An Excess Male: A Novel by Maggie Shen King * Format: Kindle * 10//12/17
😸😸😸😸🔵 (Rated 4/5 happy lap cats)
An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King is a work of speculative fiction that takes place in Beijing, China in the near future, specifically the year 2030. It’s set in a dystopia of sorts that’s based on an issue that’s very real and quickly reaching critical mass: the ramifications of China’s one-child policy, which, when combined with Chinese culture’s inherent misogyny, has led to an overwhelming preference for male babies.
As a consequence, there are ~42 million more males than females in China. As these boys mature into men, the missing girls from their age cohort (who were taken from the birth roster due to such methods as sex-selected abortions and infanticide), won’t be available for them to marry. Researchers estimate that by 2030, 25% of men in their late 30s will remain unmarried due to lack of available female partners. This is expected to contribute to a myriad of societal issues, including increased crime, an older skewing population without enough younger workers to support their elders in old age, increased prostitution and trafficking of females, and increased discrimination against women.
In her first novel, author Maggie Shen King looks at this grim reality and its predicted consequences, then uses them as inspiration to write one possible future outcome. As with The Handmaids Tale, the choices the author makes seem to be based in reality, though I haven’t checked every situation for authenticity.
The result follows a complex family that seeks to add one more member to their number. No one from either family comes without a past that affects their current interactions, and none of them can manage to follow the rules of their oppressive, paranoid state-run society for long.
The solution to the extra male problem that the China of An Excess Male turns to is polyandry. Each woman is allowed, and even encouraged, to marry three husbands, and to bear a child by each of them. Anyone on the LGBTQ scale or with what the government considers to be a mental or emotional defect will be sent away for re-education, not allowed to marry, and possibly never seen again. If they do marry, and are discovered, at the very least they will be sterilized and removed from their families. Much like the philosophy of the Nazis, the government’s thinking is that if the number of births is going to be so limited, there is no need for anyone but the best to reproduce. And no need for them to take part in child rearing, risking possible damage to a child.
The story is told by four narrators, who alternate chapters. They are the three adults already in a polyandrous marriage, and the man they are considering adding as their 3rd husband.
May-ling is the young, attractive wife of two brothers who are decades older than her, and the mother of two year old Bei Bei. She was neglected and abused as a child; mainly born to earn, for her parents, the dowry money they sold her for. She is bored, ignored, and treated like a child by her husbands, but she has never known anything different, so she tolerates the situation for years.
Hann is May-ling’s first husband, the older of the two brothers. He is an accountant, and the head of the household. He’s used to keeping his secrets and juggling what he perceives as everyone’s needs and desires. He tends to forget to actually ask people what they think and want. He loves May-ling as a sister, but it can never be anything more. Unfortunately, May-ling is passionately in love with him, and wants more. Bei Bei is his son, conceived through tortuous rounds of required marital sex.
XX (an abbreviation of his name that he chooses to use instead) is a world class security expert who is fanatical about maintaining the family’s, and his own, privacy. He is Hann’s younger brother and May-ling’s second husband, having married her one year after her marriage to Hann, though the contracts were negotiated together. He is socially awkward to the extreme, prefers not to be touched, hates loud noises, and wouldn’t mind living alone. He is also fiercely loyal and devoted, intelligent, and organized. He is a man with a plan, even though the rest of the family isn’t ready to hear it yet.
Wei-guo is a personal trainer and entrepreneur in his early 40s who has spent his entire adult life saving up in order to afford to get married. The most he can afford is to buy into a plural marriage as the third husband. He is a child of plural marriage himself, so this doesn’t bother him, as long as he finds a family that he connects with. After only one lunchtime meeting, he thinks he’s found that with May-ling, but as negotiations continue, the lives of Wei-guo, May-ling, and her two husbands become more complicated than they could have ever imagined. Wei-guo just might be the missing puzzle piece to hold their family together, if he can hold his own life together.
Some of the narrators tell their story in the first person, while some are in the third person, to reflect their engagement with the others in the relationship. The narrators focus on their personal experiences and relationships, so it’s up to the reader to piece together a picture of the larger society based on the four very different filters we view the world through. The characters’ involvement with the world varies. May-ling is stuck trying to be a supportive spouse and full-time mom. She often doesn’t talk about much beyond her personal relationships, while all three men are directly involved in politicized issues.
This brings me to the two flaws I should point out in An Excess Male. The author’s language is lively and compelling, and generally the story keeps moving. However, for approximately the first 30% of the book, it feels like the characters do nothing but bicker with their loved ones. There are good reasons for these discussions, at first. This is a story that begins and ends with domestic issues, and a major theme is the study of how the gender imbalance wreaks havoc on the traditional culture and norms. But the arguments become repetitive at a certain point. I was considering giving up on this book, but then things finally started happening. From then on I barely put the book down until I finished it.
The other flaw, as some readers may have already guessed, is the lack of attention given to May-ling’s character, and the lack of female characters in general. In 2030, there are expected to be ~699 million females in China, and ~742 million males. That’s a significant difference, and it will apparently skew young, but it certainly means there will still be women and girls everywhere in society.
In her book, the author took some creative license to make the gender statistics more unbalanced than real life, but there are almost no speaking female characters other than May-ling. She has only a few brief, hostile conversations with other mothers. Otherwise, we don’t see her interacting with other women.
Instead, her chapters revolve around making the men happy, interpreting the men’s silences, trying to get the men to take her seriously, and struggling to take care of Bei Bei alone while her husbands run off and have storylines. Her main role is to be the coveted, or not coveted, woman, that most precious commodity in this society.
Once again, women are seen solely as objects. It would be fine if women were solely objects to the men. But May-ling isn’t filled out as a character the way the rest of the narrators are, either. She’s left as an object to herself, and to us. It’s also fine for this to be a story about men and the male perspective. But May-ling still deserves to be a fully drawn person, as an equal participant in the marriage. It’s as if King herself wasn’t sure how to write a full time mom as a person with interests, dreams and an inner life of her own.
Other than the lack of women, the world of An Excess Male is vividly drawn within the confines of the narrators’ points of view. There are many secondary male characters who are richly drawn and help bring the world to life. The claustrophobic way of life in a society where everyone is encouraged to spy on and turn in everyone else comes through in the narration, and grows as the characters peel back their layers. What starts as merely a domestic story adds a political thriller component by the end that ratchets up the suspense.
In real life, China converted its one-child policy to a two-child policy in 2015, and has taken measures to even out the male to female birthrate. The lives of women have improved somewhat, as, when they are the only child, women become valued and expected to work and contribute to the family just as a male would. Small families also leave women with more free time to pursue careers or their own interests, as opposed to the time it takes to rear a large family.
Maggie Shen King has given us a fascinating, engaging peek into a world where culturally “normal” heterosexual men dominate in sheer numbers, not just in socioeconomic status, rendering everyone else invisible. I would love to read a sequel to this book set a few years in the future, to see how the fictional society and family evolve, and to see if the events of the novel have any effect on the culture in the long run.
You might like this book if you like The Man in the High Castle, The Handmaids Tale or 1984.
World Population Prospects 2017 Data Query- China 2030: Total Population by Sex