China Mountain Zhang – Maureen F McHugh (1992)
‘In the world of Zhang, the new charioteers are human-powered kites, racing above New York in a brief grab at glory. the new ultimate thrill for wealthy urbanites is to flirt with interactive death in illegal speakeasies. the opulence of Beijing has brought a new cultural imperialism.
And a new generation lives in fear and hope. It is a world in which Zhang is still finding his way…’
Blurb from the 1999 Orbit paperback edition.
Ironically it take a woman to write perhaps the best SF novel of the 20th century in which a gay man is the main character. Zhang is not only gay, he is an ABC (American Born Chinese) and is living in a Socialist States of America, a country still recovering from an ideological pogrom, ‘The Campaign of Cleansing Winds.’
The title comes from Zhang’s other names which translate as China Mountain, and though they may mean little to Americans, the Chinese recognise them as being those of Zhong Shan. This is a mild embarrassment to Zhang. It as if, he explains, an American had called his child George Washington. Zhang is not even genetically Chinese, as his mother is Spanish and he is a result of gene-splicing techniques. Thus he has many reasons to feel isolated and not completely at home within any culture.
Zhang becomes the victim of his own good nature when he agrees to let his boss’s daughter San-xiang stay with him after she argues with her father. The father assumes that Zhang has been sleeping with her and fires him, which is the start of Zhang’s adventures. This section is a marvellously constructed portrait of the complex rules of Chinese manners and etiquette, an intricate verbal dance which is designed to minimise embarrassment and ‘save face’.
Zhang, more by accident than design, gets a temporary assignment in the Arctic, on Baffin Island, which will allow him to gain enough credits to study engineering in China itself.
Occasionally, we divert to three other characters and see brief sections of their lives, such as Angel, one of the Kiteracers who gain wealth and glory by risking their lives flying through the skyscraper canyons of New York; and Martine, who produces honey and goats’ milk in a domed Martian colony, and San-xiang.
Later in the novel the tangential connections between Zhang and these ‘sidebar narratives’, as John Clute describes them, become clear and it is probably no coincidence that the three other voices are all women, albeit three very different women who have ‘unconventional’ relationships with men.
McHugh sublimely balances the human stories against a beautiful background of societal and technological development. The science of McHugh’s future is not without its drawbacks. Tailored viruses are used in one instance to cure Zhang (when he first visits China) of an infection, but which mutates and attacks his system to the extent where an another tailored phage is employed to regrow new kidneys within his body.
Similarly, San-xiang undergoes treatment via another virus which rebuilds the bones of her skull to give her a more attractive appearance. later, however, unused to the effect that her new face might have, she is picked up by charming stranger and raped.
One of Zhang’s vices is the kite races, although the danger for the racers themselves (who pilot kits like bats through the canyons of New York’s skyscrapers) is the mortality rate, as fliers are often killed. Later, in China, Zhang gets taken to an illegal club and plays a virtual reality game in which a kind of ‘Quidditch ping pong’ takes place in a virtual reality space. Managing to catch certain balls invokes a heightened sense of erotic pleasure which builds with the number of balls caught. The game is illegal, it transpires, because it is understandably addictive.
This theme of duality, the combination of positive and negative aspects, is echoed throughout the book on various levels, particularly in Zhang’s character, who is gay in a straight society and is a combination of Spanish and Chines.
Alexi and Martine’s system in the Martian commune provides the dome in which they live with oxygen, but has developed a fault and therefore – being a mechanism which gives them life – can also be a bringer of Death.
Hai Tao, Zhang’s tutor and lover in China, wears white suits, a colour which, depending whether one is occidental or oriental can symbolise Life or Death. Later Hai Tao goes to elaborate lengths to soften the safety glass of his apartment windows so that he can leap through it to his death.
It’s a stunning debut novel from McHugh, one which transcends the genre and works on many levels.