Science Fiction considers itself the literature of ideas, or is considered so to be by its fans and practitioners. Sometimes those ideas are grandly superficial—that people will fight each other (or stranger Others) by use of non-existent technologies, for example—but sometimes they go deeper than that, exploring issues that can impact lives both now and in imaginary time, making personal and social themes stand out in sharp relief by framing them in the unusual.
Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang focuses mainly on the life of its namesake, Zhang Zhong Shan, a young man whose name has a strange quality to his Mandarin-speaking contemporaries – a bit like being called “Abraham Lincoln Jones”. This is a near-future in which the last remaining capitalist systems only exist in the shadow of a single global superpower, the fantastically wealthy socialist China, and Zhang bears the name of one of this new world’s architects in a clumsy attempt to pave his future with gold. Mixed race Chinese-Hispanic, his genes modified to present the advantageous look of a pure-blooded citizen, Zhang lives in constant fear of discovery on several levels: first, that this half-secret imposed upon him by his parents will inevitably come to light, undoing what little good it was capable of in the first place; and second, that his homosexuality will be discovered – a greater transgression in this fiercely conservative society, one that at the very least could ruin his already stalled engineering career, and at worst cost him his life.
Though a New Yorker born and bred, after America’s socialist revolution the Chinese influence dominates all culture near and far and Zhang feels ill at ease in his home. The guilt over being falsely perceived unceasingly infects his consciousness, and ultimately drives him into a journey around the world. This is not so much a quest to find himself as it is a hopeless bid to leave himself behind, and he is not alone in this urge. Separating the stages of his life we slip into the lives of others – a kite racer, would-be star of what is not always a death-defying competition; two emigrants to the struggling colonisation effort on Mars; an introverted woman disfigured by both her genes and her father’s poor decisions, but for whom acquired beauty may not be a solution – each with their own insecurities and obstacles, all contributing to the gradual reveal of the world around them.
Despite the heightened possibilities that science fiction bestows, the world McHugh creates is recognisably plausible even when it is fantastic – and it is fantastic. Yet it is also subtle. While taking in the futures of New York and China, the hostile wastelands of the Arctic and humanity’s first foothold on another planet, there is never a sense that anything matters more to the story than the experiences of the characters and how they are affected. Depression and naïveté are common to them all – the latter occasionally to a degree that made my eyes roll – but how they succumb or overcome brings them and their environment to vivid life.
China Mountain Zhang is a great novel, undoubtedly to be up at the top of my list for 2014. In the twenty-two years since it was first published, I can’t imagine that it would ever have been less moving, nor less relevant, to a reader than it is now; neither could it be more.