being artifical though, Akhmim is the most open-minded, loving character and thus easily became my favourite.

Hariba, her mother, and Ayesha are complex, multifaceted characters, but easier to dislike in their conservatism. It hurts to see the open, friendly Akhmim ignored or berated when he tries to speak to Ayesha or Hariba in public, and Hariba’s mother’s ethical debates with herself regarding the son and daughter who have broken the laws of God and society seem so devoid of love and compassion at times that I wanted to scream at her. But don’t let this put you off; I think McHugh does an elegant job of crafting characters in a society such as this. It’s easier to put rebellious characters in an oppressive society and let them voice the criticisms that most readers would be ready to utter themselves. The beauty of Nekropolis is its ability to make you empathise with characters that frustrate and anger you, the ones who can’t or won’t do what you want them to.

To the novel’s credit, it isn’t as loudly critical of Islamic society as one might expect in a novel by an American author. Religion and culture exist largely in the background of the story in the same way that the futuristic technology does, providing context rather than content. Of course, the characters do struggle with the laws and conventions of society – all them violate the law in some way, for love, family, friendship, happiness while social and religious conventions create constant difficulties for them.  But for the most part the characters accept their society as is and their revolts are more personal than political. No one gets up on a soapbox to give a speech about oppression or religion. No one needs to, because the actions of the characters and the events of the novel speak for themselves.

On the other hand, one the reasons I only gave this book a 6/10 is the portrayal of Western society If McHugh seemed relatively subtle when we’re in Morocco, the tables are turned when it’s compared with a western society. Akhmim and Hariba escape to Spain in what is now known as the ECU, and it is a essentially a social utopia that admits to none of the problems of the western world while making Morocco look like a backward little dump shunning the beautiful light of the modern world. Had McHugh employed a more balanced view, I would have awarded this novel an extra star.

Nekropolis also lost a star for a more subjective reason – it wasn’t the greatest read. I’m by no means averse to slow, contemplative novels, but the best of those leave me in pensive awe, while this evokes something more like a shrug of mild admiration. I wasn’t bored, but anything more than 6 stars feels unfair.

Nevertheless, it’s unusual to find a sci fi novel set in a non-western society such as this, and that alone is reason to check Nekropolis out, in my opinion. As a fan of sci fi, I am often more interested in the way technology affects characters and societies than I am in the technology itself, and Nekropolis certainly caters to that. Those who like their sf on the harder side probably won’t enjoy it, but for those who prefer cross-genre fiction or who seldom read sci fi but enjoy historical or travel fiction, Nekropolis could be a valuable read.

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