Maggie Shen King grew up in Taiwan but is now living in the US and writing in English. Nevertheless, since her novel An Excess Male takes place in a 2030 China that has to grapple with the consequences of its one child policy, I thought it was more than appropriate to include her in the China in September reading plans.
This was a really excellent, enjoyable read set in a recognisable near-future, a companion piece in some ways to The Handmaid’s Tale. Labelled as science fiction, I would consider it speculative fiction, the ‘what if’ scenario with the focus far more on the characters and their relationships, the technology only slightly more advanced than what we have nowadays but still chillingly plausible.
The premise itself is simple: China’s long-running one-child policy (revoked since the book was published in 2017), combined with the cultural preference for male heirs, has led to a severe shortage of women in this imagined 2030 scenario. Polyandry is therefore common, with men having to save up for years if not decades for a dowry, but many are left on the sidelines, at the mercy of state intervention. They are allowed to engage in regulated war games to let off any pent-up frustrations, are assigned a Helpmate to engage in monthly (or so) sex, and are periodically checked for sexual cleanliness in the most intrusive manner. They are also regarded with suspicion – could they be Willfully Sterile (i.e. homosexual), which is against the law, or perhaps one of the Lost Boys (introverted personality with no social skills and perhaps some mental health conditions), in which case they should not marry, for fear they might pass on their condition to their children.
Wei-guo is a personal trainer with a touching belief that as long as he continues to work hard, live by the rules and save money, his chance at marriage will come. He’s finally saved up enough money and goes to a matchmaker to find a suitable family – albeit only for the least prestigious of husband roles, namely the third husband (only recently allowed by law). The family he meets is not at all prepossessing at first: Hann, the first husband, is an imposing but cold businessman, the second husband is his younger brother, a taciturn computer specialist and inveterate gamer who wants to be known as XX. Yet Wei-guo feels an instant attraction to the wife May-ling, and even seems to get on well with her boisterous toddler son BeiBei, shunned by everyone at the playground.
However, it turns out this is a family with dangerous secrets. May-ling comes from a family of ‘daughter breeders’, who sell off their prized assets to the highest bidder. So the parents of Hann and XX, who long suspected their sons were not ‘normal’, paid very well to protect them by giving them the semblance of a normal family life. It turns out that Hann is gay and XX is what might be called an incel nowadays, and all of them would be severely punished if the state found out about their true situation. Can they trust Wei-guo to keep their secrets, especially in a state where surveillance is a given and none of your colleagues, friends or neighbours can be trusted?
The first part of this novel – in actual fact, three quarters of it – is all about the gradual burgeoining of the relationships between the four main characters, and is told from their alternating viewpoints. The world-building is subtle, rather than the main focus. Science-fiction or action fans will perhaps be disappointed that the fighting climax and rebellion come very late in the book. But this is precisely what I liked about it: it’s an exploration of the complexities of love, family, sense of belonging, about being allowed to show your true colours. It is also about the claustrophobia of living in a state that so heavily regulates your personal life, which needless to say resonated with me.
A book that throws up many interesting questions, with well-developed characters that I found myself truly caring for. I’m not sure why this hasn’t achieved the same buzz as The Power or The Last, for example, because it is absolutely deserving of it.