Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male (Harper Voyager, 2017) is a work of science fiction inspired by a real-world dystopia: a country with tens of millions of “extra” men will never find spouses.
The country is China, which in 1979 adopted its one-child policy in the hope of reducing its population of 940 million to around 700 million. The plan was intended to last only one generation, but it endured until 2015. The degree to which the policy has contributed to a drop in China’s fertility rate is an open question, since other factors (like rapid economic development) are also at play. But one consequence of the policy is clear: China now has millions more men than women.
An Excess Male made the James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award Honor List and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. It also earned spots on a number of “best of” lists, including Barnes and Noble’s and the Washington Post’s lists of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy novels of 2017.
King told me that the idea for An Excess Male came to her five years ago after she read a newspaper article about the gender imbalance. “The statistics say that by 2030, a quarter of the men over the age of 35 will not be able to find a wife,” King says. But the problem impacts more than marriage; it also affects social order. “When you have 30 million men at the prime of their lives, testosterone-fueled, you have a society that’s more prone to aggression and violence and crime, or, if you go to the other end, dissatisfaction or possibly depression. It’s a very, very volatile mix.”
In An Excess Male, the government solves the problem by allowing (and incentivizing) polyandry. “What if a woman could marry more than one husband? I thought that would be a really provocative way to talk about how China, in favoring their sons, actually achieved the opposite and a very devastating effect,” King says.
The story is told through the eyes of the members of the family of Wu May-Ling, a woman with two husbands, and their suitor, Lee Wei-Guo, who aspires to be her third. One might expect such a complicated courtship to collapse of its own weight, but Wei-Guo’s determination to find love allows him to develop genuine affection for all three potential mates. Whether these bonds are mutual, however, becomes the crucial question when two characters, for different reasons, become enemies of the state and Wei-Guo’s would-be spouses must risk their lives to help each other as only a family can.
In our conversation on New Books in Science Fiction, King discusses, among other things, the historical precedents for polyandry, China’s repressive policies toward homosexuality, and the role a writing group played in the shaping of her novel.