China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen F. McHugh
Posted October 28, 2015on:
published in 1992
where I got it: purchased used
How to describe the plot of this book? Impossible. There are no grand quests, or enemies to defeat, or betrayals or heroes or world changing events or any of that. What China Mountain Zhang does offer is intimacy and intense subtlety in an SFnal world. On the one hand, this is a quiet story of a man in hiding, who only lets the world see of him what they wish to see. If the safest thing for the public to see is a marriageable Asian with a decent job, that is what he will present to them. On the other hand, underneath the facade, underneath the social demands Rafael is crushed under, he is eternally screaming. This is a story about how the only way to find yourself is to lose yourself.
Winner of the James Tiptree, Jr Award and the Locus Award for best first novel, and nominated for the Hugo and Locus award, China Mountain Zhang isn’t your typical SF novel. Reading like literature, enjoyment of this novel is like discovering a new variety of wine you never knew existed and whose flavor you can’t describe, but you know you’ll be taking an entire case home with you.
China Mountain Zhang takes place about a hundred years from now, after America’s socialist civil war, after China came to our rescue and became the promised land, after Martian colonies were established. In America, to be Chinese means to get preferential treatment – better jobs, better apartments, easy acceptance to the top universities in China. To this end, Rafael goes by the Chinese name Zhong Shan, and doesn’t tell any of his co-workers what he does after work. He can pass for Chinese, and that’s all that matters. No one needs to know that his mother is Hispanic.
After losing his job due to a misunderstanding, Zhong Shan finds himself assigned to an engineering tech job in northern Canada. What a change from the hustle and bustle of New York City that he’s used to! Also a surprise, is that no one in northern Canada gives a shit about your clothes, or what bars you go, or who your parents are. Scientists only care about science. Zhong’s life continues, one job to another, one relationship to another. Every year he gets a little closer to something, but to what?
I know that this doesn’t sound very interesting, but this was an amazing book to read. It’s got everything I love – a snarky and sometimes sarcastic narrator, beautiful prose and descriptions, great supporting characters, and world that is both strange and hauntingly familiar. It sounds like this would be a slow paced book, but it isn’t slow. It took me a good week to read this book, and I wouldn’t shut up about it the entire time. I could have finished it quicker, but I wanted to savor the book, to keep it from ending. I read entire chunks over and over because I loved how the prose flowed, the texture of the sentences, the starkness of the imagery.
Interspersed as almost intermissions are chapters that follow other characters, such as daredevil kite racers, and a farm on a Martian commune. The chapters that take place on the Martian farming commune turned into my favorites of these short asides. It’s hard for new settlers on Mars to earn a homestead, and especially hard for single parents get good enough jobs that will allow they to stay with their own children. Alexi and Martine come to an arrangement where Martine gets some much needed help, and Alexi can stay with his daughter. Their arranged marriage seems to be working out for the best. Zhong Shan once almost got pulled into something like this.
Zhong speaks Spanish, English, Mandarin, and enough pidgin to get by just about anywhere. So, no surprise that there is a lot of discussion of language. During his first few weeks in China, he struggles with getting the correct tone and context, and there is some discussion about how tone is context, and there are some subtle connections here between ingrained and natural context and Zhong’s training in Daoist Engineering. There is this hilarious scene where Zhong’s Chinese friends are trying to pronounce his Spanish name, and butcher the crap out of it. It’s nice to read a book about different languages that is so casual that a character can say “I suck at this language”, and another character can say “yeah, your accent is awful”, and let’s not even get into how much they make fun of his Chinese name. Dialog is often so formal and stilted, as if the authors are just torturing themselves to make their dialog ultra perfect. What a breath of fresh air that everyone in China Mountain Zhang talks like real people. They talk trash, they joke around, they mutter under their breath, they mishear and misunderstand.
Wow, I told you absolutely nothing about what happens in this book, didn’t I? Good. I want you to go in with no preconceived notions.
The way McHugh present the interconnected stories feels so very organic. This isn’t an epistolary novel, but it sure has the feeling of letters written home, of someone writing letters that they know no one would ever read. This is a book that’s about nothing and about everything, about politics and the avoidance of, about passing for what you’re not and watching for signs of acceptance. Every year, Zhong gets a little closer to accepting himself, to telling society’s expectations and requirements to go fuck themselves.