With this groundbreaking novel, Maureen F. McHugh established herself as one of the decade's best science fiction writers. In its pages, we enter a post-revolution America, moving from the hyper-urbanized eastern seaboard to the Arctic bleakness of Baffin Island; from the new Imperial City to an agricultural commune on Mars. The overlapping lives of cyber-kite fliers, lonely colonists, illicit neural-pressball players, and organic engineers blend into a powerful, taut story of a young man's journey of discovery. This is a macroscopic world of microscopic intensity, one of the most brilliant visions of modern SF.
Maureen F. McHugh (born 1959) is a science fiction and fantasy writer.
Her first published story appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in 1989. Since then, she has written four novels and over twenty short stories. Her first novel, China Mountain Zhang (1992), was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award, and won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. In 1996 she won a Hugo Award for her short story "The Lincoln Train" (1995). McHugh's short story collection Mothers and Other Monsters was shortlisted as a finalist for the Story Prize in December, 2005.
Maureen is currently a partner at No Mimes Media, an Alternate Reality Game company which she co-founded with Steve Peters and Behnam Karbassi in March 2009. Prior to founding No Mimes, Maureen worked for 42 Entertainment, where she was a Writer and/or Managing Editor for numerous Alternate Reality Game projects, including Year Zero and I Love Bees.
China Mountain Zhang is an impressive work, well deserving of its Hugo and Nebula nominations and its Tiptree and Lambda awards. Thoughtful, precise writing and Zhang’s fully developed characterization make this a stand-out read, with only overall structure and the subject of one point of view preventing me from awarding a full five stars.
Setting is thoughtfully built; information about society is shared indirectly through character experience. China appears to be the dominant world power after the economic collapse of America and a subsequent socialist revolution. Naturally, a change in social order accompanies the shift, and China-born Chinese are at the top, followed by the ABCs (American-Born Chinese), and then the non-Chinese. In this distant future, bio-engineering has progressed enough that people can go in for genetic re-engineering. Everyone has an implanted machine interface/implant that not only provides personal information on demand but allows people to link their nervous system into computer systems. Mars has been colonized, overcrowding is a serious issue, and like many visions of future bureaucracies, getting a job or housing is almost impossible without connections or money.
One of the strengths of the book is fabulous characterization. Interestingly, in the beginning, I found the character China Mountain Zhang hard to like. A bit immature, he spends most of his time at work, with a friend, Peter, or at the flier races. Zhang is of mixed race, Hispanic and Chinese, but since his parents paid for genetic engineering when he was young, he appears to be full-blood Chinese. Born in Brooklyn, he has remained a New Yorker even after his father has left for California and his mother for Pennsylvania. His first challenge comes from his Chinese boss, who wants to introduce Zhang to his unmarriageable daughter. Issues of respect, his boss’ economic power over him and a Chinese emphasis on ethnic purity are a delicate dance to negotiate, particularly because Zhang is gay. Although New York gay culture is lively, being ‘bent’ is technically forbidden, and in China is likely to merit the firing squad. I found Zhang’s management of the his boss and the daughter somewhat immature, but appreciated it later as contrast for his personal development.
Zhang wrestles with emotional issues on a ‘date’ with malformed San-xiang: This is a night she will remember all her life, the night when she went to the kite races. How many nights do I remember? How many special nights have I had in my life? Is it so much to give up a night?
‘Let’s get something to eat and then see how late it is, maybe stop in for a drink,’ I say. She smiles up at me. Oh, the dangers of pity.
The writing shines. McHugh negotiates the world through her characters, and the clean prose captures Zhang’s voice well, along with the voices of the colonists. Sophisticated philosophical and emotional truths are communicated in Zen-like essence. San-xiang, the boss’ daughter, shares a personal insight and the emotional core of the book: “‘I used to think I was unhappy because my father was in trouble and we had to come here, but now I don’t think it makes any difference. If you’re a certain kind of person, you’ll be unhappy wherever you are.’
I have no doubt she considers herself that certain kind of person…
It doesn’t make any difference if you did or you didn’t,’ [go to China] she says, ‘because you would still be you. And if you were unhappy here, you’d be unhappy there.”
Zhang at dinner with his mother encapsulates years of history in one short meal: “‘It’s a lie,’ I say, ‘and you always told me that a lie always creates complications.’ But my face is a lie as well, and she condoned that. I am sure she hears the accusation, but we never talk about my mother’s contradictions. She does not touch me, although for a moment I think she is going to cover my hand with hers and I am afraid.”
My trouble with the structure of China Mountain Zhang is not the writing, nor the characters. In her post on Tor, writer Jo Walton calls the style of China Mountain Zhang a ‘mosaic novel,’ and goes on to call it one of the best mosaic novels ever written. After doing a little research on the term, I’d have to disagree with her; interestingly, my difficulties with the book are same reasons it doesn’t quite work as a mosaic. The term ‘mosaic novel’ refers to a collection of stories “with the aim of telling a linear story from beginning to end” despite each individual chapter reflecting multiple viewpoints or styles (sadly, at least according to academia, I’m quoting Wikipedia here). Much like it’s visual art equivalent, intention is to create an uniform whole out of individual pieces.
However, the undeniable focus of the book is Zhang, both in title and subject. In a linear timeline about a decade long, we follow Zhang through a significant emotional and professional development. Out of a multitude of chapters, there are only four where he is on the periphery, guest appearance only: a story about a cyber-kite flier, Angel; one centering on an ‘ugly’ Chinese woman, San-xiang, who seeks genetic modification; and two set on Mars, one focused on each member of a farming collective couple, Martine and Alexi. The flier’s story is interesting, but thematically peripheral. The Martian couple’s story collective story gives insight into the new society and is satisfactorily self-contained. San-xiang’s explores issues attractiveness post-genetic modification. Given that the title is the main character’s name, and the bulk of the collection is focused on Zhangs’s viewpoint, growth and experience, as a book it doesn’t quite achieve the goal of the mosaic, but also falls strangely short of linear narrative.
My one other concern is
However, those are rather small issues given the excellent characterization and well-thought out vision of the future. Highly recommended for fans of dystopias as well as anyone who loves a good story.
This book is one that's brilliant on multiple levels, but first, you have to manage your expectations. What do I mean?
This came out in 1990 but it resembles the more modern trend of literary SF in that most of the focus is on characterization and social interactions but in my opinion, it is superior to those because McHugh's wild worldbuilding is detailed, pervasive, and devoted to a fundamental conclusion. Or several conclusions. Interesting ones. In this respect, it's more like Samuel Delany's work.
Stand out features: Post-American revolution where China takes it over. The MC and the focus are on the LGBT community, including a very dystopian view of living conditions, especially in China. Revisionist history, it also has complicated things to say about how history is made that breaks away from most older SF in that it relies on Systems Theory, and best of all, the whole book IS a Study In Systems Theory.
I loved the world-building, and I really got into the main character, himself named China Mountain Zhang, but it's the interwoven nature of the tightly focused life he lives, the one day at a time style of writing that gradually catches hold of you and won't let go.
Like I said, it's more literary SF than anything, but it has a really awesome hard-SF core that satisfies on several additional levels. I definitely recommend this for any classic SF afficiandos who like their stories full of character.
The brilliance of China Mountain Zhang lies in the lack of complexity of this well drawn near future world. McHugh delivers on a slice of life journey with some very smart and clever extrapolations on the ordinariness of life. This book is a scifi version of humorless but culturally observant Seinfeld. The mundane becomes fascinating in this novel where nothing much happens.
