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REVIEW: Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh

REVIEW SUMMARY: Entertaining and thought-provoking literature.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A techno-biologically indentured slave falls for a lowly replica of a human.

PROS: Interesting relationship between Hariba and Akhmim; interesting culture; engrossing plot.
CONS: Too much time spent on secondary characters.
BOTTOM LINE: A satisfying and thought-provoking story about people and relationships.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh. A cover blurb ominously describes it as a literary novel in sci-fi clothing. I like sf, but I don’t like books that pretend to be sf that are marketed as such.

Thus in my pessimistic approach to expect the worst, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I did indeed like this novel. However, the reasons were not because of the science fiction elements, which were underplayed but still cool, but because of the exploration of the relationship between an indentured slave and an artificial human construct. (I’m not sure what term to use here. In the book, characters initially refer to him as an AI, but artificial intelligence evokes images of big computer brains housed in giant metal boxes with rhythmically blinking lights. He’s artificially grown, but he’s not a clone. The best term I could come up with is “artificial human construct”.)

Nekropolis tells the story of Hariba, a simple Moroccan girl who has been cast into the world of institutionalized slavery. Hariba has been “jessed”, techno-biologically altered to be subservient to whoever has purchased her. Hariba is essentially a housekeeper to her owner, Mbarek, a wealthy merchant who is a good man and a good provider. Mbarek also owns a male “harni”, the aforementioned artificial human construct, whose name is Akhmim. He looks and acts human, but the reader is constantly reminded that, in this near futuristic society at least, he is considered less than human. Although Hariba initially feels disdain towards him, she eventually comes to care for him very much. When Hariba is sold to a new owner, her longing for Akhmim causes her to challenge her programming and run away with him – actions which defy both society and God; actions that could lead to severe punishment and death.

This is not the raging love story that this brief synopsis makes it out to be. The relationship between Hariba and Akhmim is more one of companionship than love. In fact, they go through most of the book before they consummate their love. Complicating matters, Akhmim, like all harni, finds a unique pleasure in being with other harni. And yet he continues to express his undying love for Hariba. The appeal that I found from this book was in the exploration of their complex relationship.

Akhmim is genetically built to be the perfect companion. He is, in fact, a male concubine. He cannot help but express love to Hariba, but Hariba does not understand this role of the harni. She sees him, eventually, as a free-willed autonomous being so she gets swept away in his perfect harni beauty. Meanwhile, Hariba herself is similarly programmed to her owner. That bond is so strong, that Hariba becomes seriously ill after running away, thanks to jessing withdrawal. During that time, Akhmim becomes a prostitute. (To both sexes – gee, thanks for the graphic homo-erotica, Maureen! Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) He does that in an effort to pay the bills. (Talk about making ends meet! Ba-dum, crash.) He also uses the money to buy hashish to ease Hariba’s pain.

Their struggle is not easy, but in many ways it is the struggle of life. I guess that it why I found I could connect with this aspect of the story. So, it did not bother me much that most of the science fiction elements were used as a backdrop for the story. That said, the sf elements were neat. The process of jessing is nothing more than a shot of nano in the roof of your mouth, but it forms a neural net around the brain causing the bond with the owner. Other technologies (like the ability to construct a living, breathing human) were inconspicuously mentioned here and there to paint a picture of the near future society.

Speaking of which, the futuristic Moslem society in which the story mainly takes place was also quite interesting. The Moroccan city of Nekropolis is populated with people who live in converted mausoleums, hence the name. Being surrounded by death is an apt metaphor for the poor life of its residents. The infusion of eastern culture in just about all aspects of the characters’ lives added to the appealing flavor of the book.

The writing is very good. I can see why the book might be called literary. (As an unrelated aside, I’m still trying to put my finger on exactly what the word “literary” means.) Each chapter is told in the first person of a different character. It can be a quick read, but I found myself lingering over many of the passages and thinking about the consequences of where the story was headed. The plot itself moved at a pretty quick pace which also helped tone down the “love” part of the love story. The slower parts, for me, where the ones that dealt with the secondary characters like Hariba’s friend Ayesha who helps her escape and Hariba’s old-fashioned mother, who forbids Hariba from seeing Akhmim.

In the end, Nekropois is a satisfying and thought-provoking story about people and relationships.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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