“Useless Things” by Maureen McHugh

“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.

25 comments on ““Useless Things” by Maureen McHugh

  1. Great set of questions, Karen! I’ll be back tonight — after I’m fully awake — to comment on #1. My short answer to how good we have been about prediction: where’s my jetpack?

  2. Your jetpack is in the back of my car, Pat. I’m sorry. I was supposed to give it to you about a decade ago — kj

  3. There’s so much to say about this story and I’m short on time today. But here are a couple of initial thoughts:

    I don’t think we’re living in the end times. That seems to be a persistent myth in human culture, probably related to the one about how terrible kids are today. The world gets more complicated and there’s a desire to just wash the whole thing away and start over. I suppose I’m a glass half full sort of person, but I tend to believe the human race will continue to muddle along and I hold out hope that at some point we’ll become civilized.

    But I do think we’re in for a serious struggle in the near future, one that will be most obvious to those of us whose families made comfortable lives for themselves in the 20th Century. I’m not sure it will be all that different for the majority of people in the world who are still living hand to mouth, and the rich will probably be able to continue to insulate themselves from it. Overpopulation, the lack of effort on climate change, and economic crises are real problems that can’t be fixed by wishing or ranting.

    I think Maureen has really nailed those issues in this story — drought in New Mexico, making a living selling things people don’t need to those who are better off, living precariously but still better off than the Mexican migrants, the high tech world even filtering down to the migrants. There are people living like that right now, and there will be more of us soon. And the market for useless things is only going to shrink, taking away another means of making a living.

    It’s not really SF, when you get down to it. I’d say it’s a near future story of the day after tomorrow, only with the current unemployment rates in the US, I suspect a lot of people are living like this now. Look at the number of folks selling things — lovely things — on Etsy.com. Hand made items are lovely and the idea of making a living by selling beautiful crafts is delightful, but Maureen shows us the reality of people doing something like this just to eat.

    I’ve been reading a lot about research showing that altruism and cooperation in human beings are possibly inbred in our genetics and perhaps the thing that differentiated us from the other primates and allowed humans to evolve. It seems to me that Maureen has also nailed the tension between our natural urge to be kind to others and our equally natural urge to protect ourselves, to live, to survive.

    More tomorrow or on the weekend. Off to do my own useless thing: cover a tax conference.

  4. Your post sparked an interesting thought for me, Nancy, in terms of the future arriving unevenly — that for some of us Maureen’s story is science fiction and for others already realism.
    I’ve also been reading about the hard-wiring of empathy and cooperation, but in other primates as well as ourselves. I would say, at least for the sake of discussion, that the further we get from the intimacy of family and friends, into the world of tribes, political parties, and nations, the more aggressive self-preservation appears to be our default mode. I’d love to be argued around on this.

  5. The tension between altruism and self protection is also a strong one for me. Karen mentioned in her first post: “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.”

    Back when I was in my 20s, I did pick up hitchhikers (only fair, since I sometimes hitchhiked, back then). Until one day I picked up two hitchhikers and one of them stole my wallet from my backpack, which was in the backseat. It still makes me mad to think about it. I don’t pick up hitchhikers anymore.

    I don’t think caution is associated with gender, in my case. It’s more of a learned trait — and maybe linked to age. When I was younger, I just didn’t think anything would go wrong. Now that I’ve seen how very wrong things can go, I’m more cautious. I sure did enjoy those years of living dangerously. But these days my cheerful optimism is tempered by an annoying realism.

  6. One more thought: one scene in the story that keeps drawing me back (and makes me most uncomfortable) is the one where she gets her dog from the old man in the desert — and the boys on motorbikes show up. Should she feel as threatened as she does? I don’t know. I want to go back to the desert and see if the old man is OK. But I also think she was right to leave. But I’m not happy that she left. I read that scene and my mind goes around and around like a hamster on a wheel. Very strong — and very disturbing.

  7. Karen, I don’t know if I can argue you around. I was discussing the idea that humans are hardwired for cooperation and compassion with a fellow Aikido student, and he suggested that one of the first cooperative activities that humans took up was likely war. An army has to work together to be successful. I’ve been mulling that and I think he’s right. And while I’m willing to argue that war is not always unqualified evil, it does make me consider whether cooperation among humans is always unqualified good.

    But: One of the myths the world is built on is that it’s a hard cruel world out there and we must be prepared to do dreadful things to survive. If in fact we are in some manner hardwired for cooperation and compassion, it is possible that the underlying myth of cruelty is inaccurate, and what we do need to do to survive is actually quite different most of the time. This is a concept worth exploring in fiction and in real life. There is an abundance of fiction about the need to do terrible things to survive. It makes for great stories involving fight scenes and moral dilemmas (my favorite kinds of stories), but I have begun to question the accuracy of those. They may be true on occasion, but I think we may have them far out of proportion.

