Between 1989 and 1999, David Wingrove released eight volumes in his critically-acclaimed Chung Kuo series. This sequence is set two centuries in the future and depicts a world of 35 billion people ruled by the Chinese, who have come to dominate the world and built vast, continent-spanning cities consisting of hundreds of levels. Real history has been erased, particularly the achievements of the West, and a stratified, rigidly hierarchal society has come into being, enforced by the police and military. The books chronicle the fractures appearing in this society, eventually leading to war.
The series was originally envisaged as a nine-book series, but the publishers dropped the final book, forcing Wingrove to hurriedly to rewrite the eighth book to conclude the series in a manner that did not satisfy himself or his fans. The publishers did minimal publicity for the final book and it quickly disappeared from view, followed by the rest of the series.
However, the Chung Kuo series has now arisen, phoenix-like, from the dead. Corvus-Atlantic have picked up the series and will be reissuing it starting in September 2010. The series has been comprehensively re-edited and re-structured by the author, with five new novels' worth of material added to the saga. These take the form of a completely new prequel novel depicting the rise of China, named Son of Heaven, and a hugely expanded and revised concluding section, restoring the author's original intentions for the series. Over half a million words of new material was written for the new editions. In addition, the existing large books have been broken down into smaller, more economical volumes so that the entire series now spans a mind-boggling nineteen books of around 120,000-200,000 words apiece, somewhere well north of 2 million words and maybe closer to 3 (to put this another way, the 11 Jordan-authored Wheel of Time books come to about 3 million words).
Britain 2085: two decades after the great economic collapse that destroyed Western civilization, life continues only in scattered communities. In rural Dorset Jake Reed lives with his 14-year-old son and memories of the Fall. Back in ’63, Jake was a dynamic young futures broker, immersed in the datascape of the world’s financial markets. He saw what was coming – and who was behind it. Forewarned, he was one of the few to escape. For 22 years he has lived in fear of the future, and finally it is coming – quite literally – across the plain towards him. Chinese airships are in the skies and a strange, glacial structure looms on the horizon. Jake finds himself forcibly incorporated into the ever-expanding ‘World of Levels’: a global city of some 34 billion souls, where social status is reflected by how far above the ground you live. Here, under the rule of the mighty Tsao Ch’un, a resurgent China is seeking to abolish the past and bring about world peace through rigidly enforced order. But civil war looms, and Jake will find himself at the heart of the struggle for the future.
Titles for the books:
Son of Heaven, The Middle Kingdom, Ice and Fire, The Art of War, An Inch of Ashes, The Broken Wheel, The White Mountain, Monsters of the Deep, The Stone Within, Upon a Wheel of Fire, Beneath the Tree of Heaven, Song of the Bronze Statue, White Moon Red Dragon, China on the Rhine, Days of Bitter Strength, The Father of Lies, Blood and Iron, King of Infinite Space, The Marriage of the Living Dark.
This is, quite possibly, the single most ambitious release schedule for a series of books from a single author I have ever seen. I suspect the breaking of the series into smaller books will be slightly controversial, although given the rising cost of paper and also Corvus' status as a smaller publisher (although it's hardly a small press) I can also see an argument for it.
However, given that the series' original release is somewhat obscure to modern genre readers, this re-release is akin to Robert Jordan having completed the entire Wheel of Time saga or Steven Erikson his Malazan sequence before publication and then had the whole thing rushed out very quickly, something that hasn't been seen before (as far as I know) in the history of the genre. It's an ambitious scheme, and it'll be interesting to see how it goes. If Book 1 doesn't do well, it could be dead in the water before it starts, but given that the original series remains highly critically acclaimed, hopefully it will be a success.
Awesome!! I love this series - maybe my favorite Scifi series of all.
I had a heck of a time tracking down book 8 - I finally managed to find a British edition, which had not been edited for American audiences (naturally). What was surprising though was how much of a difference that made. I was also surprised at how much worse book 8 was - I guess this explains it. I had thought that Wingrove messed up, and the poor quality led to zero support from the publishers. I guess I should have given him more credit (and the publishers less).
I also managed to find hardcover editions (not book club) of books 1-3 (but only have the trade paperbacks for books 4-7).
I would love to get a set that looks good on the shelf though, and can't wait to read the new material!
This is an insta-buy for me... all 19 volumes...
London, 2043. Jake Reed is a young futures broker, trading stock on the datascape, the high-tech virtual stock market, one of the best in his field. When the datascape comes under attack from hackers, Reed is called in to investigate who could be responsible. However, the virtual attack is but the opening move in a struggle years in the planning. Cities burn, riots erupt and armies are neutralised as the long-feared collapse of modern civilisation begins.
