CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG by Maureen F. McHugh (BOOK REVIEW)
“But I am only free in small places. Government is big, we are small. We are only free when we slip through the cracks.”
Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang (1992) is an absolute masterpiece and a key work of science fiction from the 90s. It is remarkably self-assured for a debut novel. It was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, and deservedly won the James Tiptree Jr Award, the Locus Award and the Lamda Literary Award.
What makes the novel so powerfully enduring is its unabashed humanity. China Mountain Zhang is not a novel of adventure and action. It is a thoughtful mosaic novel that gives us a glimpse of what it’s like to live in its world. McHugh’s characters are well developed, engaging and utterly believable, her world is full of vivid lived detail. Over ten years in the life of its protagonist, we get a vision of life lived, with all its ups and downs, in a world that is recognisable as a future of our own. It is neither dystopian or utopian – some aspects are better, some aspects are worse. But the struggles of everyday people as they attempt to live their lives, to snatch what grains of happiness they can whilst struggling to get by, is so thoroughly recognisable as the human experience. The end result is a profound, moving and entrancing novel, one that has made McHugh immediately a favourite writer of mine and I can’t wait to explore more of her writing.
China Mountain Zhang is set in a 22nd century where the People’s Republic of China is the dominant global power, the United States has undergone a socialist revolution, climate change has rendered large sections of the US uninhabitable, and communes farm on Mars. The novel follows ten years in the life of Rafael /Zhong Shan Zhang, an American born Chinese man who is half Spanish but has had his heritage hidden by an illegal genetic manipulation technique. To be Chinese is to be privileged in this world. But Zhang is gay, something that is illegal in this world. His homosexuality and his mixed race background mean he inhabits a precarious role, passing as straight and Chinese whilst having to be careful about who he reveals his true self to.
Zhang is an engineering technician in New York City, and wants to save up enough money to study in China, which will allow him to graduate as a full engineer and get a permanent well-paid position. However a misunderstanding with his boss causes him to lose his job, leading him on a journey to reclaim back his status which sees him work in the remote Arctic Baffin Island in Canada, study in a Chinese university and intern at a prestigious Chinese engineering firm. Interspersed between Zhang’s chapters are chapters from a variety of viewpoints –Angel, a cybernetic kite flyer in New York; Martine, a retired soldier in a commune on Mars; Alexi, a refugee from a resettlement camp in Arizona; San-xiang, an American born Chinese woman who has her face surgically altered to make her beautiful, all of whose lives are touched by Zhang in some way.
These disparate viewpoints of people struggling to get by in this future society give us a better, more complete picture of the world than a single viewpoint ever could. Through the way they live their lives, McHugh expertly builds up a full, textured world. No one in China Mountain Zhang is trying to heroically change the world or dramatically rebel against the system. Instead, we get a picture of regular people finding whatever ways they can to survive and sometimes flourish in the cracks of the world. It is this that makes the novel ultimately so powerful and moving. Unlike many works of science fiction and fantasy, China Mountain Zhang explores the reality of work and how it shapes our lives. McHugh demonstrates how work, and people’s attitudes towards it, tells you a lot both about that person but also the society that they live as a part of. Zhang’s life is shaped by his jobs, working as a technician, attempting to find work through the US government’s labyrinthine job support bureaucracy, supporting the Arctic researchers on Baffin Island. San-xiang works in a corporate office, and is totally unprepared for the new social standing that her new face gives her, and the unwanted attention and risks it brings. Martine works long hours to keep her goat farm on Mars running, and her interactions with Alexi ignite an interest in local politics for her as she begins to understand the plight of Alexi and his family and wants to find a way to help him. Alexi discovers that his skill at manipulating the computer systems that regulate life support on Mars makes him useful and in-demand.
In an echo of Samuel R. Delany’s classic space opera Nova (1968), and to the then-contemporary cyberpunk movement, the characters in China Mountain Zhang have cybernetic implants on their wrists, through which they can jack into machines and the internet. However unlike the romanticised outlaws of cyberpunk, McHugh’s characters connect with machinery in order to carry out their everyday jobs. The decreasing distance between human and machine is not a source of romance or terror, but an extrapolation of how our working lives have become increasingly cyborg-ised by computers and the internet. It is this exploration of work and how it shapes our lives that gives the novel much of its texture of every-day life, even as its world is unfamiliar and different from ours.
China Mountain Zhang is a complex novel that does many things. It explores gender, sexuality and living a queer life in an institutionally homophobic society. Zhang talks about the dance, the secret exchange of signals intelligible to those in the know, that he performs with other queer men so that they can determine if they are both gay without putting themselves at risk of being outed. But this dance also pertains to Zhang’s experience as a second generation mixed-race immigrant coming for the first time to China and having to learn how performing his ethnicity in China is different from how he is used to in the US.
In a world in which political dissidents are exiled to Mars, it also pertains to how people with sympathetic political opinions can sound each other out. These different ways of exploring one’s identity partially in the open and partially in secret are a large part of how McHugh’s characters figure out how to exist and even flourish in the cracks of the world. And finding happiness, love, and some kind of fulfilment in the cracks of an unfriendly system are essential human themes that are deeply resonant to us in the real world. McHugh expertly weaves all her thematic strands together, and the lives of all her disparate characters, to create something unique and powerful. While China Mountain Zhang may not have much of a plot, it more than makes up for it with the depth of its worldbuilding and the humanity of its characters. Almost thirty years later, it is just as compelling and humane as when it was written. One can feel its influence in today’s most ambitious and satisfying science fiction, in the work of writers such as Anne Charnock, Lavie Tidhar and Nina Allan, all of whom excel at painting futuristic worlds that feel lived in by real complex characters, who are able to create a sense of the mundane in alien worlds which makes their SF narratives so compelling. I feel privileged to have read it, and know I will read it again.