I’m conflicted about what to think about this lovely novel. On the one hand, there’s a part of me that thinks “it’s lovely, but it’s not that original.” This is partly because gay characters aren’t unusual in SF any more. Of course, there’s still not a huge number of them, so having a gay protagonist is indeed a good and challenging and different thing. I’m not sure what else makes this novel feel… familiar, I think, rather than avant garde or edgy; perhaps it’s that it doesn’t push the SF element, so the place does indeed feel close to home. And I usually like my novels to have that aspect of challenging edginess to them. Of course, this one does have those elements; they’re just not that outrageously obvious.
There are some novels that feel ‘pushy’ – I do hesitate to use the word, because of the negative connotations, but books like Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space sequence or Iain M Banks’ Culture novels are pushy SF; they make the SFnal features a front and centre part of the story, with the rest of the story necessarily incorporating giant AI minds or space ships. China Mountain Zhang does not make the fact that these events are happening at an unspecified time in the future an upfront-and-obvious part of the story; it’s fundamental to the events, yes, but McHugh unfolds it gently and quietly and innocently: “Oh, you didn’t realise my story was set in a post-socialist revolution America? What did you think was going on?”
The whole novel could be described as gentle and quiet. Even big events in characters’ lives are somewhat down-played. Even though the reader gets events from different characters’ perspectives, there is a feeling of detachment that lends a certain remoteness to it all; a certain in-the-larger-scheme-of-things attitude. Which in a bizarre way I think often emphasises the losses, especially, that each of the characters experiences.
This is in many ways a story of loss – actually a series of stories of loss. Half of the chapters focus on Zhang, the titular character, and follow his life across several years as he tries to find his way through the minefields of being gay when that’s basically unspeakable, of being ABC (American Born Chinese) when being Chinese-born is the way to the best jobs, and the other lesser and greater difficulties of growing up and moving around and fitting in. The alternate chapters do not always seem to fit in, although of course there are ties that bind. A kite-flyer who’s down and out; a goat-herder on Mars; a new-to-Mars immigrant; a Chinese-born woman in America. All with losses and experiences and fierce joys that are so different from Zhang’s but that clearly fit into this remarkable world that McHugh has created.
Because while Zhang is a compelling character, for me it really was the world-building here that fascinated and still has me thinking. I can well imagine that a non-SF lover could read this novel without being overwhelmed by the SF elements, which is for me always an interesting exercise to consider; yes there’s people on Mars, but the considerations of life there are generally so mundane, as of course they would (will?) be for any sizeable population, that you could almost overlook that. There are other SF elements that I really loved – like the system that allows a user to design buildings and other things – but really the most shocking aspect is the one that very little real attention until the last chapter: that little fact that America is now a Socialist nation, and has effectively become a client state of China. Knowing only a few Americans well, and having had very few political discussions with them, I am still well aware of how outrageous using the s-word to describe any aspect of their politics is. I cannot begin to imagine how McHugh’s book was received by the general public – if any of them were aware of it – in 1992. Just like I can’t imagine how people read le Guin’s The Dispossessed in the 1970s.
I really enjoyed it. It’s an easy read that sucks you in and gently smacks you over the head.