Hello David. Thanks for joining us.
Let’s start with what must be pretty obvious: the Chung Kuo series.
I read the first book of the original eight book series, The Middle Kingdom, in about 1989-90. At the time I thought it was great that you as a writer were writing SF, but with a pleasingly non-Western perspective. This was my first experience of such writing. Was the chance to write about such an untapped culture one of your main reasons for doing so? Where did the idea of Chung Kuo originally come from?
Well, there are actually two ‘origins’ for the backdrop to CHUNG KUO. One, believe it or not, was the Rupert The Bear cartoons, in which there were lofty Mandarin figures who had these floating oriental palaces... and then there were the wood elves who lived beneath the roots of the trees (and of course, Rupert, who was a twat!). The striking contrast between the two fuelled my depictions of both Clay and the Above, Kim and Li Shai Tung.
I also – while still at school, in the sixth form – researched a history essay on The Opium Wars in China in the 1840s, and got so heavily into the subject that I spent that whole summer reading up on China and its history. That was important because when I came to look for a backdrop for my story, I had all of that colourful stuff already in my head, and the very same reason that I was attracted to science fiction – its exotic, alien feel – was already there in China and its history and culture. As I said at the time, why do you need to invent all of that strange, alien stuff when something truly alien is only a long jet flight away?
Now, of course, things in the genre have become more ‘global’. Is this why you’ve revisited the series? It is, after all, about fifteen years after the publication of the original last volume, (Marriage of the Living Dark, in 1996.)
Only partly. In the two prequels – SON OF HEAVEN and DAYLIGHT ON IRON MOUNTAIN– I’ve been conscious that I’m (second time round) writing in the shadow of an emergent China and a globalized economy and a totally new world order. How could I not? I had to feed all of that real life stuff into the equation when I tried to build an (imagined) road between right here where we are and the future that’s CHUNG KUO.
I’m not sure that anyone’s attempted writing a “how it got to be like that” novel (or two) that linked up with an already existent future history. Not one that led from the real world we inhabit, anyway. That alone was a difficult thing to do and took me (on and off) the best part of 19 years.
But the real reason I wanted to rewrite and rework CHUNG KUO was because I’d got the ending wrong. Totally wrong. To my annoyance and to the fans’ annoyance. If you stick around long enough to read Books 17-20 in the new edition, you’ll see a radical transformation of the material. You’ll have the ending it ought to have had first time round. One which, I hope, will move the reader, not leave them with a feeling of disappointment. It’s actually the only just excuse for such mighty self-indulgence. And it’s actually great fun doing it. A process of rediscovery.
What do you hope, in the end, the series will show/prove?
I’m not sure. What began as a backdrop, became a much purer quest for understanding. I wanted to know, through researching it thoroughly and using what I’d learned dramatically, just what made China tick. There was never any way that I was going to get it 100% right, but I do think my outsider’s view of it is a fairly accurate one. My favourite characters, with the exception of Kim and Emily Ascher – are all Chinese. Tuan Ti Fo, Ywe Hao, Kao Chen, and of course, Li Yuan. Their stories are ones which, in the normal course of a science fiction novel, would never be told.
So in the end, I guess, I want the series to make its readers think about China and the future, and what kind of a world we want, while we yet have a choice in the matter. In that sense, the whole sequence is dystopian. Yet there are good people within its pages, doing good things, as well as your emperors and villains.
I remember reading the series with great enthusiasm in the 1990’s, with a long delay for the last one. Of your other books in the 1980’s and 1990’s there were a few Myst books I remember, and the rewriting of Billion Year Spree into Trillion Year Spree, but then, after Marriage, little or nothing else. Had you given up writing at that point? Was that time spent writing or were you doing other things?
There actually was a fourth MYST book, which was completed but never got beyond the first draft. There were some great ideas in there, but somehow it never progressed. Things were happening with the Cyan guys – I’ve never learned quite what – and that was it. I think it’s possible I have the only existent copy of it!