Twenty-two years later, Reed lives in a rural community in Dorset. Millions have died in the post-Collapse years and the UK is now a patchwork of farming communities. Supplies of advanced medicines and high technology are running low, with no infrastructure available to replace them. But strange things are happening. Waves of refugees are appearing out of the east, strange craft with dragons painted on the wings have been seen in the sky and, on the horizon, a vast structure has appeared and is getting closer. The age of Western dominance has ended and the future belongs to the East.
Son of Heaven is the first novel in the new version of David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series, a science fiction epic spanning 200 years of future history. In Wingrove's series, the entire world has come to be dominated by China, which has constructed vast, continent-spanning cities packed with billions of people and begun to expand into space. Wingrove previously attempted to tell this story in the late 1980s and through the 1990s in eight large volumes, but the series was not completed properly. Now Corvus are republishing the saga in twenty volumes, with a new beginning and ending and a thorough revising of the previously-published material.
Son of Heaven starts the story much earlier than the original first volume, depicting exactly how Western civilisation and modern economic system were destroyed and how China survived the aftershocks to rise to dominance. This is an interesting movie: the original first book started with China's supremacy firmly established and the reasons for its rise consigned to backstory. Here we see it in progress. It also means we are introduced to the world through the eyes of outsiders (Jake and his neighbours and family who are 'incorporated' into the World of Levels) rather than from inside, which is perhaps a little more forgiving to new readers to the series.
On the downside, this means that the methods by which China's dominance was established have to be depicted in a lot of detail, and these methods are somewhat fanciful, requiring a catastrophic and colossal failure of tens of thousands of Western intelligence, military and economic experts across many years whilst still requiring China to have acquired technology far in advance of the rest of the world (particularly the AI and nanotech required start building its massive continent-spanning cities in the space of a few years). Lots of SF is based on far more ludicrous premises, of course, but generally these work by taking place in the distant future with the transition from modern society being a vague or mythological event. Here it's more central to the story and therefore more open to scrutiny. This isn't helped by Wingrove having to take into account twenty years of additional real history (such as China's economic explosion) and then weld it onto the front of his original narrative. Ironically, China's real-life economic success provides a much more reasonable grounding for it becoming the dominant world culture over the course of decades, but using this as the grounding of the story would have presumably required a much more thorough rewriting of the entire series.
Moving beyond this, Wingrove's actual writing is pretty solid, depicting both the high-tech world of 21st Century London and the post-Collapse, almost post-apocalyptic agrarian society quite well. The conflict presented by the latter is handled intriguingly: the 21st Century, money-fixated world of haves and have-nots is shown to be comfortable but also shallow. The post-apocalyptic world initially lauds the absence of pointless materialism but then exposes the ugliness of living in a world where people die of cold exposure in the winter or from very minor wounds a modern hospital would sort out in a few minutes, or where girls are encouraged to get pregnant before the age of twenty to increase the chances of propagating the species. This sort of duality was one of the key themes of the original series, with the conflicts between progress and stasis and the state and the individual being key, but with the various options being presented as having their own benefits and disadvantages.
In the latter part of the book the Chinese finally show up and we meet a raft of new characters. General Jiang Lei is leading the subjugation of England and is presented as an effective soldier but also one with a sense of history and a conscience. He is contrasted against Wang Yu-Lai, a savage and ruthless intelligence agent who is all for rape, plunder and genocide. Jiang is an interesting character whose attitudes mirror many of the conflicts inherent in the series in microcosm. Wang is a caricature and a cartoon villain at best, however, lacking convincing motivation or characterisation.
The contrast between these two characters is symptomatic of much of the book: some excellent worldbuilding stands contrasted against some highly unconvincing developments needed to make China top dog. Jake and Jiang's solid depictions stand against some under-developed characters (particularly women) elsewhere. Respect and admiration for Chinese culture is contrasted against stereotypical elements elsewhere (the 'cold, brutal' Chinese stereotype is played up a bit, even when characters like Jiang are shown to be nothing like this). Overall though, the book is readable and sets up a world intriguing enough to make even the modest wait for the second book, Daylight on Iron Mountain (due in late 2011), feel somewhat disappointing. Whether it's enough to sustain twenty novels released across five years is another question, but we'll see.
