Maureen F. McHugh:China Mountain Zhang

This is one of the most interesting books I've read in a while.

It's not really a novel, despite appearances. It tends to follow one character, Zhang Zhong Shan/Rafael Luis, but does wander off onto only partially-linked tangents with other main characters. No, this is really a collection of linked short stories.

As such, there is no plot on the grand scale. This is a story of a man trying to find a place for himself, in a world where the U.S. has become Communist Chinese, and pure Chinese are the first-class citizens. Zhang himself is half-Hispanic, and American-born at that. Further, his name, Zhong Shan, is embarrassing because it's the name of a Communist hero (a.k.a. Sun Yat-Sen), which translates as "China Mountain". And, finally, he is gay, under a regime that considers it a capital crime.

But he manages to carve a niche for himself anyway. Through a lengthy posting on Baffin Island, he gets a scholarship to a university in Beijing, where he learns a new technique called "organic engineering". By the end, he was returned to the States and is setting up his own business.

It's an almost prosaic, very low-key succession of events. The reason it succeeds is that Zhang is a very interesting character. He's prone to underestimating himself, and expecting failure because of his background. Watching his confidence develop is one of the joys of the book.

The few non-Zhang chapters deal with a few other aspects of the world that McHugh wanted to explore. One of them concerns kite racers over New York. Two others deal with Mars colonists(one of whom gets tutored in basic engineering by Zhang)trying to scrape by. Another deals with a friend of Zhang's who, shortly after surgery to make her face more beautiful, gets date-raped.

But it's Zhang that's the power of this book. If you like character-driven fiction, this is it. It's aroused in me an interest in Chinese language and culture like nothing else has. I recommend it highly.

%A McHugh, Maureen F.
%T China Mountain Zhang
%I Tor
%C New York
%D March 1992
%G ISBN 0-812-50892-0
%P 312 pp.
%O Paperback, US$3.99, Can$4.99

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