China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F McHugh

Orbit, 1995

China Mountain Zhang cover

This is another multi stranded narrative mostly dealing with the life of Zhang Zhong Shan,* an ABC (American Born Chinese) in a world where China is the major power. There was a major depression in the early part of the 21st century, bankrupting all the “€œWestern” powers barring Japan, Canada and Australia. (Does this sound faintly familiar? It was a bit bizarre reading stuff like this after the events of the past few months.) However, here the US underwent a proletarian revolution, a Second Civil War and, with some aid from China, became a socialist republic. Not a likely outcome in the real world, where socialism appears to be a swear word in the US.

Zhang’s mother has lumbered him with an embarrassing name (Sun Yat Sen in English transliteration.) She was Hispanic, a decided drawback in Zhang’€™s world, but he has been gene-spliced to make him appear more Chinese, though his genetic background is available to anyone who can access the records. This is possible by the process of “jacking-in” to a system, as are other activities legal and illegal. Such systems are extremely important in this world.

To make Zhang’€™s life even more problematic he is gay, a proclivity which requires to be hidden in the US and which could see him shot in the China he travels to in the fifth section of the novel.

Each strand is written in the first person, present tense. There are five sections narrated by Zhang but the other four narrators, Angel, Martine, Alexi, and San Xiang, have only one episode each and they all have at best only a tangential relationship to Zhang. It is therefore difficult to see what purpose these sections serve apart from to pad the novel out or else to illuminate Zhang’€™s world a little more fully than he can on his own – a flaw to my mind.

Still, the prose, being eminently readable, rolls along easily and the characters are well enough drawn. However, one does strike a cord in another at one point. (I had always thought it was a chord that was struck in such circumstances.)

Martine’€™s and Alexi’s strands are connected to each other (they marry) but are set on Mars where Zhang never sets foot! (He does communicate -€“ via a fifteen or so minute delay – with Alexi, by vid.) Martine’€™s and Alexi’€™s story is left hanging somewhat, though. The other two non-Zhang strands are quite divorced from the rest of the book.

Its episodic nature and the unrelated aspects of the strands made the book read more as a collection of short stories rather than a coherent novel and made me think this was actually a fix-up. A quick check reveals this to be at least partly the case since sections two, “Kites,”€ and three, “€œBaffin Island,”€ appeared in Asimov’s in 1989. As a result I am at a loss as to why this “novel” was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards in that category for 1993. It can only be for its unusual setting which almost seems designed to conclude that “€œMarx was wrong”€ – as Zhang intimates to a class he teaches in the last section.

The read here is undemanding; the prose is transparent and the characters are mostly engaging. Good enough; but, for me, not an award nominee.

*Zhong Shan can also mean China Mountain -€“ hence the title.

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