Thursday, November 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh

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) and winning several of them (Tiptree, Locus and Lambda).

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 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 an early chapter. (This indicates that even in New York City there appears to be a planned economy.) Socially and culturally, China appears to be the zenith of society in the book, and going to China is what most people we meet in the stories aspire to do.

Eventually Zhang goes to spend a difficult 18 months near the North Pole in order to get credit that he can use to finance an 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 in the United States, 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 stories are the best passages; it makes sense that 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 (was and) 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.

Title: China Mountain Zhang.
Maureen McHugh.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 321 pages.
Publisher: Orb Books.
Date Published:  April 15, 1997 (March 1992).
Date Read: October 17, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).


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