Son of Heaven by David Wingrove
Published by Corvus, February/March 2011 (Review copy received)
ISBN: 978 1 84887 524 1
Review by Mark Yon
This book is a reimagining of an old series first seen in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Originally a series of eight novels, it is now ambitiously proposed as a rewritten series of twenty.
David’s Chung Kuo series was first published in 1989 with The Middle Kingdom, and finished (rather ignobly) in 1996 with The Marriage of the Living Dark. The series told of an Earth and Mars dominated by China, living in a tiered hierarchical series of global cities, and how their world collapsed. Touted as ‘Shogun meets Blade Runner’ it was quite a series, though the ending was troubled and dissatisfied many readers.
Son of Heaven is a completely new prelude to the series and begins to set up scenarios for the rest of the series.
Overall, the book focuses on one main character, Jake Reed, at different times before the Chinese invade England (Ying Kuo). The first part of the book is set in Autumn 2065, subtitled ‘The Last Year of the Old World’ and deals with Jake’s life in rural Dorset, twenty years after the global upheaval known as ‘the Collapse’. It is an odd combination of unchanging rural idyll, steeped in history and tradition but with a contemporary survivalist mentality. Strangers are viewed with suspicion, and when raids occur, shot. This was reminiscent to me of John Christopher’s The Death of Grass.
The second part, ‘The East is Red’, suddenly changes tack and goes back earlier to Spring 2043, the time of ‘the Collapse’, when Jake was a young and talented futures broker, a ‘web-dancer’. He is a fast-tracker in London with a good quality of life, friends and a great fiancée. Things are looking good. However the sudden collapse of the Western economy is precipitated by a Chinese coup, which destroys key companies in the ‘datscape’, assassinates key players and takes over the Market. Jake is one of those who are targeted. His friends and family are killed and Jake goes into hiding in rural Dorset.
In the third section, the tale ‘When China Comes’ is rather self-explanatory. Returning to Autumn 2065, the tale continues where it ended in the first part but is told more from the perspective of Jiang Lei, a Han General given the responsibility of bringing this area of England to submission for Emperor Tsao Ch’un. It also suggests a rich and complicated cultural background which supplants the English one, though the politics of Chinese culture and the social positioning of some of Jiang’s subordinates is something that is nothing particularly new. Jake and the other characters we met in the first third of the book are dealt with swiftly and brutally as the land is covered by the construction of a huge white city: the City of Levels. The story ends as we realise that Jake’s life enters a new phase in the Chung Kuo saga.
For the sake of clarity I will admit that when I read the original (twenty years or so ago!) I was impressed. The books were new, exciting and well thought out (at the beginning, anyway.) They were quite adult and pleasingly complex.
However, times have changed since they were first written. The use of China as a future world-power was seen as something relatively new and unusual in the 1980’s. These days, with Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, River of Gods and Brasyl, Paulo Bacliupi’s Windup Girl, not to mention Lavie Tadhar’s Apex Book of World SF or even Guy Gavriel Kay’s alternate history, Under Heaven, things in the genre are more cosmopolitan. Generally, we are more worldly-wise in many areas.
So, to revisit an old series and try and update to the near-future can be a risky business. In the old days of ‘fix-ups’, such things were commonplace. However the unusual background to the writing of the book has led to a strange novel. It is both pleasingly contemporary in some ways and harshly dated in others. Whilst the new tale talks of the changes since the 1990’s – the global growth of China, social networks such as Facebook, and a Gibson-esque ‘datscape’ – in contrast, the tone of some aspects are jarringly behind the times. The initial scenes bring to mind a scene from a rural soap opera but combined with a melancholic wistfulness for the past. Women are dealt with fairly roughly and vary in context wildly from rampant sexual partners to oppressed homemakers. Musical tastes go back to Spirit and Coldplay. (Surely, for a book set in thirty years time, it should be something a little more contemporary to now?)
In particular, the sex scenes are quite unsettling, both in their lack of subtlety and their *cough* performance. Whilst clearly important and that they may be here as a means of showing a harder, rougher, tougher world, I felt that they were, at times, overwrought and overplayed, here more for shock effect rather than for purpose.
These aspects could be deal-breakers for some readers. However, overall I did enjoy my read of this new beginning for the Chung Kuo series. There was enough developing for me to be interested in the next book and how the subsequent books cumulatively form a tale that clearly grew in the telling.
First chapter available for download: http://chung-kuo.net/?q=content/downloads
Mark Yon, January 2011