McHugh puts us on a life journey with "everymen" who are unmistakably human.
I really enjoyed this philosophical and psychological exploration of near future mankind. The struggles were accessible and relatable. The characters were realistic. The setting familiar. I loved the idea of New York City being a complete shit hole but also home. The only place where Zhang was comfortable. The idea of China that represented a pristine elegance and pinnacle of privilege that seems undesirable. Zhang has a glance at paradise and found it wanting. This is a novel where absolutely nothing of consequence happens (with reference to the state of the world) ponders big, heady, weighty issues quietly and thoughtfully.
Every now and then I read a novel that reminds me of why I love science fiction. The world building here was masterful and understated. The characterization was well drawn and well presented. McHugh is a fascinating and gifted writer. This was a pleasant surprise. My December reading of this book proves apropos. To steal another Seinfeld reference, this was " Festivus for the rest of us!!" Another late in the year new favorite for me.
In the 22nd century, China has replaced America as the world’s dominant political, economic and cultural capital, following a political revolution in America that has displaced its capitalistic economy and brought in an era of socialism.
It is an immensely well-imagined and portrayed account of a plausible future where China takes precedence over the States – the latter becomes akin to a third-world dump following a financial crisis, while China rises in economic importance, and consequently, in cultural importance. Chinese phrases, Mandarin itself, Chinese dress and cuisine and Chinese genes suddenly become the next-gen cool things, the way everything symbolizing America/the West is hip now. With the Great Cleansing Winds in the US, followed by a Second American Revolution and a Second Civil War, the status-quo is changed.
Zhang Zhong Shan (Rafael), the protagonist, is a young gay man of mixed heritage, a Chinese father and Hispanic mother – born in Brooklyn and having undergone gene splicing in infancy in order to look more ‘Chinese’ (the reverse of what the Chinese are doing today – double eyelid surgery, for instance, to look more ‘Western’) and therefore attempting to gain social leverage as well as possible opportunity to study and live in China, his life takes a series of unexpected turns as he navigates through the turmoil of sexuality, cosmetically altered genes, identity and cultural legacy in and out of America, China and the Arctic.
The novel takes place in roughly the same time, following different threads that sometimes merge, and sometimes merely touch each other. While Zhang comes to terms with his life, Martine and Alexis, on Mars, try to eke out a living that ensures them a different kind of security, but at the same time, demands of them a hefty price. San-Xiang, a young Chinese girl in the US struggles to come to terms with her own marginalization on account of her ugly face, and then with the consequences of her cosmetically-enhanced beauty. Haobai, perhaps, followed by San-Xiang, is the most compelling character – the social critique hits the hardest and sharpest in these characters, while it is akin to merely a pervading mist in the rest of the work.
There is so much to both like and dislike in this work – there are aspects of it that sparkle throughout the text – its subtexts, its layers of thought and experience form the crux of the work – the sadness, the sarcasm, the brutality of an unequal, hypocritical world, the variously covert forms of marginalization that follow the lives of hundreds of people eking out a precarious survival. It is a story less of hope, more of the desperation to survive, merely survive – because the dream of flourishing is forbidden. Of forever having to move in the shadows, in the dark. Knowing that coming out in the light would not bestow warmth, but blister their lives, simply because they do not fit into the majority’s ideas of normalcy, of acceptability.
The LGBT angle, the marginalization by making it illegal, is a double blow to the hypocrisy of the world – not just a critique of the present, but also a sharp jab at the communists’ claim of equality of all, irrespective of everything. One is constantly reminded of Orwell’s statement in Animal Farm – Everyone is equal, but some people are more equal than others.
This critique of communism is also resonant in its economic critique, where despite landing as a student of the reputed Nanjing University, Zhang finds it difficult to find a decent job back in the US. As a critique of communism and its ideal of perfect equality, it is breathtaking. The critique is often thinly-veiled, making it all the more impressive in places. As a work that examines the way in which misfits are marginalized, strongly alluding to own our present times, it is truly engaging, and in some scenes, brilliant even. The politics of marginalization are acutely present throughout the work as one of its subtexts.
Where this work fails to engage is primarily its plot – the world-building is pretty neat and convincing, the science part adequate to qualify as SF (climate-control equipped homes - and the Kite-flying and ball-game sequences are pure brilliance), but the plot is not linear – chronologically, it is – but it follows no clear direction, even at the end. Like the characters themselves, the reader too is clueless of the novel’s destination, which is a bad thing when it turns out at the end that the story has no coherent plot at all.
Agreed, this is more of a Bildungsroman novel, but then it fails mostly on that account too. The story of Zhang is only one of the many threads of the novel, such as Martine/Alexis on Mars, Haobai in China or San-Xiang in the US, and yet, it is, despite taking up the most space, the most flimsy character. He comes out only slightly more mature than he first encounters the world’s injustices. A hugely disproportionate time is also spent upon Alexis/Martine, and though it is a charming little episode, they, or the whole existence of the Martian colony, does not in any way affect Zhang’s life, save allowing him to think in a different way of solving engineering problems.
The most glaring drawback is that the story of Alexis/Martine is left incomplete, in the sense that there is no definite conclusion into what happened to their farms, which could have been used magnify even better the consequences of being pushed back onto the fringes.
The most striking characters, rather, are the ones that have served as the background in Zhang’s life – San-Xiang, the ugly girl (she appears fleetingly in Zhang’s life, but does not make any impact on the way his life turns out, so in that sense her role is inconsequential to the main crux of the novel), and Zhang’s erstwhile mentor and secret lover Haobai. Their scenes are truly touching. It is primarily in these two characters and their scenes that this novel achieves its brilliance, bringing out the sadness, the thinly-veiled critiques, the helplessness and the incurable anguish of surviving on the periphery of an unforgiving society, of being utterly marginalized without hope of redemption – their stories, especially of Haobai, is dealt with astounding maturity and skill, which sort of falls flat in the case of the major character, Zhang Zhong Shan.
Another major drawback of this work is in how much space is allocated to insignificant details. Cooking and eating take up an enormous time, both in the US, China and Mars – food, when used as metaphor, is a brilliant device – but gets in the way when used without significance. Almost every other page threw up pizzas, pastas, salads, noodles, tandoori chicken, burgers, poori, rice and beans, cakes and God-knows-what Thai food.
While it exceeds expectations and shines bright in many places, it also falls below its own spectacular achievements in quite a lot instances. And yet, this is one book I’m glad to have read. Not one of the best, but definitely commendable. Although, I think, it has garnered adequate attention by winning the Lambda, the Locus and the Tiptree Awards, while rightly getting only a nomination for the Hugo and Nebula Awards.
I really enjoyed this book. I started it without knowing anything about it, and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a dystopian set in a distant future where China is the dominant power in the world, and humans have also begun to colonize Mars. The story starts off in New York, but we visit a few other places, including China and Mars.
There are multiple POV characters, but we spend the most time with the titular character, Zhang Zhong Shan. His name means “China Mountain”, which explains the title. The different POVs are only loosely connected. I was confused for a while because whenever there are multiple POVs in a book, I try to predict what will happen in the story to bring those POVs together by the end since that’s what usually happens. I even thought I’d figured that out at one point, but nope. :) There isn’t a strong driving plot either, we’re just following these people through their lives and the difficulties they face.