But did I stop writing? Imagine me grinning there at the thought of it. Because I can’t. I’m not made that way. I have to write. After MARRIAGE OF THE LIVING DARK (the last Chung Kuo novel) I wrote a novel about memory and death called IMAGINE A MAN. My (then) agent hated it and ceased to be my agent. I took it elsewhere and on advice rewrote the whole thing with a totally different (lighter) mood to it and a redemptive ending. It was, again, called IMAGINE A MAN. No one liked that version either (I can’t blame them, the first, darker version was far superior) and anyway, I was working on something else. I’d had this idea about this boy and girl who were telepathic twins and who were trying to eradicate every last member of their family one by one. It was called THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS and got rave reviews from all the editors who read it... and not a single sale. It was too weird, too extreme, and too difficult to ‘categorize’. I suggested “how about putting it under a category called ‘books that are brilliant reads’?” but that changed no one’s mind. We’re still sending it out and we still get back glowing responses that, in the third paragraph begin “However...” One of these days I’ll publish it (maybe even myself, as an e-book) and you’ll see how good it is.
After BEAST, and while it was circulating, I began on several projects, though one of them, more than any other, won me over. That was ROADS TO MOSCOW, a gargantuan time-travel novel, with Russia and Germany attempting to eradicate the other in time, two grand Time Masters fighting a complex war that, in its totality, lasts 3000 years. It’s also a love story, between 29th century Otto and 13th century Katarina. I poured all of my inventiveness into the mix and it now exists in two massive volumes, with a third sketched out. If it ever gets published it will dwarf CHUNG KUO, not necessarily in size, but in scope and vision.
There were lots of other projects that I began but never finished. THREE LULLABIES IN AN ANCIENT TONGUE (about a drowned London, a rampant AI and a weird Russian guy who has powers); THE WOUNDED (which was finished, but was “too small” for publishers, and a good dozen or so more.
How did your collaboration on Billion/Trillion Year Spree, with Brian Aldiss, work?
Brian was a dream to work with. Funny, charming, knowledgeable. He knew how to take my sometimes faltering prose and reshape it, making it work. I learned an enormous amount through that process. Our method was mainly for me to write all the new stuff, which Brian would then rewrite, and for him to rework the old stuff (pre 1960s), which I would comment on (in incredible detail). Brian had last say on everything, but didn’t really need to exercise that power. It just worked. But it was a great privilege to work on something like that. It still – 25 years on – remains the best history written of the genre. I’d like a crack at a new addition to it one of these days, incorporating all the stuff that’s come out since 1985. But we’ll see. Chung Kuo is first, Roads To Moscow next.
So the new Chung Kuo: how much is written? Is the series in outline/draft, mainly written, or is it being added to as you go along?
How much is written? Up to Book Fourteen has already been corrected and reworked. That’s to the end of Book Six of the old sequence, WHITE MOON, RED DRAGON. Books Fifteen and Sixteen will receive that same treatment – which you might describe as a “ruthless polish” – in the next month or so, but in the meantime (and to the end of this year) I’ll be working on Book Nineteen, THE KING OF INFINITE SPACE, which will be an entirely new book. Four long chapters of it are already done. After that, books 17, 18 and 20 will receive a cut and paste job with at least fifty per cent of new material added to each. And the ending, LAST QUARTERS, will receive the most radical reworking of all (for a start it’ll be twenty times larger!). As I said earlier, I want the reader to go away this time round with a lump in the throat and the whole thing resonating in their head, and with them wanting to start the journey all over again. Not much to ask, eh?
One of the things I’m appreciating this time around is that things that were only briefly mentioned in the books before we’re now getting details of: the Collapse, the rise of the Chinese to power, the destruction of the Middle East and subjugation of the US... has all of this changed much since originally writing the series?
