Book Review: China Mountain Zhang

Time to catch up with the book reviews for the Sword & Laser Book Club, with my thoughts on China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh.

Book cover for China Mountain Zhang.

China Mountain Zhang feels like a fix-up novel, though it isn’t actually one. The novel follows the character of Zhang Zhongshan (his Chinese given name, his real name being Rafael Zhang), a gay man of mixed Hispanic and Chinese ancestry, who is working in a future New York City where, following an economic collapse, the United States not only had a communist revolution, but a Maoist communist revolution. As the story goes on, Rafael goes from being a construction worker to developing a better skillset and becoming a teacher. The novel also has some side stories around some ancillary characters, like a glider pilot who does futuristic racing over the streets of New York City, and some colonists on Mars.

Rather than having chapters, it has the vibe of a collection of self-contained short stories. Each story involves a particular story from a side character or from Rafael themselves, with a smaller character arc within each story.

The world of the novels is pretty well developed. Some of the discussion of the novel in the Sword & Laser book club said it wasn’t that dystopian compared to our world – but to be clear, the setting of the novel is one where Rafael, as a gay man, is at a very real risk of being sent to a re-education camp or, at worse, getting executed for being gay. By comparison – for all the economic issues with the US at present, while LGBT people are at risk of being killed… that’s as a hate crime, not at the level of systematic persecution experienced in Chechnya and the Russian Federation, much less what’s currently ongoing in China (in addition to the attempted systematic extermination of ethnic minority populations like the Ugyur in China).

So, the writing of the novel is dystopian, but in ways that feel authentic based on the actual actions that the Chinese government was doing – not just in China in the ’90s – but in a way that also feels oddly predictive of how some elements of Chinese government policy has developed over time.

I really enjoyed the novel, and I might even say it’s one of my favorites of the novels Sword & Laser has read for this year.

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