China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh

One day, apparently, China will be the dominant nation on Earth – and beyond Earth. The USA will be a socialist republic, a vassal of China, and rather looked down upon. The planet will be suffering from the effects of global warming, and frankly everything will be a little shit.

In this world lives Zhang Zhong Shan. “Zhong Shan” is Mandarin for “Sun Yat-Sen”, so it’s a little like being called “George Washington Jones”, and a lot of people find his name amusing. He doesn’t live in China, he lives in Brooklyn, where some of his friends jokingly call him “China Mountain”, one possible reading of “Zhong Shan”. Mostly he prefers to go by “Zhang”. The surname is from his father, a Chinese man. Zhang himself certainly looks Chinese, and everybody around him who doesn’t know him assumes he’s an ABC – American-Born Chinese; but Zhang is also called “Rafael Luis”, and is the son of Theresa Luis. He’s half-Hispanic, and speaks Spanish as well as English (and school-learnt Chinese). People don’t know this because his parents paid for his genes to be reconfigured to make him appear fully Chinese.

Why yes, this IS another book that likes to address issues of identity. How did you guess?

Zhang works as a construction tech, and gets on well with his foreman and his own subordinates. In his spare time, he goes out drinking and partying a lot. Most of all he likes to go to the kite races – where human jockeys, in electronic symbiosis with their high-tech kites, race around an aerial course, trying (and sometimes failing) not to die. Life is good. But Zhang is about to have a problem: the foreman is going to invite Zhang for dinner to discuss a brilliant career opportunity – if Zhang marries his daughter, he can go and study in China. This is a problem because the foreman’s daughter is exceptionally ugly… and Zhang is gay.

This is a very unusual book, chiefly because nothing happens in it. There are a lot of books where people say “nothing happens”, but in this case that is almost entirely true. Virtually nothing happens. Some people do some stuff. Some of that stuff might, just might, be important in their lives. None of any of it is important in terms of any wider society, let alone the world. This is an anti-epic.

The story of Zhang alternates with other stories, which are at best tangentially related to Zhang’s story. Nothing happens in those stories either.

In case I appear too critical, I want to make clear that there are many good points to this book (calling it a novel seems a little far-fetched). The conceit of having multiple POVs – all first-person – has rarely been executed with such finesse and delicacy; McHugh brilliantly conveys the differing mentalities and language of the POV characters without seeming broad or heavy-handed or obvious. Several chapters would serve as perfectly self-contained short-stories. The confidence she displays in presenting such small and isolated narratives is admirable. She exploits her setting-conceit suavely; rather than making any overt statements, she uses the setting simply to open up alternative perspectives: in Zhang’s relationship to China and Chinese culture, for instance, we see a Western perspective that is simultaneously an echo of how non-Western perspectives might view the West, and yet it doesn’t feel like a crude, idea-novel inversion of the status quo.

More generally, I think that this is one of the most impressively real-feeling settings I’ve encountered in science fiction. It is a near-future and quite pessimistic view, and may understate the pace of future technological and social progress (while much SF overstates it, I think), but it feels like a real place. In particularly, I was struck by the sense of latent progress: most SF seems to be pervaded with smugness and vain awe, the viewpoint of a barbarian who has become a citizen of Rome; but McHugh conveys the Roman perspective, the genuine perspective of a person to whom the future is simply the present – past (to us future) achievements are overlooked and taken for granted, but there remains a sense that the future is yet to come. While most SF seems to say “congratulations, we’re in the future now!”, McHugh’s world is further on from ours, but is still waiting for the future. Its key technological advancements are things that are actually advancing, where characters can wonder about where the technology may lead, not things that have been already accomplished – it’s a future that, like our present, is pregnant with its own as-yet-unknowable transformation.

But there are problems. Most minor: the book in now almost twenty years old, and in places feels dated, both technologically and socially – an inevitable danger for a near-future setting. I didn’t find that an issue, but some might.

More importantly, I didn’t want to read about Zhang. I really didn’t. I found him not only unlikeable, but (which is worse) frankly dull. To the author’s credit, his development is mostly realistic, and he becomes a more interesting character as a result, but it takes too long. In particular, the first chapter of the novel is very slow and dreary, and although it kept me intrigued enough to continue, I think it may be a barrier to some readers. Read at least two chapters before giving up! Zhang’s story doesn’t become interesting until halfway through the book.

Partly this is because Zhang is just so passive. Things happen to him, some good and some bad, and hardly anything is the result of his own decisions – not just because he has no power in the world, but because he’s lazy and childish. Now, this is part of the point of the novel, as he is lead toward taking morecontrol over his life, but it doesn’t make it a thrilling read.

It may be a coincidence, but I also felt McHugh was stronger with female character than male ones. Both the male characters didn’t entirely ring true (or interesting) to me, whereas the women were more real, and in most cases more engaging. I could happily have read a novel about either Martine or Angel.

