Sunday, December 18, 2016

Staff Review: China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh

A mosaic novel is made up of a series of related short stories that stand up well individually, yet taken as a whole become something bigger. As a non-English major*, I had no idea there was a name for this until last year. Having a name for one of my favorite types of book has helped me in tracking down new books to read.

When I read an article that mentioned Maureen F. McHugh's first book and described it as a mosaic novel, I snapped it up immediately. Published in 1992, China Mountain Zhang was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula and won a Locus Award for Best First Novel, a Lambda Award, and a James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award.

There is some excellent world-building in China Mountain Zhang, and the imagined future holds up fairly well almost 25 years later. Part of why it does is McHugh's focus on the characters: people are recognizably people no matter how different their worlds might be. Because of the focus on the characters' lives, readers learn about the larger setting gradually. A character will reference some historical event in one story, two stories later you'll get a few more details, while other pieces of the background are left almost entirely to your imagination. This added to the book's suspense and made it harder for me to put down at the end of my lunch break.

The central character of the book, the person who ties the various stories together, is Zhang Zhongshan. His name roughly translates to China Mountain Zhang, though his oldest and closest friends know him as Rafael. Zhang lives in a future where China is the center of the civilized world and has the best technology, universities, fashion, etc. Zhang is a native of New York and fortunate in his Chinese father. That his mother is Hispanic is less beneficial to his chances for advancement. Even more damning is the fact that he is gay, something he would be killed for in China. It's less dire in the States, though I suspect the consequences of official discovery would be very grim.

This was probably my favorite book of 2016 and I don't want to give too much else away, so I'll limit myself to one final appeal: there are domed communes on Mars with beekeeping colonists. Politics AND space bees!

~Sarah, Adult Services

*Anthropology, in case you were curious

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