    Let me hasten to say that I don’t question the accuracy of Maureen’s story. It is about moral dilemmas, but they are the ones most of us actually confront in our daily lives. I, too, used to pick up hitchhikers (and, in fact, to hitchhike), but I don’t do it anymore, either. I never had a bad experience with anyone I picked up, nor did I ever have a seriously bad experience hitchhiking — a few rides with creeps, but those were offset by a number of rides with wonderful people. But something shifted along the way — perhaps age and caution, but also the people hitchhiking are a little more desperate these days. They’re not young adventurers; they’re people without any resources. They probably need my help, but they’re also more dangerous to me. (I still might pick up a woman, though, because I’d be afraid of who might pick her up if I didn’t.)

    All of that brings me to the point that’s been in the back of my mind all along: approaching this uncertain time from a warrior’s pov. The protagonist in “Useless Things” doesn’t do this. She gets scared; she buys a gun. But while she learns a little bit about how to use it, she’s still approaching defending herself from a victim’s perspective. She doesn’t want to have to do it. And as a result, she doesn’t do a good job of evaluating what’s dangerous and what’s not. She’s still scared, still living in fear, still wanting the world to be the one that was promised to us, the nice middle class life of comfort and relative safety.

    I think there’s another way to approach things, and that gets into my own ideas on what I call warriorship (which may be a scary term outside the confines of the Aikido dojo, but I don’t mean it to be one). I don’t mean going to war; I mean developing a certain set of skills — paying attention, knowing a little something about how to fight, listening to your instincts about people, being compassionate without being careless, and sometimes being willing to put your life on the line for someone else or a principle. I may believe the world is not quite as dangerous as we’ve told ourselves all these years, but it’s not a safe place either. Things can happen. Pretending it’s safe and being careless is as foolish as trying to lock ourselves behind as many gates as we can because it’s dangerous.

    I guess you’d say I’m hoping that the protagonist will start to develop the kind of survival skills I think we’re all going to need to survive what looks like a rocky near future to me: Compassion, cooperation, awareness, good instincts, willingness to use that gun and willingness not to.

    BTW, Pat, in the incident where she’s picking up the dog from Nick, I thought leaving was the right thing to do. Had any of the young men decided to do something to her, I suspect Nick would have jumped in to help — that is, I think her presence put him in more danger. And I think they could have decided to do something to her. They were treating her as prey, and would likely have taken any opening. They might rip Nick off, but I think her presence upped the odds of something worse happening.

    Which brings me around to gender issues: Women as prey. That’s a pretty traditional one, though there’s a lot more to be said on the subject and this story highlights a couple of those ways. Though I suspect the really interesting gender-related aspects from a Tiptree Award perspective might have more to do with making the reborns and the dildos.

  8. Pat — I agree that that’s the most disturbing scene in the story and the hardest in terms of this discussion on self-protection versus altruism. I think the protagonist did what I would have done. Which, oddly, makes me forgive her easily in a situation where I’d find it hard to forgive myself. It’s clear that the consequences could be catastrophic for Nick if she goes. Of course, they could be catastrophic if she stays and, as Nancy says, perhaps more so. So it’s hard to argue that she didn’t do the right thing. A situation really where there is no right thing to do.
    Nancy, you raise a number of points that make me think of the sempiternal discussion in sf over The Cold Equations. Hollywood et al do love a story in which bad things simply have to be done by good people. I can’t speak with authority to the question of whether or not the realism of these “necessities” has been oversold to us. But I do see and am troubled by a certain enthusiasm coming from some of the people making this case. I see this in the political blogs quite often, a clear satisfaction that now something bad will have to be done and those of us who don’t think so are childish and naive.

