I once quoted Nalo Hopkinson as saying that SF is often about alienated people, but rarely written by them. Maureen McHugh is, at first sight, one of the last people you would think of as alienated, and yet she has written a wonderful book about being an outsider. She’s white, an academic, from a small farming town in Ohio, for goodness sake. How less alienated can you get? She has also lived and worked in China, which is about as far from Ohio as Oz is from Kansas.
I know a thing or two about this. You wouldn’t think that for a middle class white girl, uprooting yourself from Britain and going to work in Australia and then California would be a huge culture shock. But it is. In some ways it is a very nasty one because you don’t start to realise just how different those societies are until you have been there a year or two. China at least is recognisably different from day one. It is also the only society on the planet that can, with perfect justification, look down on Westerners as ignorant, barely civilised barbarians. And it is still avowedly Communist. If you want to feel alienated, it is a good place to go.
And so to China Mountain Zhang which is chock full of alienated people. Zhang, the hero, has it in spades. His mother is Hispanic, but his parents had him genetically altered so that his looks came solely from his Chinese father. In the post-revolutionary America in which the book is set, being a racially pure Chinese is an enormously valuable asset, but Zhang only looks like he is, and he knows it. He is gay too, and whilst that is survivable in his native New York it is still a bullet through the back of the head job in the People’s Republic. If that wasn’t enough, his parents named him after a great Communist hero, Zhong Shan. It is, he tells us, rather like being called George Washington Jones, or Karl Marx Smith.
Zhang isn’t the only alienated character either. San-xiang has a rare bone defect that gives her a face more like a monkey than a woman. Cinnabar used to be a kite racer, but he hurt himself in a crash and is now grounded. Alexi has simply, through no fault of his own, fallen to the bottom of the social pile. He has discovered that whilst Communist America will always find him a job, it will always be one that no one else wants and he will never get a chance to earn enough to work his way back up because he’ll never get an opportunity to use his programming skills. His wife died soon after childbirth, and right now he and his six-year-old daughter have just been relocated to Mars.
It is, I found, a very depressing book to read. All of these characters are put upon by society in some way. All of them seem destined to fail, in a society that is supposed to enforce the dictum that all men are created equal. But of course they are not, and never will be. One of the lessons that McHugh seems to want us to draw is that no amount of Marxist dialectic can make people equal, and if we believe that simply by having a revolution we make them so we are deluding ourselves. Any community which relies on theory rather than care is lost.
There is more politics too, most of which I should probably steer clear off to avoid giving anything away. What I think I can say, because this is definite interpretation and not an obvious message in the text, is that the book is about organic social engineering.
About what? It goes like this. Zhang eventually ends up learning the craft of organic engineering. This is a very eastern sort of thing. It is holistic building design that you can only do in a Daoist or Zen-like trance. It goes with the flow of the world around it, rather than imposing structure on the world as Western engineering tends to do. Politics, I have interpreted McHugh as saying, should be done in the same way. Don’t impose theories on the world, take it as you find it and work with what you have. Very anarchist, though perhaps not very practical. Real life, after all, tends not to have happy endings.
This book has won a heap of awards. It got the Tiptree for having a gay hero without that being the point of the book. It got a Locus Award for Best First Novel. There are Hugo and Nebula nominations in there too. All I can say is that they are thoroughly deserved. But try not to read this book when you are seriously depressed.
This review originally appeared on Emerald City.
See also this SF Mistressworks review of China Mountain Zhang.