As you can see from a quick glance at the blog authors, I'm experimenting this year with adding blogging into the mix of things students do in my courses. So this semester I'll be posting post-group research/teaching-project learning analyses from students in my Science Fiction course here at sf@SF. The students' task in this assignment, one dimension of many they're being assessed on in this project, is simply to identify the one or two most interesting things they learned about the text and or writer on which they presented as a result of the planning, research, teaching, and reflection/assessment process they went through in doing the project. These are not meant to be full-blown analytical/interpretive/argumentative critical essays, but instead little personal, subjective pieces on what the text they taught meant to them and what they learned by teaching it.
I presented on the novel China Mountain Zhang, by Maureen McHugh. I decided to start my work by searching for easy facts pertaining to the novel. It was difficult to find information on the author. Worse yet, it was hard to find information on the novel itself.
What I did find were pointless blogs and random reviews. I started to base my research off of this. The blog by the author was pointless, and connecting this to the novel, I realized, it too, was pointless because it lacked a plot. Ironically, I found it interesting because why would someone write a book where nothing happens? I chose to focus on this feature of the work to see how others felt on the subject.
Stemming off from the idea of no plot, came the question of the point of multiple narrators that sounded identical. I also found this interesting. I did not understand why a writer would choose to have different perspectives, if they were going to end up with the same voice. Focusing on these ideas was useful because the students in the class pointed out valid reasons.
Although it comes up often in class, I thought more about the idea of what classifies a novel as science fiction. I wanted to be able to point out any facet that appeared in the text that could place it into the science fiction category. This made me read more clearly than I would have otherwise. I was forced to consider what mindset a writer must be in when writing a novel of this sort.
I thought more about the concept of what makes something a science fiction work as a result of this project. The writing style was a detail I focused more on because of its lackluster quality. This was an element I would not have focused on if I had not been preparing a presentation. Doing this work made me take a more in depth look into everything contained inside the novel, including the way it was crafted.
To be honest, I do not understand why this book is being taught in a course with other, better-known, science fiction novels. It was extremely difficult to locate any external sources on the book or the writer, Maureen McHugh, minus things like Amazon.com and Wikipedia (which I refuse to use in a project of any kind). The writer herself, who had a blog, did not discuss the book, though I did learn a great deal about her various pets. This made it extremely difficult to do the project as specified in the rubric and made us work more outside the box with our presentation.
The book itself, I found to be highly straightforward. I was able to follow it without too much trouble and went at a pretty fast pace while reading. I found it interesting that the writer decided to center the novel around China as the world’s superpower and not the conventional United States, though I wasn’t really fan of the McHugh’s “plotless” way of writing. While I understand that the book was to be more of a glimpse into the future, I was not very impressed with the lack of action. Any time a character came close to feeling something it would shift to a different narrator.
We reverted almost solely to the text and what we believed McHugh was trying to say within it, without any actual proof. At first this was a daunting experience, but then we realized that this opened more windows than it closed doors. We were able to use the text to our advantage, forming our own ideas of what we thought the writer was getting at, as opposed to telling the class what she meant. It greatly helped the discussion since we were able to keep prying and digging deeper.
Angel and I tried to focus on the characters and places and their effect on the overall feel of the novel. We noticed a strange consistency with many of the characters. They all “sounded” the same. Their dialogue, minus that of the true Chinese, was amazingly similar. So similar that, at first, I thought it was just poor writing on the part of McHugh. The class, however, opened my eyes to the idea that it represents how connected they all are. Even though they are hundreds of miles away (some being on Mars) they’re still connected by the Chinese superpower.
The places themselves were also a key example for us. Each place had its own separate feel, but at the same time they were all connected to China. Even Baffin Island, which wasn’t a part of the Chinese empire, was loosely attached, made clear by the easiness of Zhang’s initiation. One of the big things we made sure to talk about was the change of New York City, probably the world’s current leading city, and its downfall into just one more place under the power of communist China. I found this point especially interesting, given my own personal wish to one day live and teach in the city.
The project, though at first difficult to accomplish, came together well and I think we did a very good job. I was thankful that the class was responsive and helpful in our discussion and that we were able keep a steady flow of different answers. As I stated before, I just wish there had been more information on the writer and the novel out on the internet. I think that it would have made it easier for Angel and I to follow the rubric and its specifications.
Editor's note: Nothing against my students' research efforts, but there might have a been a few things of interest from and on McHugh (and CMZ) here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Not to mention what you can get through academic databases.... But their overall point is well-taken: close reading works!