Son of Heaven (***½) is a solid opening to a very long epic SF series, overcoming its weaknesses to deliver an unsettling (if implausible) depiction of the future. The novel will be published in the UK on 3 February 2011 as a limited-edition hardcover and ebook and on 1 March as a regular hardcover. American imports of the latter should be available via Amazon and the Book Depository.
|Jeremy Mac Donald|
I am intrigued. I read three or four of the original books before become frustrated with certain elements. Mainly I was unhappy by what appeared to be characters that had been main characters fading into the back ground for no good reason.
A rewrite sounds really interesting. A chance to take a good series with flaws and iron out those flaws to create a far superior product. I'll definitely pick up the first few books to see if I can get on board with this.
The Kindle edition of Son of Heaven is currently available for just £2.99 on Amazon.co.uk for those who want to give it a go.
I think they've also released a super-expensive, very limited leather clad volume of book 1 by now too. I was sorely tempted, but am broke and didn't want to feel beholden to complete the series like that (and it's up to 20 books now, I hear!).
I think the normal hardcover of book 1 is scheduled now for an early March release.
The City, 2067. China has overrun and conquered most of Eurasia and the stacks of the City now sprawl across the ruins of old Europe. In the Middle-East, the Chinese meet fanatical resistance in the form of suicide bombers and terror tactics, whilst across the oceans the shattered remnants of the United States try to fight back. But the Son of Heaven, Tsao Ch'un, will brook no opposition and prepares the largest military campaign in human history to bring North American under his rule. But as armies march and missiles fly, Tsao Ch'un himself, now old and paranoid, is becoming increasingly unstable. As the seeds of civil war are sewn, will the new world be destroyed in its infancy?
Daylight on Iron Mountain is the second novel in David Wingrove's 'recasting' of his epic Chung Kuo series, which is now planned to expand across twenty novels. Daylight was originally the closing part of the first book, Son of Heaven, a newly-written prequel novel, but at his editor's suggestion Wingrove pulled out and radically expanded the Daylight segment into a full, 350-page novel. This turns out to have been a masterstroke of an idea: Son of Heaven was effective in a low-key kind of way, but as I said in my review I was concerned that it didn't really seem to be setting the scene for a colossal twenty-book series. Daylight ends such concerns in one fell swoop.
Daylight on Iron Mountain may be (relatively) short on page count but is rammed to overflowing with political intrigue, corporate scheming, desperate struggles for human survival and, in the final section, a mind-boggling war which is vast in scope. One storyline follows the political infighting as the Seven (Ch'ung's key advisors) realise how unstable their leader has become and debate what is to be done, whilst another sees Jake Reed (the main character in the first novel) struggling to survive in the new world of the City. A further subplot sees General Jiang Lai, an honest man in a dishonest world, trying to keep his head above water as enemies gather on all sides.
Wingrove juggles these plots with skill. He doesn't have the page count to indulge them in the way an epic fantasy writer could, so he keeps the storylines moving rapidly and in tandem, flitting from one to another. At times the book feels a little rushed - the concluding conflict feels like it should be unfolding over weeks or months, not just days - but Wingrove doesn't neglect some key scenes of character-building, or employing thematic irony (the epilogue in particular features an element that feels like something out of the Soviet Union, or indeed Chinese Communist history) to hint at greater events to come.
As well as being rather slow, the main criticism that could be aimed at Son of Heaven was that it had a tendency to drift towards stereotyping in its portrayal of the Chinese characters. It's a massive relief that this problem does not exist in Daylight on Iron Mountain. The characters, Chinese or otherwise, are a gallery of heroes, villains, the selfish and the selfless, or people simply trying to survive however they can. Normally cold-hearted lawyers show unexpected compassion, one of the most powerful men on Earth gives way to grief when he pays the ultimate price for victory and generals take time to consider the moral implications of the deaths they are about to cause. Unfortunately, this nuanced approach to characterisation does not extend to the primary 'villain', Tsao Ch'un himself, who is more of a cliched antagonist with a side-line in personally torturing prisoners and smashing up priceless antiques with a baseball bat to show how evil he is.
Beyond this element, Daylight on Iron Mountain improves on Son of Heaven in every single way. There's a larger and far more interesting cast of characters, there's some impressive action and war sequences and there's a relentless drive to the book's pacing as the characters are swept up in the march of history. A few characters (most notably Ch'un) suffer a little from the fast - sometimes rushed - pacing, but overall this is a compelling, page-turning SF epic which leaves the reader eager for more.
Daylight on Iron Mountain (****½) will be published on 1 November 2011 in the UK. There is no American publisher for the series at this time, but copies should be easily available through the Book Depository.
