The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove
Book Three of the Chung Kuo series
Published by Quercus, October 2012 (Review copy received.)
Review by Mark Yon
Whereas the first two books have been new material in this ambitious twenty-book rewriting, this book is where the original series began in 1989. What we have here is a new introduction, written to connect this book with the previous two, and about half of the original novel. The rest of the original book should make up Book 4, Ice and Fire.
After the setting of the scene in Son of Heaven, and the seriously violent events at the conclusion of Daylight on Iron Mountain, here’s where the story begins to move up a gear and many of the epic story’s main characters are introduced.
Beginning in 2190, the book briefly recaps on the events outlined in Daylight on Iron Mountain: the fall of the US, the nuking of Japan and the subjugation and ethnic cleansing of Africa. These events alone would make an epic story, though they are dealt with here in the matter of a few pages.
Here the tale is of the descendants of those who have gone before and their part in this new world order. It is most of all a battle, both overt and covert, between the main Seven Families, whose coup we read of in Iron Mountain and those who want to break away from their tyrannical grasp.
The Seven’s position is complex, yet fairly stable. By 2196 the domination of the world by the Han has led to a period of relative peace. Those subjugated by the invading Han army are allowed to settle in the new Han cities that cover the world’s surface, whilst those against the new rule are ruthlessly exterminated or left to fend for themselves in the area below the cities, made to live lives of squalor and danger in the world below. In a situation reminiscent of Metropolis we have a multi-layered society from the top-tiered elite to those eking out a poor and miserable existence in the Clay, below the Net (the point that delimits the world below the cities from the world Above).
The book begins with this desire for change on the part of old Hung Mao industrialists, to overthrow the Han leaders and push innovation unrestricted by Han bureaucracy and rule. A Minister of the Edict, Lwo Kang, is assassinated by these Dispersionists, to try and galvanise change.
In addition to this conflict between the Seven and the Dispersionists, there are also more covert tensions within the Seven. Li Shai Tung, T’ang of City Europe, holds an important position within the Seven. As an advocate of the Seven’s policy of Stasis – maintaining order without Change in order to create a Han dynasty for hundreds of years – he finds himself manoeuvring all the different elements in play like an enormous game of Go. This includes the military and the scientists, the politicians and the leaders.
In opposition we have Major Howard DeVore, military strategist and leader, technological revolutionist, who manipulates events to the detriment of the Seven. Of the scientists, creating new genetic creatures for the Seven, Klaus Ebert, the owner of SynGen (met in earlier books) seems to show all that is undesirable about the people in power. SynGen will become increasingly important in its development of genetic ‘supermen’. Klaus’s son, Hans, is in the military and one of those under DeVores’ scrutiny.
Child prodigy Kim Ward will be one of the scientists introduced here who will become a major player in the series later. So too is Gregor Karr is a recruit from the Net whose size belies his skill as a to-the-death fighter. Recruited to the military, to the great annoyance of DeVore, his experience below the Cities is an asset to Li Shai Tung. With Kao Chen, they are the men determined to bring down the Dispersionists.
Of the new generation of the elite, we have the teenage prince Li Yuan and his betrothed, the beautiful Fei Yen. Their impending marriage is both a celebration of order and the solidifying of Stasis, a sign to the revolutionaries that the T’ang are here to stay.
With such a list of characters it should be obvious that this is a complex and lengthy scenario where the reader is expected to be in for the long game and therefore not everything is resolved here in The Middle Kingdom. What keeps the reader’s interest is the juxtaposition between all these disparate and often conflicting elements. The cultural values of the Han are very different to what we see in our Westernised society today, and the way that the old traditional values are combined with the new way of progress is jaw-dropping in their implementation. (Think of the film Blade Runner for such a similarly intriguing mix of Western and Eastern values.) The Han regime is harsh, from their point of view necessarily so, but the promise for the bright and glorious future makes it potentially worthwhile. Not all in positions of power see it this way, of course, and there are secret plans and counterplots a-plenty in order to both overthrow and maintain the current positions of power.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the different perspectives – Han and non-Han, technological and cultural, political and social – would degenerate into stereotypes. Instead what we get here is a narrative that allows the reader to see that in each character what they do and think is acceptable. The differences between right and wrong are blurred and what we see as readers is that each perspective has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Having first read the book about twenty years ago, I’m pleased to type that it is as good as I remembered it. These days, with its broad sweep and many characters with multifaceted personalities, somebody, somewhere will label it as ‘SF’s equivalent of A Game of Thrones’, though Chung Kuo was first published seven years before. Perhaps it is more ‘A Game of Go’ (one of the key games in Chung Kuo) rather than A Game of Thrones. As David is a fan, I’m sure he’d be pleased with that comparison.
Actually, with the benefit of hindsight, that’s not a bad comparison. Like the individuals in Martin’s novels, not all the characters you think will survive do so, and those who have been in the background so far become more prominent as the full scope of the plots become apparent. Like Martin’s Westeros, Chung Kuo is violent, ruthless, nasty, and complex, both politically and culturally.
It is a book that benefits careful reading, simply because of everything going on. Some readers may initially find that the names may become a little interchangeable, especially amongst the Han, though I personally found it wasn’t long before I got back into it, and David kindly provides a character summary at the back of the book.
There are a couple of points that have dated and show how far we have come since the books were first published. Characters listen to information on tapes, whereas these days I guess it would be a download. (We can reason this by allowing for the societal collapse back in Son of Heaven and the world taking time to recover.) The name ‘The Net’, has become synonymous with the internet these days and consequently can be a little confusing. On the whole though, the book has not dated too badly, presumably as a result of this ambitious reimagining.
In summary, the book has political manoeuvring that is intelligent and complex, an impressive range of varied characters, and cultural world-building that is supremely effective. It’s engaging, it’s exciting and it’s great to be back in the Chung Kuo world. I envy anyone yet to read this for the first time.
Ice and Fire, Book 4 in the series, should be available in December 2012. Can’t wait. If I remember right, things are about to get even more interesting…
Mark Yon, September 2012