Please believe me when I say that I very rarely speak in such proscriptive terms, but: Mission Child should be a classic of the genre.

In the far future, the people of Earth colonised several other planets – but then retreated for some time, leaving the people of these planets to their own fates. Much later, they returned, and this is when Mission Child takes place: during the upheaval this return has caused to one planet. The life of Janna, a young person of the clanspeople living in one of the planet’s colder regions, is changed forever.

Mission Child questions colonialism and gender in ways that few other novels even attempt.

The returning people of Earth are well-meaning but incapable of seeing quite how deeply their smallest decisions affect the people of this planet. They sell guns to some of the clanspeople – the result is a bloody inter-clan war, killing and uprooting thousands of people, as one clan gets an unprecedented upper hand. Janna loses her family and home in the first chapter. The two Earth-people working in the village call for help and are airlifted away, but they never offer Janna and her husband a free ride – it is easy, I suppose, to practice non-interference in big ways while ignoring the smaller ways in which the presence of Earth-people is wreaking havoc.

Janna’s journey then begins, taking her first to other clanspeople, where she bears and loses a baby (an event that continues to affect her in occasional ways throughout the book, but motherhood does not define her), then to a refugee camp, where in her starved state she is mistaken for a man and decides to adopt that identity to protect herself.

For Maureen McHugh does not flinch from what happens to women when life gets brutal. Janna is assaulted in the first chapter; when her village is destroyed, she finds evidence on many female bodies of rape, including her mother’s. It is brutal to read; it is unflinching and true, and not for one moment is it designed to be edgy or titilating.

From the moment Janna adopts a male identity, se (and from here I will use a gender-neutral pronoun) begins to navigate not only maleness but se’s femaleness too. Janna meets a shaman in the refugee camp, who, true to certain our-world Arctic customs, dresses in female clothing, and who offers to initiate Janna in shamanism, as well as offering advice about passing for male (for the shaman sees through Janna’s disguise immediately). Shamanism is treated with seriousness: it is no exotic mysticism.

Eventually Janna leaves the camp, restless, and travels to a city where se finds basic work, living an immigrant’s life in poor accommodation. Here Janna must also navigate the unfamiliar world of rent and shops and keeping time, while forming relationships with a few other clanspeople living in the city – including a sexual relationship, in which se is treated as the female partner. At the same time, Janna’s workplace conducts a basic medical and, upon discovering that se has a female body, says that it is possible to have gender reassignment surgery, if that is what Janna wants, or to take hormonal medication that will affect secondary sex characteristics. Janna opts for the latter, feeling that se is not exactly female but not exactly male either. Se’s partner is appalled, wanting Janna to be female. In this, as throughout the book, Janna’s thoughts about se’s gender are uncertain and mutable in an achingly real way.

Events force Janna to move on to another part of the world, where se encounters Earth-people, who are ostensibly trying to help the people of this world. Janna sees there their disconnect: they want to help, they mean well, but they don’t understand.

This is a rough summary, which outlines much but doesn’t give you the experience of Janna’s voice: a simple one, practical, raw, thoughtful, sometimes very lost. If you’ve not read the book, I do not think I have ruined it for you by saying everything I have above. There is a depth in Mission Child that you must experience for yourself.

Mission Child also questions traditional narratives, in which an active protagonist shapes their own destiny through a well-drawn arc, ultimately achieving a particular goal. Janna’s goal is living; events shape se’s life as much as se shapes events. The novel does not reach a grand narrative conclusion. It is a journey in which Janna learns much, but because it is about a life, it is not over on the final page.

It is absolutely wonderful and I am angry that it has fallen out of print.