Maggie Shen King is the author of An Excess Male: a dystopian tale of love and rebellion. In near-future China, the nation’s One Child Policy and cultural preference for male heirs have created a society overrun by 40 million unmarriageable men. An Excess Male is the story of one of these men, and his search for love and freedom in a country intent on squashing both. We recently spoke with King about the book, and the real events that inspired it.
Unbound Worlds: An Excess Male is a tale of speculative fiction, but it is based on the real-life consequences of China’s One-Child policy. When did you realize that the situation had potential as a story? Did the events speak to you particularly, as a woman writer?
Maggie Shen King: I read a newspaper article five years ago about the gender imbalance in China, a consequence of its One-Child Policy and cultural preference for male heirs, and knew right away that the situation had great potential for a story. It was an instance where the reality was stranger than fiction.
Initially, I set out to write an updated marriage plot, one with a male protagonist at its center. As I delved into the subject matter, my writing became darker and darker. The policy had unintentionally produced not only 30 million excess males, but also a ruthless monitoring system rife with corruption, sex trafficking in poor neighboring nations, a huge underclass of uneducated illegals, and a destabilized workforce. I discovered that the premise of my book held all the necessary elements of a classic dystopian novel.
In particular, I was stunned by the intrusiveness and inhumanity of the policy’s enforcement. Local birth officials were issued baby quotas, and the pressure to remain within those quotas was tremendous. They charted the menstrual cycles and contraceptive methods of individual women under their purview and granted birth permission. Should a pregnancy occur outside of plan, they pressured women to have abortions, sometimes interfering in their workplace, confiscating their family’s means of livelihood, and jailing relatives to coerce their intended outcome. The original intent of controlling population in order to avoiding mass starvation was good, but the practice in actuality became the legislation of what can and cannot be done to women’s bodies.
UW: It is my understanding that you grew up in Taiwan: a political state that has a complicated relationship with China. I realize that this is a sensitive topic, but has that influenced the way that you write about the nation and its history?
MSK: I’m probably not the best person to talk about my subconscious writing impulses. This is a complicated and sensitive topic, and there are a number of conflicting perspectives to bear in mind when you read An Excess Male.
One, China considers Taiwan a runaway province, a rebel nation. When I was in elementary school in Taiwan, we were taught that our mission was to one day conquer China and take back the mainland. The Communist were our adversaries, the usurpers of our homeland. They confiscated homes and personal property and separated children from parents.
And two, Taiwanese citizens enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic nation today, but during my entire childhood, we lived under martial law. My parents used hushed tones around my brother and me when discussing politics and political leaders. I remember overhearing that a distant relative was framed and jailed for political dissent. We moved to the U.S. when I was sixteen, and my father sent me off to college with the warning not to join any Chinese student organizations and to keep my opinions to myself. Kuomintang student-spies sometimes infiltrated these organizations. I grew up with the understanding that political discussions and open speech were dangerous activities.
Today, the people of Taiwan are made of two camps. The first (mostly Taiwanese people) has moved on from the rhetoric of retaking China to a desire for independence for Taiwan. The second (mostly Chinese of Mainland descent) seeks unification with China.
I am of Taiwanese descent. I’ve lived in the U.S. for nearly four decades and take for granted the freedom of speech. Censorship is a fact of life in China, and the lessons from my childhood are deeply ingrained.
UW: China seems to be going through a renaissance in science fiction literature. I’m thinking of Liu Cixin’s works, among others. I had read that at one time China’s Communist Party had considered science-fiction to be subversive, but now it is everywhere. More writers who aren’t Chinese seem to be incorporating the nation and its history into their own works. What do you think has changed?
MSK: In China, the State controls most of the publishing houses, and science fiction was rarely published in the latter part of the 20th century. The rise of the internet changed everything. It gave science fiction writers a forum for sharing and receiving feedback on their work, a community, and a training ground. Thru the internet, sci-fi writers gained traction and found fans, and their great popularity eventually won them institutional recognition. Today, the State cites science fiction as a means of improving its people’s scientific literacy and has established national science fiction awards.
In the last decades, China has enjoyed meteoric growth. Much of this recent Golden Age of science fiction grapple with rapid modernization and its effect on people’s values, lifestyle, tradition, identity, and emotions and the exchange of morality and personal freedom for surging wealth. Science fiction provides a means for social commentary and a wide and somewhat safer space for politically sensitive topics.