Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review: China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen F. McHugh

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
Published: Tor, 1992
Awards Won: Locus Award for Best First Novel, Lambda Literary Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Hugo
The Book:
'I am Zhang, alone with my light, and in that light I think for a moment that I am free.' 

Imagine a world: a sinocentric world where Chinese Marxism has vanquished the values of capitalism and Lenin is the prophet of choice. A cybernetic world where the new charioteers are flyers, human-powered kites dancing in the skies over New York in a brief grab at glory. A world where the opulence of Beijing marks a new cultural imperialism, as wealthy urbanites flirt with interactive death in illegal speakeasies, and where Arctic research stations and communes on Mars are haunted by their own fragile dangers.

A world of fear and hope, of global disaster and slow healing, where progress can only be found in the cracks of a crumbling hegemony. The world of Zhang. An anti-hero who's still finding his way, treading a path through a totalitarian order - a path that just might make a difference.”

I am finally catching up with the Women of Science Fiction Book Club’s selections! China Mountain Zhang is the selection for August.  This is apparently Maureen McHugh’s first novel, and I think that it is a really impressive first novel (or novel in general).  I think I might have to try to find her other three books.

My Thoughts:

The plot of China Mountain Zhang has a very unusual structure.  The chapters alternate between chronological stories of the life of the main character, Zhang, and stories of various people he briefly encounters throughout his life.  Though the events are in chronological order, it is more of a slice-of-life novel.  In fact, most of the chapters feel like they could almost stand alone as short stories.  Each chapter displays different aspects of McHugh’s future world and provides a new perspective, shaped by the lives and experiences of each viewpoint character.  The stories show significant events in the lives of the main characters, but the significance is typically more internal, marking a shift in the viewpoint character’s perception of the world.  There are not really any dramatic fight scenes or rebellions, but simply the personal moments that change the way a person thinks about themselves and the world.  Though at first glance the chapters are only loosely connected, I felt like they fit together through their portrayal of the ways people are isolated, but still driven by their need for a sense of community.

The main character, Zhang, has a complicated name and history, and is one of the few gay male protagonists I’ve come across in science fiction.  Zhang is saddled with the embarrassingly pompous name Zhong Shan (a.k.a. Sun Yat-Sen), which can be translated as ‘China Mountain’. He’s actually half-Chinese, in a society where the Chinese are the privileged race, and he also carries a ‘secret’ Latino name, Rafael Luis.  I thought McHugh’s inclusion of Mandarin and Spanish throughout the text added to the sense of reality of the world, though I can’t speak to the accuracy of the usage.  On the surface, Zhang might be considered passive or apathetic, but his personality runs much deeper than that.  His world is very unfriendly both to the non-Chinese and particularly to homosexuals—gay rights appear to have regressed in McHugh’s imagined future.  While Zhang wants to reach for the things that will help him build a better life, he feels like he can only live safely if he keeps from attracting attention to himself. I was fascinated by the way he struggled to define his path throughout the events of his life.    

The alternate chapter characters were interesting in their own rights, and they each show different parts of this future world.  For instance, in the kite flyer’s story, we see the technology of the kites—essentially hang-gliders with physical and neurological connections to the pilots—and the culture that has sprung up around the kite races. A few chapters focus on Martine and Alexi, two adult citizens with very different status in the Mars colony that is their home.  Another chapter focuses on San-Xiang a young Chinese woman living in America, who has been socially isolated due to a severe facial deformity.  All of these characters were complex and realistic characters, and it was easy to believe in their conflicting desires and fears.  I feel like these side stories added a great deal to the overall strength of the book, despite their tenuous physical connection to Zhang.

I think the characters are a major strong point of the book, but the society they inhabit is pretty interesting as well.   I enjoyed her descriptions of the communities, such as bureaucratic NYC, the elitist universities of China, scientific outposts, and the Mars commune.  Some of the technology—like the kites, wi-fi that connects directly to your brain, and pressball—were neat to imagine as well.  It’s kind of eerie that McHugh predicted, in 1992, that there would be an economic crash in the early 21st century and China would rise in power.  I don’t think the US is on the edge of a communist revolution, but some of the similarities are still pretty interesting.  I wouldn’t say McHugh’s future society is particularly unique, as I can see influences from at least a handful of older science fiction works.  However, her world stands out due to its feel of solidity, and the sense of history that the characters carried with them.  McHugh’s imagined world fits well with the tone of her story and her characters, and it was very easy for me to feel immersed in the world of China Mountain Zhang.

My Rating: 5/5

China Mountain Zhang is a study of a few characters in a future society, and so it carries very little external conflict, but quite a lot of internal.  Most of the stories portray events that are of personal significance to the characters experiencing them.  The chapters alternate between the lead character Zhang and others that he encounters throughout his daily life, and each chapter could probably stand alone as a short story.  Zhang is an intriguing character, mentally isolated by his racial heritage and sexuality and conflicted by his desire for a better life and his desire to hide in the cracks of society.  The other characters are fascinating as well, and their stories echo some of the themes of explored in the stories from Zhang’s life.  The political and social structure of the world—with colonies on Mars and the ascendancy of China—are not unique in science fiction, though they are portrayed very convincingly.  The technology was also interesting, and the technological advances seemed to fit naturally in the imagined communities.  Overall, China Mountain Zhang was a very impressive book, both as a first novel and as a novel in general.


  1. I'm so glad you loved this book, because there's certainly a lot here to appreciate! :)

  2. Thanks for your comment! It looks like I'll finally be caught up with the Women in Science Fiction Book Club this week! :)