Between 1989 and 1997 British author David Wingrove published the eight volume Chung Kuo saga, which depicts a twenty-third century world dominated by China. Here each of the Earth's continents is almost completely covered in the vast white structures of a hive-like, multi-leveled city built right on top of the ruins of "the old world." The seven Cities, each ruled by a hereditary dictator (and the "Clay" of the ruins beneath them) house the Earth's much-enlarged population of tens of billions of people, locked in a system committed to changelessness. Nonetheless, there are dissenting voices, the most important of them belonging to a number of influential European businessmen disdainful of the prevailing regime, which ultimately lead to new intrigues and even open war over the fate of the species.
Chung Kuo is far from being the best known of science fiction sagas, but it has been compared to Frank Herbert's Dune and Isaac Asimov's Foundation in its complexity, imagination, and scope, and James Clavell's novels in its use of East Asian cultural elements. Brian Aldiss, who cowrote his epic history of science fiction Trillion Year Spree (1986) with Wingrove, compared the author to Proust.
Not every critic was quite so complimentary. The New York Times's Gerald Jonas, for one, found it not much more than a "fast-moving entertainment." But the praise the series did receive was high praise indeed, and British publisher Corvus has recently gone so far as to release a revised version of the series. In the new edition the text of the original eight books is "recast, remastered, rewritten in 20 volumes" to come out between 2011 and 2015. This includes "two new 'prequel' volumes and an entirely new ending" (rectifying the widely derided original conclusion) with a total of "over 500,000 additional words of new story" included, according to the promotional website.
The first volume in the new sequence is the March 2011 release Son of Heaven. Readers picking it up hoping to dive straight into the series's story, or simply to see much of the world Wingrove famously created, will be disappointed. This first prequel is set in Britain in 2065, after the end of life as we know it, but before the arrival of the new Chinese order in the country. At the novel's start, protagonist Jake Reed is a widower living with his fourteen year old son Peter in the rural Dorsetshire village of Purbeck, a setting which is standard post-apocalyptic fare. The survivors of the world's collapse lead simple, country lives, subsisting off the land and fighting against desperate, rootless bandits while quasi-feudal strongmen presume to maintain a minimal level of order. Violence is routine, outsiders are suspect, justice is rough where it exists at all, diseases and injuries once easily treated are fatal and crippling, contact with the world beyond is fragile and scanty, survivalism is the prevailing ethos, and the common wares of the preceding era (like old CDs and vinyl records) are cherished rarities, especially to those old enough to be nostalgic for a time when human life held out greater possibilities. As might be expected given the premise of the larger series, there is nonetheless a sense of change in the air—forbidding rather than hopeful. Refugees on the road hint at a disturbance, and on arrival at the regional marketplace Jake and his companions are immediately struck by the sharp rise in prices.
After Jake gets the first real clue as to the source of the changes, the novel shifts to a lengthy flashback covering the moment when modernity came unraveled, filling the reader in on the larger course of the twenty-first century in the process. In sketching out this future history leading up to the events of Chung Kuo Wingrove draws heavily on changes in the world since he penned the first edition of the series, "retconning" later real-life events and concerns into the timeline. Here the economic crisis that came to a head in 2008 (which is still ongoing today) deals a death blow to globalization, and spawns a new great power competition between a newly mercantilist U.S. and China. Following a confrontation over Taiwan in 2022, the two superpowers divide the world into spheres of influence, though relations remain tense, infiltration and war a constant possibility.
In line with today's predictions about peak oil, a final energy shock in the 2020s propels the world still further to the political right, contributing to the sharpening of social cleavages. For the rich, life is more luxurious than ever before (complete with flying cars), not least because they have shifted the burden of energy scarcity onto the poor through a new round of neoliberal reforms that finishes off the job begun by Friedman and Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan. Those at the bottom, the "unrepresented and unprotected," are simply locked out of the high, machine-gun protected steel walls of the enclaves of privilege, where they are reduced to painted, screaming barbarians out of sight and out of mind of the more fortunate.
Reed is one of the most fortunate, a superstar futures trader in the City of London, and archetypal "winner" of globalization. As might be expected, he is respected, affluent and complacent. However, his place in the financial world positions him to see that something unusual and worrisome is afoot, and he is one of the first to recognize what is happening when China's ruler Tsao Ch'un unleashes a combined computer, financial and special forces assault on the West (apparently reflecting the ideas laid out in strategic texts like the much-publicized Unrestricted Warfare, an English translation of which can be freely downloaded here). Indeed, Reed's prominence is such that he is personally marked for death in this attack, and rather than helping resist the Chinese assault, he ends up struggling for his own survival as England succumbs to a new dark age.
The novel then turns back to the older Reed's present, his experiences during the extension of Chinese rule to Dorset, and the incorporation of his own village into Ch'un's new order. Wingrove adds two new characters in this last part of the story, General Jiang Lei, the commander of the Chinese forces arrived in Britain, and Wang Yu-Lai, an officer of the Thousand Eyes, Ch'un's secret police. Lei is a Confucian idealist whose performance of an intrinsically ugly task is tempered by his humanitarian principles, Yu-Lai a genocidal sadist, and Reed soon enough finds himself caught up in the conflict between the two as he tries to save himself and his loved ones.
