China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh (1992) 313 p.

Science fiction is a reflection of its own age. Look at any contemporary sci-fi story, whether it’s Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2312 or the time travel film Looper or the TV series Firefly, and it’s commonly accepted that the United States is in decline while China is on the rise – in fact, 60-70% of Americans consistently say just that in polls. Personally, I think this is shortsighted – remember the late 1980s, the time of Nakatomi Plaza and The Rising Sun, when everyone thought the Japanese were going to take over? I have no doubt that China will certainly enjoy its moment in the sun this century, but the further one goes into the future the less likely one’s predictions are to be accurate, and I wouldn’t mind seeing some sci-fi writers buck the trend and focus on a world where the hyperpower is India (the next obvious choice) or something less obvious but just as justifiable given a couple of centuries, like Brazil or Indonesia or Australia. Or a unified Africa. Or the Pan-Pacific Empire. Or whatever.

In any case, Maureen McHugh deserves credit for being ahead of the curve on science fiction’s trending geopolitical prediction. China Mountain Zhang was published in 1992, just as the Cold War was wrapping up and before most people thought China might ever make something of itself. Set in the early 22nd century, it proposes that China is the world’s dominant power and the United States has undergone a communist revolution. China Mountain Zhang, the protagonist, is an “ABC” or American-born Chinese. Secretly, he is half Hispanic, but his mother had him genetically modified as a child to make him appear more Asian, which gives him a social advantage in a Chinese-dominated world. (“The Chinese are the worst racists,” his mother opines. Zhang thinks, “This is not surprising but nor is it helpful. Nor is it a good political thing to say but everybody knows it.”) Zhang also has a second, more troubling secret – he is gay. In the US this is socially unacceptable; in China it is a capital crime. The book begins with Zhang’s boss trying to arrange for him to marry his daughter, using the promise of studying in China as a reward, and the uncomfortable situation Zhang is dragged into as a result.

China Mountain Zhang is a deeply realistic science fiction novel, primarily in the way that it portrays the situation in the United States. Most American authors would depict a communist, Chinese-dominated USA as a nightmarish dystopia – and, indeed, Zhang’s America is far from wonderful, and despite America’s gross hypocrisy and myriad social problems, I would never seriously compare it to China. Yet the truth is that most people all over the world spend their time just getting by, and it makes not much difference to them whether they live under capitalism or communism, democracy or dictatorship. Just look at the hundreds of millions of new middle class Chinese who are happy to live under the Communist Party as long as they have running water and electricity, or the hundreds of millions of Americans who don’t much care if Obama is murdering American citizens as long as he does something about the economy. Or, as Zhang puts it, “I don’t believe in socialism but I don’t believe in capitalism either. We are small, governments are large, we survive in the cracks. Cold comfort.”

It’s clear from early on that this is not an epic sci-fi novel, not even on the politically realistic scale of one of Kim Stanley Robinson’s books. A miniscule amount of humans ever have any grand impact on the world they inhabit, and China Mountain Zhang is about exploring Zhang’s world and developing his personal story rather than chronicling some critical event in a well-developed future history. The “Cleansing Winds” are referred to throughout, and it only gradually becomes clear that this is the name for the American communist revolution. We learn that Canada is still a constitutional monarchy and Australia is on track to become the “next economic power,” but these things are only mentioned in passing. China Mountain Zhang is told from the bottom, looking up – not the top, looking down.

China Mountain Zhang is thus a slow-moving, character-driven book, and while I can’t say I hugely enjoyed it, I did find it compelling, readable and worth my time. It deserves its various awards and accolades. Even twenty years on from its initial publication, I found it to be notably different from most mainstream science fiction novels, and it’s certainly worth reading.