Making the future work: Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang

China Mountain Zhang is a fascinating example of a near future science fiction mosaic novel.

There are a number of notable mosaic novels—my favourite other examples are Hyperion, Tales of Neveryon and The Jewel in the Crown. A mosaic novel seems at first more like a short story collection all set in the same world, like Four Ways to Forgiveness or Capitol, but it soon becomes apparent that it is more than that. A normal novel tells a story by going straightforwardly at it, maybe with different points of view, maybe braided, but clearly going down one road of story. A mosaic novel builds up a picture of a world and a story obliquely, so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

China Mountain Zhang is one of the best mosaic novels ever written, and this was reflected in the attention it got on publication. It won the Tiptree and Lambda and was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula. I read it because of the Hugo nomination (after all, how many first novels get Hugo nominations?) and I’ve read it again probably every couple of years since, because reading it is a very enjoyable experience.

It’s a very unusual book. It’s not just the mosaic thing. It’s also a small scale book about ordinary people winning small scale victories without changing or saving the world. Yet it’s immensely readable and very hard to put down. It raises the stakes for what the stakes can be. Also, it has terrific characters.

China Mountain Zhang centers on Zhang Zhong Shan. His story spirals through the novel, and all the other stories and characters touch his. Zhang is fascinating. He’s a gay man from New York with spliced genes who’s passing—not only passing as straight, but also passing as Chinese. His voice is immediate and compelling—indeed, one of McHugh’s strengths is in the splendid solidity of the voices of her characters. But the real central character of China Mountain Zhang is the world.

This is a world dominated by China. At some time in the past, the US has had a proletarian revolution, and at some time only about fifteen years ago has had the Cleansing Winds Campaign, an overwhelming event like the Cultural Revolution in China. Global warming has made much of the interior of the US uninhabitable. Mars is being settled. Everything is socialist, but there are cracks. Stories often take place in the cracks, and this one is no exception.

This is a book about ordinary people getting by and coping with their everyday problems in a world that’s both weirdly different and weirdly similar to our own. It’s a very political book in the sense people normally mean. It’s showing us a world after a proletarian revolution in the US, for goodness sake. And yet it certainly isn’t a fantasy of political agency. None of the characters in the novel have any political agency at all. They’re all helpless against the system, and getting by as best they can in the cracks.

Zhang is an ordinary working-class working guy getting by without thinking about things too much. He’s an engineering tech who, during the course of the book, becomes an engineer. He uses futuristic cyberpunk equipment to do his job, but he takes it all for granted. He jacks in to his tools with a sigh. There is no glamour, even when he’s using computer systems to design houses organically. He’s also gay, in a much more unromantic and realistic way than I’m used to seeing with gay characters written by women. He has casual sex. He has a terrible time when he’s forced to live on Baffin Island where there’s no possibility of meeting anyone. He’s forced into an embarrassing situation taking the daughter of his boss on a date.

We also have the points of view of Martine, a twenty-year veteran who’s now lonely among her goats on Mars; Angel, who races a kite (a huge powered hang-glider) through the skies of New York City; Alexi, another Martian settler, who wants to get better at engineering; and San Xiang, an ugly girl who gets a new face and finds out it isn’t really what she wanted.

It’s surprising how unusual it is to have a book where the characters really work. Maybe I’ve just read too many quest novels and too many stories about interstellar traders. But it seems that in most fiction while characters may have a job, the story takes them away from it. We don’t see much in the way of actual work being done. Zhang’s work is futuristic and half-cyberpunk,  but he has to do it, and keep doing it. The economic relationship between work and living is more realistic in this novel than in any other SF future I can think of.

In the end, you’re left with a mosaic picture of a man in his world. Zhang’s world has clearly descended from our world. It’s better in some ways and worse in some ways. If not a plausible future, it’s not a future that’s dated itself out of existence in the fifteen years since the book was written. If not a hopeful vision, it’s not a disastrous one either. It has texture and ambiguity. I value that, and I’d like to see more of it.


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