No. The two prequels use the scenario that was spelt out in THE MIDDLE KINGDOM and the rest of the sequence. I’ve made it all consistent. But it was marvellous, for me, to be able to actually show Tsao Ch’un, and not just as a historical figure, in DAYLIGHT.
Do you know what the future proposed publishing schedule is like? When do you hope Book 20 will be published?
DAYLIGHT ON IRON MOUNTAIN is published, officially, on the third of November this year – with the mass market paperback of SON OF HEAVEN. Then there’s a break until June 2012, when book three, THE MIDDLE KINGDOM is published. It’s ready now, the manuscript corrected and the cover approved, but we’re holding it and the next four or five back because from that point on – June 2012 – we’ll be publishing a title every two months until April 2015. So... in three and a half years it’ll be done. At least, the main sequence will. Because I’m also writing a series of several dozen short stories, all of them set in the world of CHUNG KUO, and functioning rather like Heinlein’s Future History does, casting an indirect look on the events of the main sequence.
What is your writing schedule like? Do you tend to work to a rigid routine or tend to work until you drop?
For the next three years it’s frightening. But also fun. I no longer write until I drop. I have to conserve my energy these days. But once I’m doing it, I can quite easily produce 3 or 4,000 words a day. I write when I can, when I’m allowed, and when I want. Rigid routines don’t work for me. I binge write ... but in moderation.
How much research did you do/have you done for the series? A working knowledge of Chinese culture must take a while to accumulate, surely?
It’s taken me twenty eight years so far, and I keep learning new things about China on a daily basis. At the most obsessive stage of my researching Chung Kuo, I bought myself a whole wall of books on China and just consumed them one after another, using whatever was fascinating to enliven my own tale. I even tried learning Chinese, but I couldn’t get the pronunciation or the inflexions right.
I do like the little references to SF genre though: Philip K Dick’s Ubik, a reference to Asimov’s Caves of Steel ... do you find much time to read the genre these days?
I’ve recently read the whole of George R R Martin’s epic, all of Jack Campbell’s LOST FLEET, and half of Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME, in each case as much to learn what all the fuss was about as for enjoyment. But I’ve actually found Martin’s SONG OF ICE AND FIRE to be among the best things I’ve ever read. I couldn’t get enough of it! I love Tyrion. Oh, and I re-read. LeGuin, Delany, Silverberg, Dick (of course), Heinlein, Aldiss and others. And I’ve recently read my good mate Mike Cobley’s last in his HUMANITY’S FIRE sequence, THE ASCENDANT STARS, which was great. So yes, I do still read SF, but am aware of the developing gaps (especially among the new writings in the genre) and, just as soon as the new material is written, plan to immerse myself in some of it.
One of the things that have developed since the books were first published is the Internet. You blog now at your website, www.chung-kuo.net . How are you finding embracing the technological revolution?
To be frank, I need help, and my daughter Amy usually provides it. But I’m determined to improve my skills and I really, really love blogging. The technological revolution is great. When i-Pad bring out their third version, I’ll be there in the queue to buy it that first day.
Outside the writing business, you have a love of football/soccer; and your knowledge of music I find also rather impressive (and has appeared in Chung Kuo also). A fellow prog fan, I believe! What are you currently listening to?
I listen all the while, but mainly to stuff from long ago. One total departure for me is Adele’s second album, which is astonishing. I’m not one who generally follows trends, but her voice and her writing is magnificent. Oh, and I perhaps should mention that I’m mid-way through writing an extremely detailed history of progressive rock, called simply PROGRESSIVE, which I hope to get published in the next three or four years. So I still listen to all of that old stuff – Genesis, Yes, Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Magma, Amon Duul II, Can, IQ, etc etc... – on a regular basis. This week? Magma. Madmen (and women) that they are.
I look forward to the rest of the books in the series, David, and wish you well with them. Many thanks for your time.
SFFWorld review of the first Chung Kuo novel, Son of Heaven, is HERE.
SFFWorld review of the second Chung Kuo novel, Daylight on Iron Mountain, is HERE.