A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #22:-
CHINA MOUNTAIN ZHANG
Maureen F. McHugh
Orbit pb, 314pp, £5.99
McHugh’s widely acclaimed debut novel, originally published in 1992, is set in a future dominated by China and where, after a bitter civil war, the USA is a socialist country. It is the rite of passage of a young New Yorker, the eponymous Zhang, a closet homosexual and bearer of a false genetic heritage, who rises through native ability to carve out a niche of his own in an unsympathetic world.
While the setting may be pure science fiction, with such familiar props as a Martian colony and radiation no-go zones, by and large these elements are incidental to the story. The obstacles that confront Zhang, racial and sexual prejudice, problems with his career and emotional life are not essentially different from those many people face in our own time, and McHugh doesn’t use the book’s genre bias to illuminate them in any new or meaningful way. Certainly she writes well, making her characters seem real and showing genuine empathy for Zhang’s confused state of mind. Her vision of a Chinese future is realised in convincing detail, with sidebar narratives from the lives of people touched by Zhang used effectively to flesh out the overall picture. The result is an absorbing story, but one that doesn’t really make much use of its designated genre’s potential.