China Mountain Zhang is the name of the main character, often referred to just as Zhang (J AH ng). Zhang, or Rafael, as he is of mixed heritage, is an ABC (American Born Chinese) who lives in New York in a world in which China has risen as the dominant world power. America's capitalism has collapsed and the result is the spread of a socialist state, presumably across the globe, but certainly in parts of the United States, including New York.
I don't believe in socialism but I don't believe in capitalism either. We are small, governments are large, we survive in the cracks. Cold comfort.
What makes this book really sing and differentiate itself from other cyberpunk and post cyberpunk also really help to create a world that feels very real, in that it is also mundane and therefore relatable. The technology has not radically altered life, especially for marginalized individuals like Zhang. Not only does he not have the advantage of being purely Chinese, as his mother is Hispanic and his father Chinese, but he is also a gay man, or "bent." At the same time he also "passes" for Chinese, which affords him some benefits of society in a China dominated world. at the same time knowing that more scrutiny would reveal that he's a deviant, as they also call it.
If to come is the petit mort, the little death—and it seems to me it is because everything is burned away for that brief, explosive time—then waking up in someone's bed is resurrection. It's only a little death and a correspondingly sordid resurrection. It is not life that falls on me so much as obligation. I have engineering at nine A.M. and I am in Haitao's bed. At the hour between dawn I'm rarely in love.
The book follows a few characters in the world, generally moving the narrative forward by years at a time before we come back to Zhang's life again. What is truly striking about the world is that it becomes so believable both because of the problems we already have in a capitalistic society, but also the small details that are placed throughout the world. It truly makes the world seem tedious, laborious, dejected. The change from capitalism to socialism has not actually changed much, or made people as we see them in the novel, happy. There is a pervasive fear regarding gender and sexual orientation. There is still a very clear stratification of class. There is the sense of being an "optimal" citizen by being a good worker. Labour is still not heavily rewarded. Not much then, has changed.
The house seems full. After a while the breathing turns into the ocean...the bed wakes me and I have been dreaming of the Pacific. In my dreams, the sky was full of crows.
What the book slowly becomes about while continuing to show the marginalized characters in this world while all the while, by the way, never filling in the details of how the world got like this until near the end. There are Kite Races, where viewers go and jack into people racing for their lives as they too are linked to the gliders they use to fly. Feeling the pain and aches of the glider as they soar for the pleasure of the audience. It still feels like capitalism. Entertainers make money and are chewed up and spit out at the audience's whims. Technology is used by humanity for various purposes making people's lives easier, while still contributing to their oppression. It is very much the same as we have now.
I always forget that half of the people who watch us fly are waiting to see us die.
While most cyberpunk stories revolve around technology, China Mountain Zhang instead shows you how much the real problem are societal structures and our own complacency in them. How the characters reinforce them, how they are oppressed by them. From a commune on Mars, to the promised land: China itself. Most everyone is trying to study and work there, and everyone has an underlying sense of being scrutinized for all of their decisions, relationships, and status in their environment. A Chinese woman facing problems in New York has a chapter. She is perceived as ugly, and when modern technology makes her "beautiful," she is taken advantage of basically immediately by a man. While this illustrates her point nicely, it was really on the nose and clearly for a story beat. It is irrefutable that attractive women deal with these things today, as they do in a futuristic socialist society. However, I think that it is a misstep to have this message wrapped up so perfectly with this character who isn't given much screen time, and the continual reiteration of how ugly she is...makes it seem as though the implication that only attractive women would suffer abuse of this kind. All the other characters were great and their purposes reinforced by the larger narrative.
In New York I ride a subway system built sometime in the 1900's, here buses segment and flow in different directions. There's a city above the city. a lacework super-structure that supports thousands of four-tower living units and work complexes like the University complex we live in; what they call the xin gonshe, new communes.
In a way, this is the darkest cyberpunk book I've ever read by rooting it all in a world that looks and feels just like ours, even as it was written in '92. The ways in which everyone is oppressed are simply facts of life. There is no real struggle against these machinations; the struggle is for these people to try to find happiness within these established structures, just as people do similarly now. They are all punks in that they are all apart from their respective communities and society in some way and they are all oppressed. But they are not people that take up arms against them. Their resistance and their respective battles are literally their lives. It is not glamorous or romanticized. Eeking out an existence has never been so interesting, poetic, and riveting. This take on what a punk is, is something I resonate with and happily consume.
"Una luz brillara en tu camina. Descubre lo que te has perdido." A Brilliant light in your path. Discover what you have lost.
Sunset used to depress me. But I learned in Baffin Island, you've just got to remember the light, keep it inside you, and wait. The Sun comes back every morning.