I looked forward to having time to read it each evening and finding out what the characters would do or have happen to them next. I didn’t strongly identify with any of them, but I cared about them and was engrossed by their stories. There were a couple really horrible things that happened, and the author telegraphed them so strongly that it was sometimes a little difficult to understand how the characters didn’t pick up on them.
This is at times a bleak and depressing book, but there is also some humor and also some hope. Dystopian books often end in ways I don’t care for, but I was satisfied with this one.
I’ve decided to rate this at 4.5 stars and round down to 4 on Goodreads. I’m kind of sad that I can’t spend any more time with Zhang; I’ve enjoyed these last few days following him around.
A lovely, subtle, humane, intelligent, sensitively detailed novel about the interior lives of a diverse and deeply interesting cast of characters. There were moments of incredible pathos and humanity, and a wonderful sense of self-discovery that flowed through the narrative. In its best moments, it deeply moved me.
***WARNING*** This is a reading journal rather than a review, so it will be riddled with unmarked spoilers. You have been warned.
China Mountain -- Zhang:- So far, Zhang is nothing like I expected, neither the character nor the book. I expected a cyber-punky action thriller, and it may still become that, but this first chapter offers no signs that a change is going to come. At this point it is a study of two characters: Zhang and San-xiang; the former is our gay half-ABC (American Born Chinese) half-Spanish (from Spain) engineer; the latter is our unfortunately “ugly” political girl. It’s them, together, moving through New York in a Chinese dominated near (not so near?) future, thrust together by her Chinese parents and finding that they quite like each other despite his sexuality (which she never seems to peg) and her ugliness (which fascinates him). It’s moody, it’s atmospheric, and the milieu is entirely plausible. But the banality of the tale, so far, is quite a surprise. It is an average character study that could just as easily be told in your city, right now, today, and it would still be as likable and readable as this story is. If there is going to be something more like actiony Sci-Fi I can’t imagine how it would come about. But then, I don’t think I want it to. I am liking this book for its banality. Why not set a story like this in the future? Works for me.
Kites -- Angel:Now it feels like my favourite of things –- a book of short stories loosely, loosely connected, and I will be disappointed if this book is pegged into a novelistic plot. I don’t want to go back to Zhang (at least not too often); I want new people, new experiences, in this future Socialist Union of American States; I want criminals or a nurse in a future hospital or maybe even some other kite fliers; I want more exploration of gender, of the bents and the straights; I want a far reaching set of stories rather than one deep exploration told close to the body. I loved Angel and her kite flying genius, but I need someone new.
Baffin Island -- Zhang: I am fully convinced now that if this is a novel it is a novel consisting of short stories, even though two of them already follow the same guy. There is no plot to speak of, and I love that –- “Fuck plot,” I say. This is all about character and place, and places –- be they New York or Baffin Island -– are characters in this book. I continue to adore Arctic tales too, so the story of Zhang in the Arctic station doing the maintenance work for a bunch of scientists tracking whales, nearly losing his shit in the land of the noontime moon is exactly the sort of tale I am made to love. I feel the need to go North before it is completely gone, before I am gone. Enough about me: it’s a great chapter as Zhang begins to see himself, and I find myself cheering him on. I can’t wait to see what we get and where we go next.
Jerusalem Station -- Martine: A commune on Mars. Crazy. Nothing prepared me for the leap from Earth to Mars, but it was deftly handled by McHugh, and it’s another place lovingly turned into a character in the tale. Martine’s goat farm/apiary, and the round about way she falls in love with (or falls in care for) Alexi and Theresa is exactingly created. It is all nuance, nuance written to capture truth in a future that almost seems like it is rather than it could be. I am officially in love with this book now. And Martine and Alexi. I have no idea what else Maureen F. McHugh has written but it is something I am going to read. (one more thing: as I finished the chapter I couldn’t help noticing the word “nurse” in the first line or two of the next chapter. I love that I am going to get my wish.)
Ghost -- Zhang: The hint of a plot finally appears in Ghost—Zhang, but only because it is our third chapter following the life of Zhang. He’s in China after his stint in the Arctic, studying Engineering at the prestigious University of Nanjing, and he’s in love with his tutor, a man named Haitao. In love in a place where being “bent” is a crime that the government either Reforms Through Labour or solves with a bullet in the back of the head. Zhang seems a bit naïve about the threat and the world he’s living in, but that naïveté is gone by the time Haitao kills himself. The slightest nudge and all the gains we’ve made will tumble and we’ll be hiding in back alleys and parks all over again. It’s a fucking tightrope. This story hit me where I live.
Homework -- Alexi: Goats. Goats and marriage. Goats and marriage and a tutor for Alexi’s correspondence course through the University of Nanking (a tutor named Zhang). This is, perhaps, the most banal chapter of the lot, but lovely in its simplicity, even so.
Three Fragrances -- San-xiang: I can’t help thinking of my biannual re-reading of Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Written nearly 400 years ago, Swift’s pamphlet is a catalogue of everything that is wrong with the world. Except it’s not simply a catalogue of what was wrong in his world of 1729, it is a catalogue of what’s wrong in our world of 2012. The problems are all the same. What’s wrong never changes; hence, my confidence that we are doomed to create our own extinction because we can’t change. We like to pretend things are better, but they’re not. And here’s San-xiang, face finally restructured, jaw firmly and perfectly in place, looking pretty for the first time in her life, and a predator picks out her vulnerability, and she walks inexorably into the predator's lair, and he rapes her. McHugh doesn’t shy away from telegraphing what’s to come, and that dramatic irony is what creates the suspense that pushes this story forward. When it finally happens, when Billy rapes San-xiang, but worse seems oblivious to having raped her, I felt the ache that took me to Jonathon Swift and the thought that nothing changes. Why doesn’t it? I’m convinced it is because we invariably treat symptoms rather than diseases. But I have been known to make mistakes ... from time to time.
Rafael -- Zhang: I could read another three hundred pages in McHugh’s future world. The stories were that good. This final short wraps up the “novel” precisely as it should -- with life continuing for everyone in the directions they’ve chosen or had thrust upon them. There are connections that all link back to Zhang, connections to all the other players from all the other stories, that are touched with the most delicate of touches, and none of them feel too good to be true. There is no destiny at work, no impossible predetermined coming together of people from different places. They’re simply intersections and crossings between lives -– all of which make perfect sense (the sorts of things I've experienced again and again in my own life). China Mountain Zhang is about a possible world that probably won’t happen, but could. It is an act of Sci-Fi world building that I’ve rarely seen matched. But for me, Mchugh’s real achievement is the people she created. They are beautiful. The whale scientists and engineers and hustlers and Martian colonists, the wounded the harmed the foolish the suicidal the nasty the kind the living, and the dead, San-Xiang and Haitao and Invierno and Peter and Zhang. I will miss them.
McHugh told a story in the gaps between her words, about people who live in the gaps. A heartbreaking, compassionate, imaginative story that reminds us that people are people, no matter how far into the future, or from home we get, and that exhorts us to remember that unity is not the same as similarity.
Things to love:
-The POV characters. They're all so different and fully realized. You can tell McHugh has met this person and figured out what made them tick, then wrote about them in a way that quickly helps us know them, too.
-The vignettes. This is a "mosaic" story, each chapter weaving and contorting the themes of the previous and subsequent chapters, like their lives weave and contort. They are powerfully selected in how mundane and yet how critical they feel. Also, McHugh did her research. I'm not sure it's all perfect, but it felt way more well thought out and confident than a lot of books tackling similar demographics, which is really astounding as she is not in those demographics. Here, writers, if you want to write someone not like you, this is a book you should check out.