2196. For more than a century, the Earth has been under the rule of Chung Kuo, a world-spanning civilisation founded by a Chinese warlord using advanced technology. That warlord was later deposed by the T'ang, seven senior rulers who feared his insanity. The T'ang now rule a strictly hierarchical world at peace, but one where the powers of the privileged few are built on a pyramid of oppression and strictly-enforced order. With thirty-six billion people packed into the vast, continent-spanning cities of 'ice' (a nanotech-based material with super-strong properties), the dangers of chaos are all too apparent.
But there is growing discontent in Chung Kuo. Wealthy industrialists and ambitious scientists want change and growth to prevent stagnation. The enforcers of order will not stand for this. When the Minister of the Edict, whose job it is to prevent any drastic change to the order of things, is assassinated, it becomes clear that a war is coming. The War of Two Directions, which could spell a new dawn for humanity or spell its utter extinction.
The Middle Kingdom is the third novel in David Wingrove's revamped Chung Kuo mega-sequence. Originally published in eight volumes in the 1980s and 1990s, the series was abruptly cancelled and the author forced to write a highly unsatisfying quick ending which satisfied no-one. With new publishers Corvus at the helm, Chung Kuo has been recast in twenty volumes, including an all-new beginning and ending. The first two novels, Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain, showed the foundation of Chung Kuo and the destruction of the world before, serving as scene-setting prologues. The Middle Kingdom, picking up a hundred years later, is where the story itself really gets started. It's also where the series catches up to the original series, and in fact The Middle Kingdom consists of the first half or so of the original novel of the same name, published in 1988.
This means that you don't need to have read the first two novels to leap straight into The Middle Kingdom. For those who have read the first two books, The Middle Kingdom features a surprising (and welcome) shift in gear. The first two books were extremely fast-paced, with some character development and worldbuilding having to be sacrificed to get through epic events in a reasonable page-count. The Middle Kingdom is slower-paced, with events more deliberately unfolding. Characters are established and explored, the opposing thematic concepts of change and stasis are set up well and complex conspiracies unfold with relish. This doesn't mean the book is devoid of incident, with several assassinations and bombings, some underworld crime machinations and high-level political intrigue making for a busy novel, albeit one that is not as rushed as its predecessors. The pacing is pretty solid, though the later-novel introduction of a whole new major character and situation does betray the book's status as merely the opening salvo in a much vaster tale.
The characters are split between the Chinese and Western-descended inhabitants of the world (those who've read the first two books will know that Africa and the Middle-East did not fare well during the takeover) and such characters are present on both sides of the central thematic argument of the series. Wingrove's characterisation is pretty good, though he tends to lean a little more towards the broad rather than the subtle. Still, it is effective. Wingrove is also non-judgemental (at least at this stage) about his thematic argument: in a society of almost forty billion people, utterly dependent on technology to survive, the dangers of both change and stagnation are clear. With a few exceptions, his characters are not clear-cut good or bad guys either, with both honourable men and the amoral present on both sides of the debate.
The Middle Kingdom (****½) is a highly enjoyable SF novel that leaves the reader eager to read more. It is available now in the UK, with US readers able to order (with free delivery) from the Book Depository. The fourth volume in the series, Ice and Fire, will be published in December.
2201. Chung Kuo, the world-girdling city ruled by the Seven T'angs, is caught in a struggle between two ideologies. The T'angs favour stability and stasis. The House, the bureaucratic body that rules City Europe in the T'angs' name, advocates change and progress, exemplified in their construction of a generation starship. The Seven are now faced with the choice of allowing their Empire of Ice to be swept away by progress or by launching a pre-emptive strike to win back control of the situation...but risk triggering a civil war.
Ice and Fire is the fourth volume in the 'new' version of the Chung Kuo series, picking up shortly after the events of The Middle Kingdom. As well as being a continuation of that novel (understandably, as Ice and Fire was originally published in 1988 as part of the original Middle Kingdom), it also contains a number of self-contained character and story arcs standing against the epic events unfolding from previously.
If Ice and Fire does have a self-contained theme, it's the hope of the young to bring a brighter future than what their elders have achieved, only for that hope to be eroded by cynicism and, in some cases, cruelty. The novel focuses on characters such as Li Yuan, the heir of one of the T'angs, who hopes to be an intelligent and fair ruler but is distracted by his love for his murdered brother's widow. Ben Shepherd is a highly intelligent, gifted artist who is also ruthlessly intelligent and able to see what others cannot. Kim Ward is a young boy from the Clay, the darkest, lowest levels of the world city, who has shown an aptitude for science and engineering. However, Kim has also discovered the Aristotle File, a document which exposes the lie that Chung Kuo is built upon.