Background characters, meanwhile, were not one-dimensional, but were not more than two-dimensional, being mostly thin sketches for plot purposes. Which would have been more justifiable if there had actually been a plot.

A broader issue, related to Zhang’s passivity, is that… there is no point to any of it. I think that novels can be about exterior action (physical events) or interior action (psychological events), and can be about a character or about a world. In this case, there was very little in the way of action (in fact the only real action was one character being chased for a few minutes), so all the emphasis was placed on psychology – only there wasn’t any. McHugh’s psychological portraits were very lifelike, but also very static and passive and superficial. There was little in the way of psychological progress made, and what progress was made happened in the dark, as none of the characters had the degree of introspection, or of insight, that would have let us see what was really going on. The attempt to demonstrate some progress despite this introspection made the book seem ham-fisted in the simplicity (and repetitiveness) of its psychological analysis, as it tried to spell out what The Point was  – it was at the level of the cod-psychiatry found on American TV shows. Fortunately, there was very little of it, but this absence in turn created a narrative vacuum that could not be filled by the exterior action.

Nor could it be filled by the setting. Our glimpses of the setting are entirely from POVs, and very limited, but in any case there isn’t enough different from the real world for this to truly fascinate. Intrigue, yes, and there were some very interesting, even provocative, ideas, but not enough to carry the narrative.

In short, then, there was nothing wrong with the action, the psychology or the setting – all three were, while not perfect, certainly very capable background elements. But none of them had either the novelty or the mystery or the proficiency to stand out as foreground and make the book be about something. The psychology of Zhang comes closest to a plot, but it is too little, and in particular it is too late. In this respect also, the content seemed more suited to a series of short stories, where sketches and suggestions are all that is required: a series of short stories strung together does not always produce a novel.

There are also one or two actual moments of clumsiness. The repetitive psychological/moral theme, which was a lot more effective until it was spelled out, was one of them. The attempts to string the unrelated stories together through tangents was another, feeling unnecessary, forced, and unconvincing, and did not add anything to the book. The best two chapters were the second and third, and in general the pacing of the book, such as there was, felt totally disorganised. And Zhang’s second chapter felt overblown and sensational to an extent that would work in another novel but was out of keeping here.

That’s a lot wrong, but I think it should be seen in context. This was McHugh’s first novel, and she’s clearly not yet fully in control of the long form. There’s no doubt that there’s plenty of talent here – it’s just not made best use of. I’ll certainly check out one of her later novels at some point. And even as a novel in itself, I found it very enjoyable, and very interesting too.

Finally: this novel appears on the Westeros.org Book List compiled elsewhere on this blog. I both agree and disagree with this. I disagree to the extent that I would be unlikely to list this as one of my favourite novels, as people did in the voting; but I agree with the end result, its inclusion on the list, because I think this novel is a striking demonstration of what science fiction can do, can be like. It’s a different sort of book from most genre works, and although it doesn’t entirely succeed, it’s worth seeing what was attempted.

(This is from the 1993 cover. Yes, apparently Tor's art department lives the other side of a wormhole to the fifties)

Adrenaline: 3/5. Boring for large stretches, but always weirdly compelling, and in some places unaccountably exciting. I found myself snatching moments to read this book – the first book I’ve read standing up on the Tube, for instance. Normally I like to sit down and read for an hour, but this one I found myself going back to again and again. Possibly just to see whether something would finally happen.

Emotion: 2/5. Some of the characters were very engaging, but there wasn’t much in the way of emotional heights and lows to empathise with.

Thought: 3/5. Some really interesting things here, both socially and technologically. All of it, however, felt like background, and didn’t really invite in-depth thought. And the absence of a Plot (capital P) eliminated the opportunity and need to try to think ahead. I found it quite a mentally passive read.

Beauty: 3/5. Not a lot to say. Some ugliness and some beauty in the setting. The prose hardly ever tried to draw attention to itself.

Craft: 4/5. Really proficient, really talented, really well done, really confident – but with some rough patches still showing through.

Endearingness: 3/5. Some chapters were 5/5, but overall I found it too boring, and Zhang too annoying, to really love this book.

Originality: 5/5. Structurally innovative, and strikingly anti-epic, I didn’t know what the book was going to be like until I had finished it. The basic conceit of a China-dominated near-future is not too original, but because the book shies away from any kind of Theme or Plot or Aboutness, this isn’t an issue.

Overall: 5/7. Good. I feel to some degree that I should have called it Very Good, but I really can’t think of any reason why. Maybe just because McHugh really impressed me with her talent and her confidence, and I wanted to love the book more than I found I really did. That said, it’s definitely worth reading for anyone becoming jaded by SF; it feels more like literature that happens to be SF than like SF that is trying to be literature. As someone who hopes to write novels of his own in the future, this is one (of many!) novels that has helped show me the breadth of possibilities.

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One thought on “China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh

  1. […] China Mountain Zhang – Maureen McHugh […]

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