By Matthew Cheney
4 August 2008
Rereading can be a dangerous business. Texts that inspired us ten years ago, that opened our minds to new experiences and perspectives, can easily seem shallow and awkward after the experiences are no longer new, the perspectives grown so familiar as to feel passé.
Thus it was with some reluctance that I reread Maureen McHugh's first novel, China Mountain Zhang. I'd first encountered it when it came out in paperback in the mid-1990s, and my primary motivation for reading it was that I didn't know of any science fiction with a gay protagonist other than some of the novels and stories of Samuel Delany. At that time, all I really wanted from gay characters were people I could identify with to some extent, and most of Delany's characters possessed passions and proclivities that were alien to me (later, this is a quality I deeply valued in Delany's work, but not when I was a teenager).
Zhang, though, was a character I didn't have too much trouble understanding. Sure, he was vastly more adept at such things as manual labor and engineering than I could ever hope to be, and he was a mixed-race man whose genes had been manipulated to make him appear more Chinese in a future world where China is the most influential country on Earth—but he was also a fairly ordinary guy who often didn't understand the people around him, who struggled to balance individualism and loneliness, who didn't exactly know how to get what he wanted from life, and who didn't know how to dance. China Mountain Zhang is a mosaic of moments and characters, with background characters of one section entering the foreground of others, and I skimmed the sections where Zhang was not the primary focus. I built his character up in my mind, filling in any gaps and silences with elements of myself and my own world. I cherished the book as much for the character and what I had turned him into as for any other element.
Time passed and my copy of the novel disappeared in a box somewhere, or got loaned to someone and never returned. I moved on to other books and I developed different needs from the stories I read and the characters I read about. A couple years ago, I picked up another copy of Zhang at a used bookstore, but I didn't dare read it. Much of the science fiction I had loved as a teen had turned out, when read as an adult, to feel simplistic, clunky, shallow. I preferred my memories.
But then I got hired to teach a college course called "The Outsider," and as I was thinking about putting together a syllabus, I kept thinking back to China Mountain Zhang. It had so vividly summarized my feelings of outsiderness that I hoped it might be able to convey similar feelings to my students. To know if it might, though, I needed to reread it.
The experience proved to be one of those rare and wondrous ones of discovering an entirely new book within a book my other, younger self loved. That other self lives a few lifetimes away from me now, and I can't replicate the original experience of encountering Zhang and his world, but I wouldn't want to replicate that experience; it has its own integrity, and sits pleasantly in a warm bath of nostalgia. The experience I had shouldn't even be called rereading, because though the text was the same, my two encounters with it were utterly different ones, though both rewarding.
What I realized when I read it this time is that China Mountain Zhang is an example of a rare type of science fiction that I particularly love, and that is, in fact, one of the only types I have much interest in reading these days: The story of ordinary people doing ordinary things in an imagined world.
Literature began, of course, as stories of extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. Stories about ordinary life are, for the most part, a pretty recent innovation. As a reader, one of my biggest limitations is that I am left cold by many of the great tales of the past—I can appreciate the accomplishments of, for instance, the ancient Greek poets and playwrights, but their poems and plays have only academic interest for me. I am simply incapable of growing passionate about any other writer whose main characters are kings and queens and lords and ladies. classical heroes and villains. (It's no coincidence that one of my favorite playwrights is Georg Büchner, whose Woyzeck is among the earliest plays about ordinary people.) Shakespeare is the only exception I have yet encountered, because my affinity for his particular sort of language and dramaturgy is so strong as to blast through the walls of indifference that protect my passion.
It's a wonder, really, that I ever got interested in science fiction at all, since most SF is about heroes and villains, and most SF plots require those heroes and villains to commit actions that affect many people, and sometimes entire worlds and universes. This is one spot for SF's (in)famous lack of character depth is a strength for it—my interest grew not because of the characters, but because of the worlds they inhabited.
I stopped reading much science fiction in my late teens when I needed more from fiction than whizbang ideas and weird worlds. I devoted myself to other sorts of weirdness, particularly Kafka and Beckett, then to my great and abiding fictional loves, Anton Chekhov and Virginia Woolf. Their worlds were distant enough from mine to feel almost like science fiction, and yet they wrote about people in a way that created the only sort of realism I put much value on: I felt like I knew these characters, had lived with them, had seen the world through their eyes and felt it through their senses.
It is certainly possible, of course, to write of great and powerful people in such a way—Shakespeare accomplished this, I think, with some of the characters in his greatest tragedies, as did Tolstoy with War and Peace—but most of the time it doesn't work, because the scale of a single human being, no matter how powerful, is an utterly different scale from that of large events. Writers, no less than photographers, must choose between a close-up and a wide-angle view.
That analogy is hardly exact, though, because what writers can do is give a close-up view of people within a wide-angle landscape. That's the accomplishment of China Mountain Zhang that so impressed me when I read it recently, and it's an accomplishment science fiction and fantasy are particularly capable of. World-changing events led by larger-than-life characters distract from the details of everyday existence and diminish what is human and universal by puffing it up into a cartoon. I am particularly impatient with novels that do this, because one of prose fiction's greatest strengths is its ability to create a sense of intimacy, of merging the reader's consciousness with the imagined consciousness of a character and allowing us a connection that is impossible in reality. This is certainly not the only thing fiction can do, but it is one of the few things it can do better than any other medium.
McHugh inserted an epigraph from Camus at the beginning of China Mountain Zhang: "A simple way to get to know about a town is to see how the people work, how they love and how they die." More science fiction writers should heed this idea rather than trying to write heroic epics, because the effect, done well, offers the benefit of realistic and powerful characterization while also allowing vivid worldbuilding.
There is, or at least should be, room enough for all sorts of different types of fiction with all sorts of different purposes, so I don't mean to call here for the abandonment of heroic epics and grand adventures—more readers enjoy them than not. But novels like China Mountain Zhang are in a small minority, and we would gain much if that minority were just a little bit bigger. The act of imagining other worlds is as important and enjoyable a one as imagining other minds, and when the two are mixed, without hyperbole and without melodrama, the effect can be deep and satisfying.