  9. I don’t think I would go so far as saying “we’re in the end times,” but I have been having conversations along the lines of “I wonder if this is how some in Germany felt before WWII”–I feel as if parts of our government/society have gone crazy–getting rid of Planned Parenthood and envirommental protection, trying to stop all money to NPR, making jokes about killing politicians, incredibly virulent comments on blogs from trolls (all you libertards should be shot), etc–And I don’t feel as I know what to do about such actions/beliefs so different from mine. I’m very concerned about environmental problems and Maureen’s story seems completely believable partially because so much of what I read is from people who deny humans are involved in climate change. Bacigalupi’s fiction is another horrifying but believable look at what could happen.
    I was particularly interested in the narrator’s decisions on what morals/values she could alter due to the need to stay alive–buy a gun and realize she would need to keep it loaded, make sex toys, make baby dolls for perhaps weird uses. I liked that the 3rd time special order use was not as warped as I feared it might be, but nonetheless still suggested a warped, sociopathic man.
    I too found the scene with Nick’s visitors striking–the lack of empathy thatthe narrator is trying to foster (for valid reasons) in herself is shown to an extreme where a young man seems willing to inflict harm on his own relative and takes delight in recognizing that a woman is nervous around him(certainly a believable gendered part of our real world)…This story is interesting in light of G. Ryman’s ideas about writing Mundane SF–doesn’t feel like too far away but does a good job of “defamiliarizing” and extrapolating.

  10. Since both of you found that scene so disturbing, I went back and read it several times. And I still think she did the right thing by leaving. There were four boys — I assume teenagers. They were a known quantity to Nick, though he certainly didn’t like or trust them. She did not have any idea how to handle those boys, nor did she have any fighting skills should things get out of hand. She was a woman and they were a group with the potential to become a small mob — that is, to do things as a group that none of them would do individually. It is not unrealistic to assume that they might decide to touch her, or worse, and that she would not handle that situation well. Nick might well feel he had to help her, and get himself hurt. By leaving, she gave Nick the opportunity to handle the boys in the way he always handles them, which probably means tolerating their abuse and behavior.

    I would have left, too. I actually think the worst possible response to that situation would come from someone who didn’t know how to handle it, but stayed because felt like they should do something. I at first thought of that as a male response, but as I give it more thought, I can think of many situations where I’ve seen women insist on trying to resolve a tense situation and making it worse. (Not necessarily a violent one.)

    We have all been indoctrinated with the movie response; I can just see Steven Segeal kicking their butts or some strong minded and sexy woman shaming them into going away. But even if that’s reality — and I do think some people could handle this situation in such a way that nobody gets hurt and the boys go away and leave Nick alone, at least for now — it’s not something the protagonist of this story knows how to do.

    Which is to say: good intentions and fundamental decency probably aren’t enough.

    However, checking on him later is probably a good idea. I don’t think she will, though, because I find her fundamentally passive. She really doesn’t want to get involved any more than she can help with anything. That she goes to her door with an unloaded gun to run people off disturbs me more than anything else. She’s not really willing to shoot anybody; she’s just hoping she can discourage them without having to act.

  11. I agree that I would not have stayed nor expected her to stay with Nick and the boys (nor called police in the context of what is given about his relationships with the boys and the givens of society at the time); however, I still find it a telling scene suggesting not only how the society functions but how economic problems affect values.
    With NJ Moore’s comment about the passive nature of the main character, it might be interesting to discuss how McHugh conveys the characterization to the reader. I think the tone/word choice/examples
    are extremely well conveyed.

  12. Karen, I am sure there are times in life when good people have to do bad things. I’m just not convinced that it happens as often as advertised. It makes for great drama and is a natural for stories, but most of the time in real life the choices are not so stark. Those people who think otherwise may consider us naive, but I think they’re dangerous romantics, the type of people who think the TV show “24” is about real life and are therefore convinced we have to waterboard people who might possibly turn out to be terrorists.

    Margaret, I also find the story very believable — more believable than The Windup Girl, which I liked, but thought went overboard in creating a world of people doing horrible things and constantly betraying each other. It’s a world in which there are still cops and property taxes, but jobs and health care aren’t reliable, and climate change is really making itself felt. Day after tomorrow SF, or mundane, as you said. I felt like I was very much inside the main character’s head, watching her make decisions (or not make them). That’s partly the use of first person, but I think it was done by showing us both what she was thinking and how it corresponded to what she was doing.

  13. I’ve been thinking that if I were teaching the story, I’d ask the class to come up with all possible useless things from the story…the variety of possibilities would be interesting.

  14. That would be a great way to approach the story, Margaret! I would love to see those lists. I wonder how many of your students would follow Nancy’s lead on the gun.
    We haven’t done more than mention the dolls and dildoes though they’re the most eye-catching elements of the piece. I, too, thought the purpose of the doll she’d made repeatedly for that single customer was going to be something creepier and more horrific or more science fictional than it turned out to be. I didn’t want creepier and more horrific or more science fictional so I liked Maureen’s restraint. Maureen is a very restrained writer, which is one reason I find her such a believable one.
    Within the story, how do those items function? Anything beyond telling us that there is still a wealthy class somewhere able to buy these pricey items, custom-make their lives and sex-lives? I’m only asking questions I don’t know the answers to. Is there a sexual undercurrent to the story or not really?
    And is the minute-after-now sf story a relatively recent addition to the field or were they writing those back in the Golden Period?

