Hariba, who has been jessed (a form of voluntary complete subservience), meets Akhimim, a harni -- an artificial intelligence made in the image of the “perfect” man without the complication of having any desires or feelings of his own. Then, for the first time, against her will and her programming implanted by the jessing, she dares to have feelings of her own and for him.
For in this society, self-expression of even a simple emotion can get you killed. Inexorably, as their affection for each other develops, Hariba and Akhimim take incredible chances to free themselves from the strictures of their society so that they can be together. Despite knowing almost nothing of each other as an entity (in their society, neither is considered a person), they fight to be free. Their differences will eventually become painfully obvious to them both.
So begins Maureen McHugh’s portrait of a futuristic world that clings to the divisive structure of current times as well as the distant past. Her descriptions of women required to wear veils before they leave the house and of people detained by the police with no regard for their civil rights gives a chilling glimpse into what the future could become. It also seems to evoke the current regimes in the news and
some of the not too distant past. Whether this is by coincidence or design is up to the reader to decide. Either way, it makes the novel even more unsettling and fascinating.
The many complicated obstacles Hariba and Akhimim face to be together only serve to make the conclusion even more poignant. The roadblock of the difference in their backgrounds avoids becoming clichéd by the use of imaginative characteristics that no “human” would ever face. At least we hope not. With great use of the universal plot of star-crossed lovers mixed with unexpected yet believable science fiction, McHugh invests the reader emotionally in the story. As the couple move through the streets in terror of capture, the reader feels that terror. When Hariba revolts against her voluntary jessing, it is with the full knowledge that she will at best be very ill and at worst may die because of it. The power of her unfamiliar yet undeniable feelings makes us believe she would risk such a fate to be with Akimim.
The plot revolves in convoluted twists and turns as they attempt to get to the E.C.U. and freedom with help from Hariba’s friends and family (although sometimes that help is grudging, from sensible fears that leap from the pages). Think of the E.C.U. as what America has symbolized and still does to anyone in a country where people are not free to think and live as they choose.
Nekropolis is at face value an exceptional science fiction work from McHugh, as usual. On a deeper level, it serves as a warning that the freedoms we so blithely enjoy today could be gone tomorrow.