-The writing. It is hard to juggle all this and McHugh did it with grace and empathy. Almost the entire book seemed to be a round of stories friends might tell, one person's experiences reminding us of our own that is not at all the same, but sort of is, if you look at it in the right light. I think a lot of folks draw similarities to "The Dispossessed," and I am definitely among them. She gets right at the heart of something and makes it accessible.
-The messages. It's hard not to feel the pull of her metaphors. It's hard not to feel like she's talking directly to me about socialism and capitalism, about being "in" or "other," about love, friendship, loss...it all felt so personal and so urgent. Not to mention, on top of all the personal things, McHugh's world under socialism is being crippled in the war of the haves and have-nots, global warming, economic limitations, disease and humanitarian crises that are, so honestly, at once tremendously vital to human existence, and also seem so distant to those who are comfortable where they are.
-The inclusion. This book does not feel like it was written in the early 1990s. It feels as "woke" as something we'd expect today, tackling queer issues, gender issues, racism, classism, mental illness, and so much more.
The two sour notes:
-Not all trauma was created equal, comrade. There is one story line that has a horrible thing happen and then the character sort of shuffles off stage left. Given how heartfelt and honest this book is at every other crisis point, that stung.
-The end. I think she wanted something light, a bright, somewhat optimistic ending after the sorrow in so much of the book. And I respect that, we just went through the wringer together. But that isn't the resolution I needed. I'd love for happy ever after to be obtainable, but that's not what things look like in the chapter before the last. I think in her desire to be kind to us and perhaps herself, she shied away from her truth and that detracted from the strength of her message.
This is not an action book. This book says nothing new. It is all about how it is said, how it makes us look at ourselves and each other that is so beautiful and compelling. I'm still torn between 4 and 5 stars, because it wasn't perfect, but I know it will sit in my head a long time. In this book I feel others like Station Eleven and Good Morning, Midnight, but it is so much more poignant than I found those to be. Except for those two missteps, I'd have put it very much on the level of Le Guin. Simply stunning, I'll definitely read more by this author.
I feel pretty confident in saying that this is the best book you've never read. I had the joy of discovering this book when it first came out, almost a decade and a half later, I still feel it is one of the best SF novels I've ever read. The novel is made up of several stories loosely intertwined.
McHugh draws upon her experiences living in China to craft future in which China has become the dominant power, and America has been reduced to a third-world country controlled by China. Chinese-born Chinese are the top tier of society, while American-born Chinese occupy a lower tier (but are still higher than non-Chinese).
Into this setting, she places Zhang Zhong Shan (which literally translates to China Mountain Zhang), an ABC struggling to move up in society while hiding the fact that he is gay (which is, if I remember correctly, against the law). Zhang's story is the main story, and there are a few other stories, too. To me, Zhang's story is the most interesting.
The novel won a ton of awards when it came out, and deservedly so. Sadly, McHugh became ill and her writing fell by the wayside after only a few novels. Here's hoping she returns to writing soon! In the meantime, definitely pick up this book, and check out her other novels, as well.
I have complicated feelings about this book. It’s something I’ve meaning to read for a while so, um, thank you pandemic? And while I was reading it, I was pretty enamoured of it—that kind of disconnected-but-maybe-connected-oh-how-does-it-fit-together-what-does-it-mean structure really really tickles my pickles. I was disproportionately into Cloud Atlas for the same reasons, although that is much more aggressively constructed than this – since the chapters not directly following the protagonist are more about expanding on the world as it relates to the protagonist.
Also I think it’s … complicated because this was written in the 90s by a white American person? About a part-Chinese, part-Latino gay man living in a world in which China is the dominant global power. I mean, I have no idea how to assess if any of that is okay or done well? It felt like it was good but what do I know?
I was legit fascinated by the world, the protagonist, the use of language, the way the narrative puzzle-boxes together, the focus on the detail of people’s lives rather than a more sweeping, less personal perspective. I am very much here for all that. It’s also a very satisfying maturation arc for the protagonist who starts the book off in a very aimless, selfish place. Obviously he lives in a world where being gay is not okay, which is well-established as Not My Favourite narrative trope, but *for the most* part the effect of this relatively subtle. The psychological effect of having to hide who you are. A kind of low-grade fear of being “found out” that paralyses Zhang in broader contexts than merely the sexual.
There is however—spoiler—a “and he kills himself because gay” arc applied to a secondary character. There’s a kind of inevitable tragedy to this which does sort of work. But I can’t tell if the inevitability contributes a Greek/Shakespearean feel to the narrative beats. Or if it’s just inevitable because “kills self because gay” was The Gay Story of the 90s. Blah.
I also wasn’t super thrilled with San Xiang’s arc. She is introduced in one of Zhang’s chapters: Zhang’s boss, not knowing Zhang is gay or only part-Chinese, wants him to date her. And she turns out to be sweet but kind of a minger. By the end of the book she has got plastic surgery to correct her mingitude. Which she thinks will make her happy but ends up getting her raped by a random guy. And … urgh? This just feels an incredibly crappy way to treat the character in a book that is so sensitive around marginalised people and the effect of that marginalisation on their lives. It felt like punishment without meaning behind it. I mean, what is supposed to be saying? It’s not okay to want to be pretty because then you invite sexual assault? If I squint I can sort of get where it’s going: that beauty is not the power you think it is, nor it is the answer to life being confusing, complicated and lonely.
But, and forgive me for making broad statements about something as fucking complex and subjective as sexual abuse, but … well … sexual abuse and beauty aren’t all that … connected? Sexual abuse is about power. It’s not about desire. It is not the inevitable outcome of beauty. Urgh.
Anyway: liked this book a lot, except when I didn’t.
These are the slices of "normal" life that I like. Usually when I read non sci-fi literature relating to the human condition and pieces of everyday life, is either too much like what I see all the time and I am bored or I can't actually relate at all. For some reason the blend with clearly fantastical backdrops give me enough interest or wonder to keep me engaged.
China Mountain Zhang is really just a glimpse of an everyday life, someone who is trying to figure out where he fits in the world, along with some other characters and events to fill everything out. The kite flyers could be any sort of modern day daredevil racers, motocross, cliff divers, etc. why I am more interested when it is a futuristic flight structure? I am not sure but I am. The communistic colonization of Mars could be something else found on Earth now but the fact that it is on Mars and fantastical, allows me the possibility of hope instead of focusing on all of the sure to doom issues I can think of happening right now.
The job search, the repression of gays, the finding and losing of friends are all easily written about in normal literature but it never has the same pull as if you add a bit of unreality to it. Zhang's path towards finding how he wants to live his life looked good at the end, my path in discovering why I like (to read), what I like (to read) has also taken one more tiny step.
I have been hearing about China Mountain Zhang on Goodreads for so long that I finally decided to break down and read it. China Mountain Zhang is famous for being the debut novel of Maureen McHugh that was nominated for many of the most prestigious awards in speculative fiction: the 1992 Hugo Award, the 1993 Nebula award, the Locus Award for Best First Novel (1993), the James Tiptree, Jr. Award(1993), and the Lambda Literary Award (1993).
