The third volume in Wingrove’s revised epic future history is the start of the original series published in 1989. An overview of this can be found in my original review of The Middle Kingdom (1989).
I imagine that the 1989 version has been split into two for this new release. The original series comprised of eight hefty volumes while the new ‘re-cast’ version is twenty smaller issues with two new volumes at either end. I can’t determine how much this has been revised if at all. One wouldn’t have thought the series needed any revision until perhaps the last two volumes of the original release, which had major flaws due to publishers’ interference.
Those new to Chung Kuo who have read the first two ‘recast’ volumes would be advised to persevere. I am dubious as to whether volumes one or two added anything valuable to the series. They had that feeling of having been ‘bolted on’ for no good reason.
Here, however, the story really kicks off and I am taken back to my first addiction to this brilliant series. Wingrove handles the multi-character storyline with aplomb and the pace is generally fast. It’s a master class in world-building if nothing else as one does get immersed in this highly detailed dystopia from the outset. Page-turningly good and highly recommended.
‘How many billions lived in the City that filled the great northern plains of Europe? The two men crab-scuttling across the dome that roofed the city neither knew nor cared. They thought only of the assassination that was their task.
Chung Kuo. For three thousand years the world-encompassing Empire of the Han had endured. War and famine long banished, the Council of Seven ruled with absolute authority. Their boast: that the Great Wheel of Change itself had ceased to turn.
Yet at that moment of supreme strength and confidence, Chung Kuo was suddenly vulnerable. A challenge had arisen from men who dreamed of Change – although Change would mean war and a return to all the old half-forgotten savageries of the past.’
Blurb from the 1990 NEL paperback edition.
In the 22nd Century, China has control of the Earth and has turned its continents into seven enclosed cities, each ruled by a Tang, one of The Seven; the rulers of Chung Kuo, the Middle Kingdom.
Each city consists of many levels, socially and physically distinct and each citizen’s behaviour determines whether they rise or fall from their level.
The Seven control everything and impose Edicts against technological progress, seeking to keep the peace by maintaining a social status quo by halting the great wheel of change.
In this generation, however, there appear several individuals whose effect on society, for good or ill, will herald change.
Chinese are known as Han, and compose the majority of the ruling classes. Europeans or ‘Hung mao’, have been assimilated into Chinese culture to a large degree but there is a faction of Dispersionists who wish to build starships to colonise other stars, creating a society outside of the Tang’s control.
Major DeVore, originally a high-placed officer in the Tang’s forces, is part of the Dispersionists’ terrorist wing and organises the assassination of a Minister, which sets in motion a chain of political events; events which DeVore strategically controls and exploits for his own ends like a round of his favourite game, Wei-Chi.
This is the first volume of a very under-rated (although possibly ultimately flawed) epic. From Nineteen Eighty-Nine, it was ‘The Wire’ of its age, with its multi-character viewpoint covering all sectors of society from the wretched cannibal society of The Clay (the lightless bottom level) to the Tang himself.
Over the preceding century the Han have rewritten Earth history to suggest that Chung Kuo has always been the dominant civilisation and a ministry exists to ensure that any other historical alternative theory or account is treated as treason.
In this volume we follow several key characters; DeVore, Li Shai Tung, the Tang of City Europe; Li Yuan, the Tang’s son; Kim Ward, a scientific prodigy refugee from The Clay; Ben Shepherd; a cloned advisor to the Tang administration; Karr and Chen, trained fighters from the lower levels who now work for the Tang’s security forces.
It is certainly far more than an SF blockbuster thriller. The complex political manoeuvring and the interweaving individual storylines are handled very well, and the writing occasionally approaches the profound.
On its first publication there were complaints in the journal of the British Science Fiction Association about its sexual elements and one section in particular of extreme sexual violence, although one has to say that the section needs to be looked at in context. Is this merely an apt demonstration of DeVore’s methods of controlling people and the depths of his depravity?
The original series which ran to eight large volumes was marred by the publisher’s insistence on ending the series with volume eight, when the original plan was nine books. The original ending was therefore, somewhat unsatisfactory. Wingrove has recently revised and expanded the entire series which is being released in twenty shorter volumes, the first volume of which is ‘Son of Heaven’ (2011).
Caitlin Dector, despite being blind from birth, is an A-grade maths student with exceptional IT skills, and is deemed a suitable subject for an experimental Japanese device that may help her to see.
Elsewhere, a new strain of airborne bird flu has emerged in China, a chimp learns to paint portraits and the internet appears to have become self-aware.
Sawyer combines these four events in a quirky and delightful novel which is as much about a young woman’s desire to see, and to understand her father’s seeming inability to express emotion as it is about Artificial Intelligence and the sapience of chimps.
At first, Caitlin’s device (which she christens her ‘eye-pod’) seems not to be working, but later she experiences patterns of colour, and discovers what she is actually seeing is the internet itself, or how her brain interprets the internet to be.
Meanwhile, a chimp on loan from a US zoo has been taught sign language and conducts the first ever Orangutan/chimp webcam chat. Later he paints a picture of his handler and she realises with some shock, that although crude, he has painted a representational and recognisable image.
In China, a young pro-democracy idealist is trying to find out why China has been cut off from the rest of the world’s websites. (this is because the Chinese do not want reports leaking out of China ‘handled’ the bird flu outbreak).
And, in a separate narrative, we hear the voice of an entity who has awoken somewhere and is exploring the boundaries of his domain.
The side stories are metaphors to show how humanity deals with the fragile blossoming of intelligence, or even the dispensation of knowledge within a controlled culture.
Very clever and quite wonderful.
Wingrove’s original eight volume epic of ‘Chung Kuo’ was planned as a nine volume work but it appears that the publishers – for no clear reason – requested Wingrove to round everything off in volume eight, a book that was indeed unsatisfactory as the denouement to a masterly piece of work, both in scope and execution, by anyone’s standards.
Wingrove has now revised and expanded his magnum opus with a proposed radically different ending. This, the first of a posited twenty volume series (each, I would estimate, about half the length of the original volumes) begins before the Chinese have constructed their all-encompassing enclosed cities, and centres around Jake Reed, a login. His job is to interface with virtual computer landscapes and in particular the Datscape which manifests the stock markets as a form of biosphere.
The narrative takes a while to get into its stride. There’s some post-apocalyptic scene setting to be done in a Cornwall where the residents’ social level has been pushed back to pre-technology levels following a devastating worldwide economic collapse twenty years before.
We are subsequently taken to an earlier time and – with Jake – live through the series of events that bring the world to chaos.
Even then, the Chinese were prime suspects in the sabotage of the Western economy, although China herself also collapsed and burned along with the rest of the world.
I’m not convinced it was ever necessary to provide such extensive additions to this series although given that ‘Son of Heaven’ is, as already pointed out, about half the length of a ‘classic’ Chung Kuo novel the additional material will only comprise of about four volumes of this size. I will be interested to read Wingrove’s originally intended ending but will – with the rest of Wingrove’s Chung Kuo fans – have to wait and go through the full reloaded, revamped Chung Kuo experience.