It might be a sign of the times we live in, but based on the premise alone, I expected Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male to be another book for the “chilling, prescient dystopia” pile—a grim saga of a future China undone by the disastrous effects of the one-child policy that left the nation’s gender balance hopelessly skewed.
But as I read, I began to view it not as chilling at all, but heartwarming, romantic, and even sweet.
Why? Because it’s about creating and fighting for a family. An unusual polyamorous family, with external and internal problems threatening its survival, but a family nonetheless.
The story is indeed set in a near-future China that has painfully adjusted to millions of “excess males” created as the unintended consequences of the “one child per family” policy, which resulted in the births of far more male children than female, as boys were seen as a better bet to ensure the family’s future prosperity. This fictitious future government has doubled down on social engineering to fix the problem, allowing women to marry more than one man at a time. However, these marriages must contain only heterosexual sex, because the purpose of marriage is to produce children.
The men who marry must also all be “suitable fathers;” the Willfully Sterile (the government’s term for gay men) and the Lost Boys (those with atypical mental processes) are barred. It’s not easy for women either: the shortage of brides has led to a system where women of childbearing age have become commodities, auctioned off to those who can supply the biggest dowry to their families. The need to save for a large dowry, meanwhile, forces China’s men to live at home longer and delay marriage into their 40s and beyond. Men with money and power circumvent these strictures if they can, but the government has the final say, and it is quick to crack down on those who speak in opposition to government policy, whether publicly or privately.
Wei-guo is an excess male, awaiting his turn to be matched with a family his two fathers can afford, which means, at best, he’s looking to become the third husband to an extant family. He instantly feels a connection to May-ling, his potential bride, and comes to feel friendship for the two brothers who are her husbands, Hann and XX. May-ling is desperate for true intimacy, which led to the family’s decision to search for a third husband—Hann is gay, despite his efforts to become the heterosexual family man society demanded he become, and XX is asexual, and likely on the autism spectrum. May-ling loves Hann and but is angry he hid his true nature, and XX provides little in the way of emotional comfort. She also has a child, BeiBei, whose hyperactivity she finds difficult to control.
Kind, compassionate Wei-guo appears to be the answer to the family’s problems. He is instantly attracted to May-ling, he respects Hann’s dignity and protectiveness toward his family, and even finds common ground with XX. But if Wei-guo is to solve the riddle of this family, it will require complete honesty from all parties—and in this society, honesty is dangerous, and standing up for the rights of others, even more so. Family is not a private matter, as much as they wish it was, and in that sense, this is indeed a dystopian novel.
As each member of the family struggles to save it, they break societal convention and government regulations. Hann faces exposure that could bar him from seeing his son. Wei-guo pushes back against new regulations against players live-action military role playing games designed to keep excess males busy, which puts him at odds with a government overseer. And XX’s lack of diplomacy while negotiating his work duties—designing surveillance systems and virtual reality mental games —could result in disaster.
May-ling is caught in the middle of all these conflicting needs. All she wants is someone to love her for her, not as a commodity, or as a cover, or a means to an end.
While An Exccess Male suggests comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, the book it most reminded me isn’t even science fiction—it’s a romance. A Bollywood Affair, by Sonali Dev, is a beautifully immersive book about a young woman promised in marriage as a child who has worked all her life to live up to the high-class family she was promised to, the idealized husband she met only as a child, and the younger brother who enters her life and falls in love with her. The three of them must work through complicated family dynamics and expectations, but the family in Dev’s book, at least, has the advantage of unpacking their emotions without inference from the government. It’s not an option open for Wei-guo, May-ling, Hann, and XX.
In the end, I closed An Excess Male feeling hopeful. Yes, the society is oppressive, and its treatment of homosexuals is cruel, but it’s not a sterile or bleak book. It has a beating heart.
An Excess Male is available September 12.