“Useless Things” by Maureen McHugh, in Eclipse 3, edited by Jonathan Strahan (Night Shade Books, 2009)
Moderated by Karen Joy Fowler
Welcome to our long-promised, oft-delayed bookclub. We always hoped that the Tiptree Award would, among other things, prompt a good conversation about the books and stories honored, and the issues they raised. Every year this conversation has occurred for the five people serving as jurors. Our hope here is to extend it further.
The format for this book club is a work in progress. One thread on each work will focus on the gender aspects of the story in hand, but I expect there will be many other things to be noted, as well. I personally dislike book clubs where the talking is fragmented into a variety of threads, so I’d like to keep things pretty tight. But, with your input, we’ll be making that up as we go.
We’re starting with some short fiction to give you all time to read the novels, and we’re starting with the most recent Tiptree Award list.
Here is what the jury said about “Useless Things”:
“A non-reproductive woman makes idealized child-objects in an uncertain world. McHugh’s story takes place only a tick away from where we now find ourselves, in a pressured environment of economic collapse where any act of generosity and open-heartedness is risky and a good person is a dangerous thing to be. This is not fundamentally a gendered issue, but it often expresses itself in gendered ways. An incredibly evocative, sparely written, powerful story.”
Of course, we should launch the club by talking about the apocalypse! McHugh’s near future stories, at least to me, are among the most plausible visions of what’s coming. I note in this one, the sense that the future will arrive unevenly, first to certain classes, ethnicities, and geographical areas. It is arguably already here.
I note her belief that it will not make us better people. It will do the opposite.
I note also the moment late in the story when Maureen directly addresses other apocalyptic works, the paragraph that ends with the Byronic desert.
My suggestions for things to talk about:
1) We are science fiction writers and readers here. How good have we been at predicting the things we now see collapsing about us? Which apocalyptic visions seem real to you?
2) Is there a hubris in thinking, as so many generations before us have also thought, that we live in some version of the end times? Do we live in some version of the end times?
3) I personally was deeply taken with this story because of its clear-eyed presentation of a central dilemma in my own life – when can I afford to get involved? I never pass a hitchhiker without wishing I could pick him/her up and I never do pick up hitchhikers. I feel that my caution, that my own sense of being at risk in the world, is feminine, but I’m not sure of that.
In both the story at hand and the real world around the story, how is this a gendered issue and how is it not?
4) Is there an inevitable conflict between our ability to make the world a better place and our personal survival? Are these two things always bound to come into conflict, sooner or later?
5) Besides the obvious, how will the apocalypse arrive differently to those of different genders and sexual identities?
Over to you.