China Mountain Zhang is also well-known for its unusual structure: it is a mosaic novel, i.e. a collection of intertwined stories, all set in a 22nd century United States (and world) dominated by China, and featuring a character named Zhang Zhong Shan, which contains two of the most famous names in the Chinese language, akin to being called George Washington Jones. It so happens that Zhang, the title character, is a guy with multiple secrets. He’s a closeted gay man in a culture rife with state-sanctioned deadly homophobia. Even though he appears to be an ABC (American-Born Chinese), in actuality he has a Latino father, his mother named him Rafael and (illegally ) provided him with spliced genes that give him his Asian appearance that aligns with his public identity as Zhang.
The reader learns about the world of the twenty-second century through cleverly curated details provided in the stories. For example, we know that the United States is no longer a capitalist democracy because Zhang has to go to a special government office to obtain a new job when he loses (or leaves) the first job we see him have in and early chapter. (This indicates that even in New York City there appears to be a planned economy.)
Eventually Zhang goes to spend a difficult 18 months near the North Pole in order to get credit that he can use to finance education in China that will provide him with engineering and architectural credentials that will allow him much more job flexibility and earning potential in the future. (There are multiple references to communism and Mao Zedong but individual ownership of property does not seem to be outlawed, although collectives appear to be popular and socially favored.) In my opinion, Zhang is the most important (and frequently appearing) character in the book and his are the best sections; it makes sense he’s the title character.
Overall, although I’m glad that I have finally read China Mountain Zhang, I was not really that impressed with it. Having an openly gay character in 1992 is definitely ahead of its time, but being unable to realize that societal homophobia (even in a world dominated by Chinese culture) might have abated was not a possible future the author envisioned. So my overall takeaway from the book is that it produces a vision of a downbeat, if not dystopian, future. Of course, not all books need to be upbeat but my hope is that in most books I read the story will be engrossing or engaging to the reader in multiple ways, either in wanting to know how the story ends (here since the book is a mosaic there is no “plot” per se, so this is not a factor) or depicting characters or the setting in a way that cause a visceral connection with the reader (neither really worked for me here although I was curious about how exactly China came to dominate the United States but that story is not fully given). So in the end I view China Mountain Zhang as a creative but not compelling read; it’s suitable for sci-fi completists but probably not for casual aficionados of the genre.
4,5. "China Montaña Zhang" nos presenta un mundo futurista donde la China comunista ha conseguido extenderse por todo el mundo. Allí Zhang, un joven homosexual, trata de abrirse camino en Estados Unidos, que como el resto del planeta, se ha convertido en un país satélite de la gran potencia china. En China, la homosexualidad está perseguida y castigada, por lo que Zhang la oculta, al igual que su ascendencia mestiza, ya que solo los chinos "de origen" pueden acceder a las mejores oportunidades.
Muchas cosas están bien en esta historia y lo primero es lo bien llevado que está el contexto histórico, esa China comunista que ha logrado ganar todas las batallas y de alguna manera "colonizar" el resto del mundo, imponiendo su poder. Creo que es la primera ucronía que leo, pero no será la última porque me ha flipado ver una posible hipótesis de que podría haber pasado si los hechos hubieras sido diferentes. Además me ha flipado esa mezcla con ciencia ficción, al mostrarnos un mundo futurista muy interesante y muy bien ambientado.
No es habitual encontrar personajes LGTBIQ+ en historias, a no ser que la trama vaya de que lo son, pero encontrar un protagonista gay y asiático en una historia de ciencia ficción es como una utopía para mí. El personaje de Zhang me ha calado completamente. Se nos presenta a un hombre triste y solitario, que no comprende muy bien el mundo que le rodea y que en el fondo solo anhela sentirse querido y protegido. En la búsqueda del amor conocerá a varios hombres y descubrirá los peligros que conlleva desafiar a un sistema dictatorial que repudia y persigue a las personas como él.
Una cosa que me suele flipar siempre de la ciencia ficción es que consigue que admire ese mundo futurista y que desee poder vivir en él y a la vez que me horrorice el ser humano, como la tecnología puede avanzar mucho, pero las personas seguirán empeñadas en destruir al de abajo y censurar todo lo que se salga de la línea marcada. El nivel de tecnología es tal que incluso uno puede cambiar el color de las paredes de su casa solo pulsando un botón, pero no tiene derecho a amar a quien quiera amar. Tan real que asusta. Me gusta mucho como trata el tema la autora.
La ambientación es otro punto fuerte de la novela. El protagonista pasa de Nueva York a un isla nórdica, y de aquí a la mismísima China. Y además, pese a que Zhang es el protagonista y narrador de la gran parte de la historia, el resto de personajes que aparecen también disponen de un capítulo cada uno que refuerza la trama y nos permite conocer otros beneficios de este mundo tecnológico tan avanzado, como por ejemplo la exitosa colonización de Marte. Me gusta porque es como una mezcla entre una historia con un protagonista principal y una historia coral.
No es una historia vertiginosa, donde haya excesiva acción, es más una historia contemplativa, que nos va mostrando como se relacionan las personas en este mundo y como funcionan las reglas del mismo, con muchísimas reflexiones sobre el sistema y como este falla. La única pega que puedo ponerle al libro es la edición, que tenía muchas erratas, por lo demás muy recomendable. Ojalá se animen las editoriales a reeditar a Maureen F. McHugh. Fue finalista del Hugo y Nébula con esta obra, pero años después consiguió llevarse el Hugo por un relato titulado "The Lincoln Train". Es una pena que solo tengamos este libro en español y descatalogado, porque toda su obra tiene una pinta increíble. Tendré que seguir con ella en inglés.
The GR-default cover (red & black, vibe of a pyramid) is much better than the mm pb I read (military vibe). This is not an adventure, much less a military one. It is world-building, it is philosophy, it is character development and interaction. How does one young man, a gay "half-breed," stumble up from being an ordinary construction worker to being a professor of organic engineering? From being uncomfortable with his identity to realizing that he can bring beauty and joy to the worlds?
I do recommend it to anyone who reads Speculative or Literary Fiction. If you're like me, you might have trouble with the first section. But persist, at least until Baffin Island. Google for images of Baffin Island. Watch how everything kinda sorta comes together, but not really, just like real-life. Pay attention to all the gritty details of this extrapolated alternative future (sure, some things the author got wrong, but everything certainly seems plausible from her perspective in 1992)... it's not really a dystopia, but fans of same might like it too....
The epigraph by Albert Camus is apt: "A simple way to get to know about a town is to see how the people work, how they love, and how they die."
"Einstein [the billy goat] does his trick, leaping high over Carmin [a nanny] and pushing off the wall to vault into the middle of the pack. Goats do well in light gravity [Mars], unlike cows, poor stupid things."
"I hadn't changed by getting on a shuttle and coming to Mars. I wasn't happy. I can't say it was a mistake, I wasn't happy on earth, either. But on earth at least I was comfortable. For a long time I wasn't comfortable on Mars. Six months after I got here I about made up my mind to go home, but I kept putting off doing anything about it and now it's gotten to the point where it's easier to stay than go."
Ah, I'm not doing a good job of explaining why I enjoyed and admire this book, or of recommending it. Maybe you'd be more interested if I admitted that I'm not giving my copy away, and do plan to reread it? Well, put it on your list anyway. Maybe someday you'll be lucky enough to have time to enjoy and admire it yourself.