Wingrove manages the character development of these individuals with surprising effectiveness, given the slimness of the volume (under 300 pages) and the large number of storylines that are in motion. There are also complex political machinations between the Seven and the House, whilst Howard DeVore (the series' main antagonist) is manipulating both sides to his own ends. It's a busy novel, somewhat less relaxed than its immediate predecessor, and is a fast-paced read.
The book suffers from two distinct weaknesses. The first is a result of Corvus, a small (-ish) publisher, picking up the series. Rather than publishing the series as ten 600-800-page novels (still a lot shorter than the individual volumes of many epic fantasy series) over three years, they have chosen to publish it as twenty 300-400 page ones over six. This has its benefits (each book is a concise and fast read), but it also risks frustration as each book stops just as it is getting going. There are also cost issues (buying twenty hardcovers, paperbacks or ebooks is simply more expensive than buying ten, whichever way you cut it). Ice and Fire is the first book in the series where it feels like this is a bit more of an issue, and it may well become more of one as the series continues to progress.
The other is a notable rise in the amount of sex and violence in the book, including a torture sequence which recalls the more gratuitous excesses of Terry Goodkind (fortunately this torture sequence only lasts five pages, not the forty plus of a Goodkind novel). The sudden increase in such scenes feels a bit jarring after the first three books, which certainly were not for children but did not contain as many scenes. Probably not an issue for some readers, but definitely an element of concern (and, based, on how the original series unfolded, something that might become more notable in later volumes).
Ice and Fire (****) is a well-written, fast-paced and page-turning read. It suffers a little from its shortness, with the story cutting off just as it's getting going, but otherwise this is another solid instalment in what is turning out to be an impressive SF epic. The novel will be published on 1 December in the UK, and American readers will be able to get copies from the Book Depository.
Summer, 2206. The great war is winding down. The Dispersionists, those citizens of the great world-girdling city of Chung Kuo who have argued in favour of change and technological advancement, have been defeated by the forces of the T'ang, the Seven, the guardians of stasis and the status quo. All that remains is for the T'ang to distribute the wealth they stole from their foes and return to ruling the world in peace. But things have changed too much for that. DeVore, most infamous of the Dispersionists, remains at large and now plots to restart the war with the help of some new allies.
The Art of War is the fifth volume in this recasting of David Wingrove's epic Chung Kuo series. It opens five years after the events of Ice and Fire. Those hoping to see the War of Two Directions (or, more accurately, its opening moves) in all its glory will be disappointed as Wingrove skips most of the conflict to concentrate on the aftermath and the attempts by Howard DeVore to keep the struggle going through other means. The Art of War disdains the sprawling morass of plots of the previous couple of volumes in favour of a tighter focus on DeVore's plans, the machinations of the redoubtable Hans Ebert and the development of Ben Shepherd as he tries to realise his destiny. A few other chapters concentrate in short bursts on other characters as they get into position for the next stage of the conflict, most notably on the T'ang themselves. Several of the T'ang have fallen and their replacements may not quite have the same respect for precedent, honour and tradition their forebears possessed.
The Art of War is nicely paced and opens with an effective series of chapters catching us up with what the major characters have been up to. For those comparing the new version of the series with the original, The Art of War makes up the first third or so of the original second volume, The Broken Wheel. This has the advantage of easing us in (relatively) gently to a new era in the history of Chung Kuo, but has the major problem that the book just stops in mid-flow rather than climaxing (unless you count the fact that the book ends with a rather inexplicable incestuous sex scene). Lots of pieces are put on the table in this volume, lots of characters start getting into position to do things, but it's mostly all set-up and no pay-off (though we do get a couple of effective action sequences along the way). Most of these plotlines should evolve through the next two volumes An Inch of Ashes and The Broken Wheel, but it's still somewhat frustrating for those reading along this series as it is released.
On the plus side, more of Wingrove's vision is unveiled here as DeVore's plans become a bit more apparent and Ben Shepherd begins the construction of the Shell, a device that will revolutionise the idea of entertainment in Chung Kuo. Wingrove's prose also improves noticeably in various dream sequences, where his writing takes a more poetic quality than the straightforward, prosaic writing used elsewhere.
The Art of War (****) is a very solid instalment in this ongoing (and lengthy) series. The book is available now in the UK and via the Book Depository in the USA. American branches of Barnes and Nobel are also beginning to stock the UK editions of the series. The sixth volume, An Inch of Ashes, will be published on 4 July.