Chung Kuo: Son of Heaven (book, David Wingrove, 2011)
From SFX 207.
David Wingrove/Corvus 367pages/ £12.99
Heard of Chung Kuo? Released over a decade, the series span a complicated future history where China rules a vast multi-levelled plastic city covering the Earth, and the ideological struggle between dynamism and stability that shook it. Cut short, the final volume, the Marriage of the Living Dark (1999) was not the ending the writer wanted. Now he’s back, with more understanding publishers, and Chung Kuo returns as a 20-book epic, with 500,000 new words of material, including a new finale, and two prequel volumes, of which this is the first.
This is an ambitious and somewhat awesome endeavour, yet both its strengths and weaknesses are on show here. Son of Heaven tells of the fall of the west due to a China-engineered market meltdown, sounds intriguing, but the world it takes place in is cursorily imagined, a cardboard stage-set, painted with illogicality. Likewise his enormous planet-city, the birth of which we witness here, seems somewhat ridiculous in the making. As a backdrop to human travail the city is a grand canvas, as a thing in and of itself… well, the old SF classification of “Big Dumb Object” springs to mind.
But it is in characterisation that Wingrove wins. Never mind his “cosy catastrophe”, or the unconvincing worlds that precede and follow it. His characters, peering out from behind info-dumps, are mammal-warm, and that brings the world of Chung Kuo to life. In fact it makes one think: is our own world not ridiculous? And yet real people live here too.
Son of Heaven sets genuine humanity against inhuman endeavour. Do not mistake it for speculative fiction – it is fantasy, yet like all great fantasy, it carries the hallmark of legend. Flawed, yet compelling.
Did you know?
Wingrove also wrote a series of books based on Myst, the one-time highest ever selling series of computer games.