The flipside of this is that the book rarely dazzles. It is almost always involving, frequently moving, and sometimes tremendously beautiful; it is rarely exciting. It contains a number of lives -- primarily those of the titular Zhang; a flier of racing kites called Angel; Martine and Alexi, a couple living in a colony on Mars; and San-Xiang, daughter of Zhang's boss -- none of which, with the possible exception of Angel, are lives of adventure or excitement. "I am only free in small places" (44), Zhang tells us. His story is of self-betterment in a world where he can never reach the top and knows it, but he slogs long and hard anyway to earn his degree and find a job he's happy with. Martine and Alexi's lives are thoroughly domestic; and San-Xiang, though she is in a political discussion group, isn't exactly a revolutionary figure. And they are familiar people; we could know them today.
Similarly the world, though different from our own -- it's a world in which China is dominant, in which America has experienced a socialist revolution and is now a cultural and economic backwater -- is not filled with (or at least does not emphasise) things shiny and exciting, and does not change in any substantive ways over the course of the novel. Instead, the focus is on the world-as-it-is for the book's characters. Anyone who thought of Firefly when I mentioned China above is going to be on the wrong track, although you could say China Mountain Zhang addresses the things that Firefly handwaves, issues of class and culture and power. McHugh is, perhaps, a little too eager in the first twenty pages or so to clue us into the society and history of her world -- it never feels rushed, as such, just slightly too orchestrated, too convenient, not quite compatible with the "normal life" she purports to portray -- but that quickly settles down. And in the end, the amount of detail that accretes around the story becomes tangible, and you can feel the texture of the created world.
Reading McHugh's recent short story collection, Mothers and Other Monsters, I was struck by how steely and precise her prose often was. I didn't get the same sense from China Mountain Zhang. Both books engage the reader's emotion in the same way -- primarily, I would say, through the use of restraint -- but the novel felt somehow softer, more amenable to multiple interpretations. Which is not to say that Mothers and Other Monsters is in any sense didactic, just that I always felt that my response to a story was exactly the response McHugh intended, and that I can't say the same about the novel. This is partly because Zhang is such a reserved protagonist -- we may be inside his head, but I wondered more than once if we were really inside his heart -- and partly, I think, because the book has some indulgences.
Take the Mars segments. There are two, one from Martine's perspective, one from Alexi's; the former that describes their first faltering steps towards a relationship, the latter describes a crisis point. As stories of a relationship, they are finely observed, and -- incongruously, in this novel -- rather funny, or at least memorably bittersweet, as when the couple argue in a kitchen full of goats. As science fiction stories, they are, more or less, failures: McHugh's Mars lacks exactly the quality of tangibility that her future Earth has in spades, or to put it another way, the two planets feel exactly the same. Martine and Alexi are living a frontier life but, aside from occasional clumsy references to the low gravity and their sealed dwellings, there is little to indicate where they are doing it. There is, for instance, almost no depiction of the landscape in which they live; there is almost no explanation of how Martian society functions, in a nuts-and-bolts sense. There is little of either of these things in the Earthbound sections, but in those it works for the story. On Mars, where we can infer less from our experience, it works against it. Or to put it another way, it's not believable that Mars is so familiar.
Which is not to say that the I would take the Mars segments out of the book. grahamsleight has suggested a broad way of categorising near-future stories as either hedgehogs or foxes -- built around one major change from the present world, or many -- based on a fragment from Archilochus by way of Isiah Berlin: "The fox knows many small things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." China Mountain Zhang, in fact, was one of his examples of a fox book (for comparison, a film like Children of Men would be a hedgehog), and for me, as I've already hinted, that aspect was one of the book's greatest strengths. And I think the multiple viewpoints are essential to the effect: in a sufficiently complex world, one person simply can't see enough; or, arguably, the connections between people become as important as the people themselves. The stories in China Mountain Zhang nest and knit -- Zhang tutors Alexi; Zhang's friend ends up dating someone Angel knows; and so on -- and in doing so the book is made more than the sum of its parts.
Perhaps more than connections, though, China Mountain Zhang is defined by gaps. In what is probably the book's finest segment, Zhang travels to China to study for an Engineering degree and finds himself, as an American-Born Chinese, very much the outsider, despite half-hearted attempts to convince himself otherwise ("If my genetic map is within tolerance, then I am Chinese, right?" (169)). It is a narrative suffused with the emptiness of homesickness: Zhang is not at home in this world any more than we are. Almost everything he does is blank, perfunctory -- "We go out into the evening and catch a bus. Liu Wen is in charge and Haitao doesn't ask where we are going. So I don't either" (144) -- and in his detached state, he begins to be drawn into an addictive computer game. When his tutor commits suicide, Zhang calls his friend Peter back in New York, thinking, "it's good to talk, better than being alone, the money doesn't mattter. But all our words are empty" (183). There is, in this book, an irreducible distance between people; which is perhaps why it is so haunting. It is almost the Lost in Translation of sf novels.
Only once, I think, does McHugh really lose control of her narrative, and that is in the section narrated by San-Xiang. When we first meet her, at the start of the book, when Zhang's boss is trying to set the two of them up, San-Xiang is ugly, with a congenital deformity that twists her face into a piggish frown. When we encounter her for a second time, San-Xiang has had her deformity fixed, and she is beautiful. She is, in fact, giddy at the freedom this has offered her, overwhelmed by the extent to which it has changed her interaction with the world. McHugh pushes it further: on her very first date with her new face, she is drugged and raped. As with the Mars segments, the story itself is all the things it has to be, in this case painful and, as a sequence of events, horribly plausible. But as a component in a novel it doesn't fit; it seems implausible; it lacks the grace and restraint that is so distinctive in the other sections.
Which may of course be the point, but it seems a bit unnecessary. China Mountain Zhang won, among other things, a Tiptree Award, as an sf story that "expands or explores our understanding of gender." With the exception of the rape, it does so beautifully, in Martine and Alexi's relationships, in Zhang's relationships, and in its initial depiction of San-Xiang's transformation. We already have a sense of how fragile San-Xiang's new happiness is, without her first disillusionment being quite so brutal. Indeed, the lives and loves of these characters feel precious because of their fragility; the stories earn the happiness and promise they eventually almost all dole out as thoroughly as in any book I've read recently.
In a sense, though, you could argue that the book doesn't need to continue right to its end -- that it really ends three-quarters of the way through, when Zhang learns how to use the immersive "organic design" tools he's been struggling with for months. Because China Mountain Zhang isn't a book about learning the world; it's a book about living in the world.
And I reach. For a moment there is no perspective and I am on the edge of panic, but instead I give in, I let myself be swallowed by the emptiness and instead I expand, the system becomes my own memory. I fall through. I feel my mind's boundaries, I know how little I can think about at one time, and then those boundaries become unimaginably huge, and I am myself, myself, but able to think and have the thing I think in my mind without holding it, without concentrating, because I am using the system to concentrate for me. The system is there for me, a part of me. To modify the house I only have to think it and it is so, it hangs there.It is fragility embraced and, in consequence, overcome. Everything after is epilogue.
And even sitting there, the shell of my beach house just hanging there, I can feel that I am crying it. Because I have done it, I have done it.
I feel whole, and now it is time to go home. (234-5)