(Oh, and don't let it bother you that McHugh is allergic to the semi-colon.) ......... Second read. Again found it entertaining, satisfying, and impressive. Highly recommended. I'm glad to see that there's a kindle edition... it's worth it, imo. .......... Discussing with group. Some have commented on predictability of motifs (iiuc). I didn't feel as if we were reading tired tropes here. Imo, we were exploring the universality of themes. Even in this new world, we can't escape human nature. We carry our Mythos with us, wherever we go. ........ Reminded of this during the covid 19 Situation. This would be a good read for you now. Puts our *relatively* minor plague into perspective, but not in a scary or depressing way. Life is full of challenges, and humans are good at meeting them. Survivors will come out stronger and smarter.
Loved it, I think I’m even going to have put this in my top-10 list of favourite sci-fi novels. I can’t believe this was written almost 30 years ago. It felt so current and eerily plausible in many ways. In essence, it’s a book about ordinary people just trying to get by in a tightly regimented socialist society. It describes an 'alternative future' in which the world is dominated by communist China, after the USA has undergone a proletarian revolution. Parts of the USA have become inhabitable following climate change, and people have even started settling on Mars. Although not spoken of directly (except perhaps at the end of the book) politics is a pervasive element in this book. The communist system permeates people’s everyday lives. Communism has even become a religion, with Lenin and Moa having acquired god-like status (Zhang often says things like "oh Lenin" rather than "oh God"). I will save you the synopsis of the book because it has been reviewed to death, and there are so many better reviews than this one on GR. First off, this book is how I like my sci-fi. A character-driven story without complicated technical descriptions of future tech (or, heaven forbid, some of those mystifying scientific theories that make my head spin). Future tech definitely features in the book, but is interwoven in the characters’ everyday lives and isn't overly complicated. Another thing I really liked about the book were the voices of the characters. The spoken dialogue felt natural and authentic, and the inner speech was skilfully done too. I liked how some of the characters would be thinking one thing, but then saying something completely different. This was a fun element and made the characters come alive for me. The novel revolves around a guy called Zhang. A gay construction tech just living his life and trying to get a better slice of the ‘life pie'. Zhang really stood out for me. He’s probably one of the most realistic gay characters I’ve come across in sci-fi. Unsurprisingly, being gay under this strict communist regime isn’t a barrel of laughs, and you get a real sense of gay life in a repressive society. Thankfully McHugh does not shy away from the more clandestine aspects of what this involves, and describes them in a surprising amount of detail for a novel written in 1993. The story of Zhang is alternated with the stories of other characters, which touch on Zhang’s own life in some way. The introduction tells me this is called a mosiac novel (never knew that), of which another famous example is Hyperion (also in my top 10). I really liked the ‘slice-of-life’ feel of China Mountain Zhang, where the characters have ordinary jobs (not interstellar space adventurer or whatnot) and have to work hard to make ends meet. This everyday slog in the rat race is an integral part of the story and isn’t glamourised in any way. You’d think this would be boring but it’s not. The book gives you a refreshing and highly readable perspective on a near-future society that in many ways is similar to our own, but has a completely different political structure. Undoubtedly, this is largely thanks to McHughs’ skill as a writer and the novel’s likeable, flawed and realistic set of characters.
This book is one of those that sneak into your high regard. It's not flashy or sensational, it's just very real. The author has the knack of writing characters you care about. All the various subplots weave together, touching at points. You find that you care deeply about what happens to each of them, and the story of their struggles, their loves, and their accomplishments makes really good reading. The world is extremely well-built and realistic. I totally do think China will be the world's main power in not too many more years. Everything about it feels true.
While I was disappointed at the story of my favorite character, the supervisor's daughter, (I thought she got a raw deal, and I would have liked to get more resolution on her story line), I found all the plot-lines engrossing. I want to know, too, what happened to the goats, and if the Martian contingent was able to get their system repaired or replaced in time to prevent any harm to the goats or people.
I thought it was interesting how the author chose a gay man for her title character. I thought it was sad that she depicted a world in which gays are no more accepted than they are today in ours. I would have hoped in 250 years or so that things would be better than that for gays and also for women. But not so.
In all things the book is understated. The struggle is not to save the world or to battle evil, but just to find a place, to make some room in the world in which the characters can live. In that way it's very like our own struggles in life, to earn a living, to pay medical expenses, and so on. It's a book that bears thinking about, one that grows in the imagination, and in the depth of the characters portrayed. I really liked this book.
There was zero action and the interactions between the characters had a trite YA quality to them. I put the book down for a couple of days, after 45 pages, to see if a change in mood would help but it didn't. I was engaged in a few other reads and wanted to get back to those.
if the plot had been half as interesting as the characters were, or the world they inhabit is, this book would have been fantastic. as it is, only so-so.
basic concept summary: china has come out on top of the political/ideological dogpile, so the world is a (mostly) socialist sino-centric place. the good schools, the quality jobs, the big money, and all the envy & prestige are gazing toward china. enter zhang, who's chinese/hispanic - his parents had him gene spliced as a kiddo to look purely asian, and it serves him rather well - a sort of dead-end-job slacker feeling some post-adolescent blahs. the plot is very basic & straightforward, and pretty much serves only to push our quasi-hero through interactions with others. the people are all marvelously realized, and somehow you genuinely care about the characters, all the while being completely unsurprised (perhaps even unimpressed) by the plot itself.
not really standard sci-fi fare (there's a real minimum of space travel, no green-skinned martians, etc), more of the modernist dystopian future sort of speculative fiction. it's an intriguing world with captivating people in it, just wish the story was as engaging to match.
I find it challenging to pinpoint exactly why this book is so remarkable, especially because the plot is not its strength, and I find that's what most people are looking for in a book (I see that many of the lukewarm reviews point to this). Part of my admiration is for the richness of the language. For a 300 pager, the language was dense enough to make me feel I was reading something epic (i.e. longer), and I found myself slowing down to savor every bit. There's no padding . . . every single word counts, and details that you might not think are notable will find their relevance later.
Another aspect I appreciated was that the main character isn't met with implausible intrigues or adventures, which is fairly common in science fiction. This reads as a story about the Everyman in a world (the future? an alternative history?) that's believable and relatable, and the conversations characters have play a large part in the believability because they don’t seem contrived. This book is up there among the most believable in the dialogue department that I’ve ever read.
Finally, I’m a great lover of form experimentation in fiction, and I think this may be the primary reason I've recommended China Mountain Zhang to a handful of my favorite fellow readers and writers who experiment with form. Incidental characters get fleshed out in intervals throughout Zhang's story, whether they have any true bearing on the events in Zhang's life or not, giving the reader a feeling of seeing detailed snapshots of how people generally live in this world and what constraints and freedoms they deal with. Some reviewers call this a collection of short stories, but it’s more connected and subtle than that.
This form shouldn’t work, but it really does. An impressive and truly original reading experience.
When I was reading China Mountain Zhang, I was enthralled by the authenticity of the characters, the believability of their words and actions, and the credibility of the future that McHugh envisions. It was thoughtfully and elegantly written. I truly felt for, and felt with, the characters. I didn't have to suspend disbelief as the storyline was so plausible. It was easy to read. Not "easy" like Shoots and Ladders is easy to play, but easy in the way a beautiful painting (or a beautiful woman) is easy to look at.