Compared with the series's later novels, their sprawling canvases, large casts of characters and complex intrigues, Son of Heaven offers a focused, easy to follow narrative. While the book is not very fast-paced, Wingrove's skills as a storyteller are strong enough to make it a quick read, helped along by genuine suspense at crucial points, especially Reed's fight to survive when his world collapses. The exercise of relative restraint in the treatment of violence, in comparison with the baroque sadism for which the original novels became notorious with detractors and fans alike, is also noteworthy.
This all results in a book which is highly readable, but more prosaic than the books of the original series. I also finished Son of Heaven feeling that it laid down only the most general foundations for what was to come, not doing all that much to set up the storylines to follow in the next volume, Daylight on Iron Mountain. What foundation it did build—the connection between our time and Wingrove's vision of the twenty-third century—seemed to me problematic. The imaginary world of Chung Kuo is essentially fantastic, rather than extrapolative, and the combination of Wingrove's futurologist-style guesses about what the twenty-first century will bring with that century's rather bizarre (and highly implausible) fictional conclusion jars stylistically and intellectually. It does not help that despite Wingrove's efforts, so much of the extrapolation is unsatisfying, especially the further it gets away from our own time and place. The social changes that follow the next oil crisis in the West admittedly have a ring of plausibility for me, but the idea that two nations could so neatly divide the world between them seems implausible, the distribution of power around the world today is a far more complex and diffuse thing than even in the bipolar Cold War era. Predictably, the details are often unconvincing, as with Wingrove's references to the immigration of forty million Chinese workers to Africa by 2018 (p. 141), and heavy Chinese "infiltration" of Britain's service sector (p. 101). The styling of the financial market in the manner of Gibsonian cyberspace struck me as unintentionally retro, and post-apocalyptic Dorset, while certainly brutal enough, seemed to me lacking in grit. (There is, for instance, little sense of how much more grueling and shabby the lives of the characters are as they try to get along under pre-industrial conditions.)
Son of Heaven also includes a considerable element of Sinophobia, often explicit in the thoughts and speech of many of Wingrove's characters (including Reed himself). Of course, the depiction of a thing is not tantamount to an author's endorsement of that thing, but such prejudices seem implicit in the premise of the story itself. It is a gross oversimplification to reduce the complexity of China's cultural history, with its multiple competing and complementary traditions, to Confucianism (in the manner of Samuel Huntington and company), as this book seems to.
It is even more misleading to treat East and West as binary cultural opposites, with Western ideas of freedom and progress pitted against an Eastern preference for order and stability. The idea that Western culture is synonymous with the values of the Enlightenment and the rest of the world with enmity toward those same values, that China has traditionally been "unchanging," does not survive even a cursory reading of history with clear eyes. There is a hint of greater nuance in the depiction of the West's embrace of racism and Social Darwinism in the 2040s, especially vivid in Reed's escape from London, but the treatment falls short of the striking juxtaposition it could have been.
Moreover, Ch'un's conquest of the planet is less a flight to the past (or even a scaled-up version of China's colonization of Xinjiang and Tibet) than a Sinic analog to the Third Reich, an attempt to impose a social vision combining a bizarre fantasy version of the past with ultramodern technology on a world-scale, completely purged of "undesirables." Yet Wingrove's novel never hints at a recognition of such a perversion of Chinese culture, appearing to treat its events as some teleological fulfillment of China's historical development, with none of his characters (even the sophisticated Lei) suspecting otherwise. Indeed, rather than James Clavell, Son of Heaven's sensibility often reminded me of the "yellow peril" fiction of a century ago, from its first description of an "Oriental. Brutal." face (p. 93) on.
Of course, such attitudes pervade the series as a whole, but they are all the more apparent here because as oppressive and dystopian as the world of Chung Kuo is, Son of Heaven concentrates on the moment of Chinese conquest, which in this tale is as conspiratorial, systematic and crushing as the most alarmist fantasies of what a threatening foreign power might do. Additionally, this book's story is told overwhelmingly through the Western eyes of Jake and Peter, Wingrove giving his Chinese characters far less space, and less nuance, than in the original volumes of the sequence. (In the opening pages of Chung Kuo, the ruler of "City Europe" looks down at the Earth from space and doubts the thinking underlying the course his civilization is set on, an awareness that there were other ways. No Chinese character has such a moment here.) It may also be that the element of Sinophobia is harder to overlook now than when Chung Kuo was first published, because we have become more self-aware regarding our prejudices, because of the pompous, obscurantist and often sanctimonious Orientalism that has characterized so much public discussion in the past decade, and because of the way in which anxieties about China specifically have become an easy tool for right-wingers trying to foist dubious agendas on their publics (as in a now notorious ad from the U.S.'s Citizens Against Government Waste).
Politics aside, this treatment of the material makes Wingrove's milieu, and many of the characters inhabiting it, disappointingly shallow. Combined with the novel's other imaginative weaknesses this makes the book less satisfying as the opening of an epic than as a bit of pulp adventure—much as the less complimentary readers of the series have made it all out to be since the books' first appearance two decades ago.
Nader Elhefnawy has taught literature at several colleges, including the University of Miami. He reviews and writes about science fiction for several publications, and on his blog, Raritania.