Tuesday, October 02, 2007

[Book Review] CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG by Maureen McHugh

Fiction/Gay and Lesbian , Science Fiction

Jesse Pool reviews CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG by Maureen McHugh (Tom Doherty Associates, 1992)

Winner of a 1992 Lambda Literary Award, China Mountain Zhang portrays a future where a series of socialist revolutions called the Great Cleansing Winds have swept most of the globe and China has become the only world superpower. McHugh explores this future through the stories of Rafael Zhong Shan Zhang and several other characters whose lives tangentially connect with his.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Zhang appears to have all the makings of a successful American Born Chinese, or ABC for short. He is young and well-mannered as well as a trained engineering tech. However, Zhang has several secrets he’d like to keep. First of all, he’s not really full-blood Chinese—his mother is Hispanic, but his parents made sure he was genetically altered at birth to receive the full benefit of a Chinese appearance. Even though Zhang looks Chinese, the name his mother gave him is the Chinese equivalent of George Washington Jones, which is why he chooses to go by his last name. An even larger hurdle for Zhang is the fact that he is a homosexual, which is an offense that can lead to social ostracism, hard labor reform or even execution in socialist America and elsewhere.

Zhang’s troubles begin one day at work when his boss—Foreman Qian, who is an exile from China—asks him to come home to meet his daughter as a possible suitor in hopes of getting them both back to China. His boss does not realize that Zhang is gay and not full-blooded Chinese. To make matters worse, Qian's daughter has an unattractive facial deformity which she assumes is the cause of the awkwardness between them. Despite their awkwardness, a friendship develops between them which ends up costing Zhang his job.

From there, we follow Zhang as he spends time working at the North Pole, studying in China, and looking for work in Arizona. These tales are interspersed with narratives by people whose lives intersect with his. Several episodes even take place on a Martian colony, where Zhang tutors an engineering student long distance from Earth.

I found it interesting how McHugh also flavors the text with Chinese, Spanish, futuristic slang (e. g., bent for gay) and science fiction staples such as people plugging directly into machines and the colonization of space. China Mountain Zhang evokes elements of both classic science fiction and the cyberpunk movement of the 1980’s as well as explores the relationships that bond the many different and varied characters. The future world she describes is both believable and vivid.

Jesse Pool, Highland Branch Library

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