    • Yes, we haven’t talked much about what makes the story a Tiptree Award honor. It’s too late for me to include this story in my class that starts in 2 weeks, but I am going to encourage someone to write about it for the out-of-class assignment. My goal for the class was to have a big variety of subject matter and this one would have worked for the more mundane, not far in the future story (and I don’t really have a story that fits that category too well). I guess I should say I am teaching Gender and Sexuality in SF & Fantasy–using “The Women Men Don’t See” and everything else has won or been short-listed for the Tiptree Award. I’m teaching a few of the same stories I taught in 2006 but mostly new works-including Ooku…just heard an interesting speaker tonight on his book Japanamerica.

      • Yes, I would like to hear people’s view on why this was a Tiptree Award honor story. At first glance, the main character’s fear of being attacked in her home seems like a traditionally female response, but when I look at her overall response to how the world has changed, I see a kind of denial behavior that I find as often in men as I do in women.

        The dolls and the dildos certainly raise possibilities.

  15. I think the restraint Karen mentions is what keeps me from looking at the dolls and even the dildos as especially sexual. I do find the idea of the dolls particularly creepy. They hint at a world in which people in which people are having fewer children (which I think is a good thing), but are feeling the need for some kind of substitute. And a doll that really looks like a newborn — not to mention the one for the woman who wanted to nurture a doll version of herself prettied up — makes my skin crawl. Of course, you might say the same thing about the main character and her relationship to her dogs — something that echoes how many of us relate to our pets these days.

    I think the SF of the day after tomorrow (or the minute-after-now) is a relatively new development, brought on because we are, in so many ways (except, alas, in space exploration), living in the world imagined by the Golden Age. But I don’t claim to be a great scholar of the genre.

  16. In response to recent events in Wisconsin and Michigan, I’m wondering whether there is any sense of the puppet masters behind the economic collapse in Maureen’s story. I’m traveling now so can’t check, but I’ve got no recollection of the political situation.

    • Karen, what I get is a general background of climate change — water in New Mexico — and economic troubles without any explanation of why. I think that works better, in part because I think those with economic power and their minions are just trying to make sure they control as many marbles as possible and not really thinking about the fallout. Not that they care if people like the characters in this story are having a hard time — I don’t think they think about those things one way or another, as long as they’re rich and people jump when they say, “jump.”

      Plus climate change is going to wreak its own havoc on the system in unpredictable ways.

  17. I wonder in light of: the destruction of the Gulf, the destruction of Japan, the unexpected speed with with extinctions and ice melts are taking place, if the day after tomorrow science fiction story is, in fact, underestimating the difference in the world between then and now. I guess I’m back to the end-times question. Is what’s coming going to remake the world into something unrecognizable to us? I worry about this a lot.

  18. Finally — I was thinking maybe two weeks would be plenty of time for short stories (and maybe also for novels — we will soon see.) Did you all want to continue with Useless Things or should we move on to Kiernan’s “Galapagos”?
    I’m glad you tried to raise some interest in the book club, Margaret — thank you — but I’m also enjoying talking to you and Nancy just fine. Will hope to pick up some others, but the three of us can still have an interesting conversation in the meantime. Or so I hope.

  19. Events have really overtaken us now. I was in Idaho and away from the news during the Japanese earthquake, so it was stunning to come back and see the stories. The slow drip of catastrophe over the nuclear plants has been agonizing. So heartbreaking for all the people in Japan and, of course, the rest of us will be eating a bit of radioactivity as well.

    Because I was on the jury last year, I can be definitive about why Useless Things made the honor list. When we first read it, the rest of the jury felt the made things were insufficient to Tiptree it. I argued, apparently persuasively, that the idea of the apocalypse coming in gendered and racial-ized ways was the part of think about. One thing I’ve been noticing in the actual, disappointing world, is that certain rightwing policies are seen as gendered, but many more that are gendered are not seen that way. The anti-union activity in Wisconsin targets mostly the female heavy unions. The shooting of Giffords in Tucson has been dismissed as non-political, because the accused’s politics are such a mishmash, but one thing he appears to have been consistent about is disliking women in positions of power. The decimation of programs to help the poor have a disproportionate impact on women, children, and people of color. Because the verbal descriptions of these things are color and gender neutral, the media have been able to pretend the impacts are color and gender neutral. I felt it was important and timely to note that they are not and I felt Maureen’s story addressed that with her usual subtlety.