Sounds great, you say? Sign you up, you say? Well before you rush out and grab a copy, take note of the qualifier to begin my description: "When I was reading ...." Think about that for a second. So long as I held the book in my hands, I had a hard time putting it down. Eventually, though, I had to put it down for the most practical of reasons, like sleeping, making dinner, driving to work, actually working while at work (a rarity) ... you know, stupid things. Then, having been away from the book for a few minutes or hours or days, I had a hard time picking it back up. I just wasn't interested. I was satisfied with what I'd read and didn't feel the need to read any more. I did ultimately finish the book, but only after making a conscious effort, time and again, to pick the darn thing up.
Each time I picked up China Mountain Zhang, I was glad I did so, as I again immersed myself into McHugh's very believable future and very sympathetic characters. Then, each time I put it down, I had little or no interest in picking it up again. So the three stars represent the enjoyment I had while reading it, and the two missing stars are for the disinterest in finishing it.
This novel is a mosaic. It is ugly and beautiful, funny and sad, a prismatic picture of nuances that meld together, that fuse together, to a create a canvas of colors and emotions. Red, black, gold, and white, they dance and roll across the sketch and ghost away only to come back again as something more tangible, touchable, leaving you with a heartache or tense from the suspense. It is a discovery. You are told you are good with names. You are more than one person. You are yourself and somebody else. You are marriage and divorce. You are held here, caressed. It will get better. Quiet, now. You are both life and death. You glide like a kite over the world of people and when you return you are better for having been there. You are the weightlessness. You are the adventurer. I’ll bet on it. It is a quiet revolution to read, a simple one, but not without its punches. They don’t pull back. This is work, this is searing plastic, of imagining buildings that breathe life into life into life, of the flickering candle that searches for the leak. This is the taste of honey and the strawberries you sell, of something sickly sweet. This is the taste of beer, even if it takes awhile for you to grow to like it. This is the smell of something musty, a flat where you sip tea. This is the fragrance of the subway station, of pool chemicals, of musky man smell, of the salty sea air. This is you, isn’t it? Isn’t it? This is loneliness in the shimmer of an aurora borealis, all pink and green and glittering. You are no longer alone because of the seasons. You are home. You are the future in all its unpredictability. You are progress. You are sunrise and sunset. You are human, and you are feeling it, you are jacked in, too, to the system, to the moment, to the game. You are China Mountain Zhang.
I'm not sure what I expected from this book but considering all its awards and nominations I was hoping it was legitimately good. I got what I hoped for. While I love space opera and action styled science fiction, I also love a good character driven story. This falls into the latter category.
I gravitate towards the more specific genres of science fiction such as dystopian, post apoc and cyber punk because they are topics that I've put some thought into. So has McHugh. A Chinese dominated dystopian society is not one I've even considered and add into the mix the fact that the main character is also gay. It made for some really good backdrop, dialogue and therefore good reading. It could even be said this is an alternate universe as it doesn't feel like a distant future.
There are many subplots that almost weave into one. All of them do touch on the main character at one point or another but not all are resolved or are they resolved very obliquely. Which didn't seem to matter to me because I was so caught up in Zhang's character.
I also loved the glimpses into some future or possible current tech. Nothing too earth shattering but the swim suits were a fascinating concept and totally plausible. I'm glad I delved into this book before I ventured into some other current dystopian novels where the emphasis seems to be more on the physical horror.
This is an elegant science fiction novel, set in a future where China has become the dominant world power. The cover blurb tries to impress you with the futuristic setting, but this is a strongly character-driven story, and only loosely plotted. It’s almost a series of related stories rather than one coherent novel. I found it a mesmerizing read.
Most of the book is about a young New Yorker named Zhang trying to make his way in this wonderfully realized future world. His career path is rocky because he’s American Born Chinese rather than a citizen; and also because of other secrets he keeps, including the fact that he’s gay. Zhang is a great character, and I was grumpy the first time the narrative moved away from him.
The other pieces in the novel are concerned with people tangentially connected to Zhang. My favorites were the ones set in the commune on Mars.
The author mostly avoids techno-babble except for some casual talk about “systems” and “jacking in”. My least favorite sequences were those that focused on technology: the kite flyers, the weird game in the men's club, and the “organic engineering” conceit.
I quite enjoyed the mellow yet vivid scope of the plot. For a novel where not a whole lot happens, I couldn't put the book down whenever I picked it up. The world feels lived in, and the characters were relatably flawed, despite the massively different alternate history/geopolitical makeup of the world. It did feel like it ended rather abruptly,but for the life of me, I cannot imagine a better ending.
A simple way to get to know about a town is to see how the people work, how they love and how they die – Albert Camus
China Mountain Zhang is the perfect protagonist for this subtle, under-stated book. Unambitious and introverted, Zhang is trying not to draw attention to himself, but his attempts to just get by end up with him posted to an Arctic scientific station, studying daoist engineering in Wuxi, tutoring Martian colonists and eventually coming back home to Brooklyn. Through the eyes of China, and the characters who interact with him ever so briefly, we see the world that Maureen F. McHugh has built: a work of seemingly effortless realism.
The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed - William Gibson
And this is beautifully demonstrated by the characters lives. As we bounced between viewpoints we see the difference between the cutting-edge engineering software in Wuxi, which effortlessly attunes to the mind of the user, and the shabby Brooklyn library software which doesn't work even when you're jacked in. From the futuristic Shanghai hospitals where doctors can grow a new kidney inside you, to the hard-scrabble Martian colonies when homesteaders hunt down air-leaks with candles. Always, always there is a wonderfully quotidian realism to this future. People might be able to jack in and experience a thrilling kite race from the perspective of the driver – but they also have to live in crowded tenements that've been thoughtless sub-divided by careless developers. Gene-splicing exists, but it's expensive and medically restricted. Bureaucracy is still a machine that grinds the unfortunate between its wheels.
'Government is big, we are small. We are only free when we slip through the cracks.'
And yet, this carefully constructed, wonderfully drawn world is never more than backdrop. The focus of the story is always on our characters and their lives. McHugh is brilliantly clear-eyed and pitiless in her depictions. It would be easy to set up China's story as a tragic or heroic: certainly his sexuality has cost him his first job and his chance of a great career in Shanghai: the beating heart of the world economy and the cutting-edge of his profession. But China isn't sentimental about it, and the choices he and other characters make are shown without judgement. China chooses his friends, his lovers, his community – his home, really – without regretting what it costs him. And the ups and downs of his relationships are sympathetically drawn, from the delicate dance of a blossoming love affair to the social protocols of cruising on the boardwalk. Like the cyberpunk elements, this could easily have been sensational and theatrical, but instead, is sympathetic and unremarkable.
There's something terribly lonely about this book: poor China hiding his race and sexuality, San-xiang, isolated by her deformed face; Alexi and Theresa, bounced from pillar to post by an uncaring system; Martine, in her distant homestead. And yet, none of them are helpless. However big and uncaring the world, people still do what they can to steer their own destiny and reach out to help each other. Whatever the future we may live in, we are all still human. By focusing on individual struggles of little people the book resolutely refuses to become 'about' something. There is socialism, but it's not about socialism; it's not about space colonisation, it's not about cyberpunk, racism, homophobia, poverty or a life lived on the margins. It's about the individual people that feature in the story, and of course, because everything effects these people, it kind of is about everything after all.
For me the great strength of this novel is the creation of the characters, especially the main character. It didn't give me the feeling of a construction with a certain target audience in mind, which I get with so many books. Flawed and not politically correct Zhang was such a real character, utterly believable and I could connect so deeply with his emotional state. His POV chapters I thoroughly enjoyed. Especially Baffin Island and Ghost were oustanding.
