In the world of Zhang, the new charioteers are human-powered kites, racing above New York City 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…
From the hot new debut to a debut over two decades old, that won three awards, hit two more ballots (not all genre!), and brought its author to light. Ask about queer science fiction and China Mountain Zhang will inevitably come up; and there’s incredibly good reason for that…
The risk with a future-set novel where China dominates the world is that the Yellow Peril will creep in; China Mountain Zhang‘s first hurdle is acknowledging and dealing with that risk… something McHugh does admirably. This isn’t a China-calling-in-its-debts scenario, this is China as the last man standing while capitalism collapses in on itself; McHugh presents the events leading up to her world only late in the book but they are very plausible, leaving China in the position the US currently occupies: a prestigious place to study, with cultural domination over the rest of the world and the racism/nepotism which goes with that. China Mountain Zhang‘s future Earth isn’t a terribly nice place in many respects – the US has aspects of a developing nation – and it’s an uncomfortable one for Western readers, because it foresees the end of our cultural domination, but it is also a plausible and fascinating one, mixed in its impact, neither wholly negative nor wholly positive.
The plot is a slightly odd coming of age plot; China Mountain Zhang focuses on a series of points in Zhang’s life – his job as an engineering tech, the job in the Arctic that follows it, his studies at a university in China and his return to New York CIty. What we see is his maturing, from an independent but immature person at the start to a rounded, thoughtful, mature human being at the end of the novel; it is explored slowly and through the series of events of which we only see snapshots, and each snapshot advances his character on while showing us how the previous snapshot changed him. It’s a fascinating approach, as we fill in gaps in the chronology ourselves, discover what McHugh has put into her worldbuilding, and constantly have to adjust our expectations. The interspersed snapshots of others, especially the Martian colonies, who interact with Zhang is fascinating, both expanding the world we see and also showing other responses to that world; these glimpses of other lives bring out the complexity and immensity of McHugh’s future in a way Zhang’s life alone could not, and detail aspects of human experience that he could never encounter. That includes an abusive date that ends in rape, something we the reader see coming but the character involved does not, an intensely uncomfortable passage that McHugh builds and builds to its inevitable and horrific conclusion.
It also includes the position of homosexuality in the world. China Mountain Zhang has a large, diverse cast (although no black characters, I think?) of which a not-insignificant proportion, Zhang included, are gay. In this future, however, homosexuality is illegal, and so McHugh uses ideas and models from when homosexuality was illegal in the West in how the subculture works; dogging, rent boys, cruising, and so on are all described in sordid detail (McHugh makes the sordidness clear) while homosexuality is shown to be a perfectly human feeling. It’s this sensitive touch on a sensitive subject that really makes that aspect stand out; McHugh doesn’t condone but also doesn’t explicitly condemn the criminalisation of homosexuality, only looks at the impact of that criminalisation.
All in all, then, China Mountain Zhang deserved the high praise and accolades it won, deserves to be a Gollancz Masterwork (which it isn’t), and is a must-read.