On Being Human: Nekropolis, by Maureen McHugh


Set in futuristic Morocco, Maureen McHugh’s Nekropolis is the story of Hariba, a young woman who has been jessed and her friendship with Akhmim, a harni. For Hariba, she agrees to be jessed in order to secure employment. After a short medical procedure, she has been technologically modified for total subservience to her owner. It is the kind of 20-minutes-into-the-future augmenting that haunts the nightmares of the Fringe Left and Fringe Right these days. Akhmim presents another case. As a harni, he is a genetically engineered being, almost but not quite human.

McHugh excels in seeding the story with tiny differences. Hariba lives with her family in the Nekropolis, a former cemetery with sarcophagi that now house the lower classes. Hariba’s mother lives in a sarcophagus whose occupant died sometime in the 2070s. Although we don’t know the exact date of this story, we get allusions to the Second Koran, the E.C.U., and genetic engineering. The story kicks off when Hariba leaves her owner and begins to suffer because she had been jessed. Akhmim nurses her through her sickness, since he had become close friends with her when both worked for Mbarek, a wealthy merchant.

This isn’t a plot-heavy thriller or a science fiction story full of set-piece battles and spectacle. The action is mundane and everyday. Hariba’s everyday existence isn’t ideal, but far from oppressive. (A similar story is Offred’s in Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, although Offred lives in a far more dystopian future.) Hariba helps out Mbarek’s wife, goes shopping, and visits her friends. McHugh moves the story along with subtle shifts in perspective. The first chapter is told by Hariba, the second by Akhmim, and another by Hariba’s mother, until the last chapter returning to Hariba.

The main story revolves around her friends and family arranging for Hariba and Akhmim to escape to the E.C.U., a pan-national European economic and political entity. While this essay won’t delve into plot specifics, it will focus on the political and social repercussions of jessing and harni. Jessing is illegal in the E.C.U. and harni exist as politically emancipated beings. The E.C.U. calls them “chimera.” In previous entries, we discussed slavery as theater (Venus in Furs) and societies with human, alien, and robotic citizens (Iain Banks’s Culture novels). Nekropolis also provides a different perspective on a genetically engineered servant class (Cf. Robotic Cylons in Caprica).

In the novel, slavery isn’t a theatrical role, but a status acquired through surgery involving the implantation of a technological device. When Hariba escapes her owner, she becomes very sick. Akhmim comforts Habira and her mother visits a horse doctor to purchase a temporary cure. Whereas Hariba becomes subservient via a device, Akhmim is a subservient being, bred to always please his superior. Hariba feels conflicted about Akhmim, since she genuinely appreciates his affection, but she also knows that this something he does without thinking or knowing it is a predetermined behavior. Added to this emotional conflict is Middle Eastern society. Akhmim often accompanies Hariba on her various errands, but Akhmim is both fulfilling a cultural demand (men accompany women outside) and is seen as a cultural taboo (since harni are inferior to human men). Harni are in every way similar to humans, but they are not considered human.

Nekropolis stands out because it tells a compelling story about important social and technological issues. (If and when human cloning comes to pass, we as a society will have to address the legal and social issues involved. We have already learned the hard way about relegating entire swaths of society to second-class citizen status.) McHugh addresses issues of gender, power relations, and non-human citizenry in a way that is subtle and nuanced. What does it mean to be human? And, by extension, what does it mean to be not-human where humans are the majority and carry all the economic and political power? Hariba and Akhmim search for these answers through a constant struggle of adjustment, exile, negotiation, and suffering.

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