Another plus for me was the structure of the novel. The various parts that interconnect only in small details drew the picture of a convincing future society with Chinese standards as the higher goal. No great action, no society changing plot, just little glimpses into the lives of powerless people. This worked terrific for me.
What I loved most was the writing style. Those crisp sentences that brought across so much. So much emotion, so much insight - fantastic! Who needs elaborate constructions when there is so much truth in simplicity?
In which the titular character is a gay American man of Chinese descent living in a future post-collapse/revolution US that has become a state-capitalist satellite of the hegemonic People's Republic of China, starting off as a construction foreman and ending up as a kind of super-architect. I just spoiled the entire plot of this book for you, but if you're a plot-centric person this won't appeal to you anyway. This is getting a little too close to the dreaded bildungsroman for my taste, but McHugh manages to reign that in to an acceptable degree by using this book as a subversion of the usual dystopic bildungsroman in that Zhang, although he grows as a person, is never anything more than a pretty typical guy - he never overthrows or even challenges the system (outside of his participation in the outlawed gay community), or does anything much outstanding or extraordinary. McHugh's inversion of the CHOSEN ONE trope goes so far as to even decentralize Zhang from his own narrative. The book is divided into 9(ish?) sections, with the odd chapters following Zhang and the even ones focusing on other characters very tangentially related to him - these other characters, it might go without saying, being just as believable and unexceptional as Zhang himself.
The novel's message is almost anarchistic in its critique of bureaucracy and emphasis on day-to-day life, but I think this in combination with the inversion of genre/tropes renders the setting vague and unbelievable. Does McHugh intend this the way I read it, as a failed socialist revolution that has faltered and sputtered down into yet another form of state capitalism ("the stranglehold of Stalinism, the form of the counter-revolution in our day, the absolute opposite of the proletarian revolution")? Off-handed references are made throughout to "free-market zones" administered over by the statist bureaucracy, Zhang interns and interviews with various corporations, and the happy ending of the book is his creation of an independent business. Surely we aren't supposed to understand this as an actual communist worker's state? I don't know. Clearly, I am more sympathetic with a reading of this book in the tradition of 1984 as a critique of power systems in general moreso than any particular political ideology.
page 6: "I don't believe in socialism but I don't believe in capitalism either. We are small, governments are large, we survive in the cracks. Cold comfort."
and again on page 44: "There is a brilliant light inside of me. It is not Christ, it is not Mao Zedong. I do not know what it is. I am Zhang, alone with my light, and in that light I think for a moment that I am free. But I am only free in small places. Government is big, we are small. We are only free when we slip through the cracks."
And yet, having brought up 1984, with all of its impressive gloom and hopelessness, I have to say that with the exception of Zhang's sexuality, none of the characters here face many hardships (with the exception of one chapter that was actually kind of physically difficult for me to read, but that had nothing to do with the larger setting except inasmuch as it shows that things operate pretty much the same way there as they do here) - the bureaucracy seems to be the worst part of this "dystopia." Again, satire of anti-communist individualist genre pieces or just misstep on McHugh's part? Either way, it's all a little too optimistic for me - the problems here revolve mostly around alienation and dehumanization, with Zhang bringing an appropriately disengaged somnambulant narration to the table.
I didn't quite know what to expect with this book, but I really liked it. The book turns dark and heavy in some places and with some things I wonder if they couldn't have been done differently. I also wish I'd learned more about Martine, Alexis, and San-xiang and how their srories developed.
This novel was nominated for Nebula award for year 1992. The author describes its genre as anti-SF, meaning that it lacks the usual trope of a protagonist trying to change/affect their world. It can be viewed as a contemporary fiction, just set in the future.
So, what the future brought? Due to some events (briefly outlined closer to the end of the book) the US and China changed their political and technological places: China is a rich (possibly post-scarcity) society with best tech and education, center of the world, while the USA had a socialist revolution (helped by Chinese) and later its version of Cultural revolution (what it was like may SF readers may know from The Three-Body Problem), named the Great Cleansing Winds campaign, making a lower middle income country.
The protagonist is a son of American born Chinese (ABC for short) father and Hispanic mother, the latter paid for his plastic surgery, so he looks Chinese. True ‘pureblood’ ABC have an advantage in theirs world, for they may go to China, which is a dream for many. However, there is a genetic test for ‘purity’ and our hero of cause will fail it. The higher position of Chinese (even in the US) causes a kind of racist hatred (maybe self-hatred) in our hero. His full Chinese name is Zhang Zhong Shan or China Mountain Zhang:
“Zhong Shan is the name of a famous Chinese revolutionary, the first president of the Republic; it is the Mandarin version of the Cantonese name Sun Yat-sen. To be named Zhang Zhong Shan is like being named George Washington Jones.”
He works on the construction and he is gay. The latter is a crime under Chinese and US law, but I the USA it is close to ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy. Each uneven chapter of the novel is from Zhang’s point of view, as he grows both physically and emotionally. Each even chapter is a story of other people, loosely connected to Zhang, such as a kite flyer (a dangerous new sport/entertainment, similar to the early 20th century plane pilots, with similarly high rate of death/traumas); a woman and a man in new Martian colony; a Chinese girl in the US.
Mars maybe the most SF part of the story – it is heavily reminiscent of The Dispossessed, (struggling poor society, which try to govern itself via root democracy) but takes a more cynical look at it, showing the problems of equality. Another SF element from then popular cyberpunk – people can jack-in to computers (only passive connection i.e. w/o a feedback is legal, but of course, where is a tech, there are people to use it). A new concept is Daoist engineering – making the perfect, intuitively approachable system, e.g. a construction system. To some extent it is what all designers mean under friendly user interface, but broader.
The novel is written in a very solid prose style, but I cannot say I greatly enjoyed it: there are a lot of high quality contemporary fiction and when I read SF I expect more interesting ideas and what if situations.
I always feel guilty when I quit a book halfway through, and I don't think I've ever felt guiltier than with this novel. Everything about it sounds like I would absolutely love it. But yet as I made my way through the pages, I found myself dreading my reading sessions more and more, until I just decided it was time to move on.
That's not to say I don't recognize the book's strengths, and there are many. The idea of a futuristic world where China has taken over the United States is brilliant, and it's executed with brio. Ms. McHugh clearly understands Chinese culture and grasps the flavors of language. I've lived for three years in China, and I was thrilled at these aspects.
Also very appealing was the protagonist, Zhang Zhong Shan. He's such a refreshing change from the usual SF tropes: he's of mixed ethnicity, gay, and an everyman in a genre that seems to prefer world-shaking Übermenschen.
So, where did China Mountain Zhang go wrong with me? Two major issues.
First, even though I liked the realistic, toned down nature of the characters, they just felt flat to me. They lack any ambition or spark, and feel colorless and depressing. Zhang himself was no exception. He has nothing to live for, no ambition that drives him. He's flotsam. That sounds like an interesting choice of character on paper, but it just drove me nuts reading it. I found myself growing increasingly annoyed at his flat delivery, his restraint, his lack of emotion.
Second, the plot doesn't go anywhere. It wanders slowly through a world which in its scope is promising, but in its details is dull and colorless. The kite races didn't inspire wonder; there was no adrenaline to them, only some sort of detached description of going through the motions.
All that being said, I can't shake the feeling that this book was great, but I was just not a great enough reader to appreciate it. China Mountain Zhang, it's not you, it's me. I hope you go on to better readers who will show you the love you deserve.