Monday, October 1, 2012

The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove: book review

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo Book 3) by David Wingrove. Corvus £18.99

Reviewed by John Howard

David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo originally appeared in eight large volumes between 1989 and 1997. A decade or so later Wingrove embarked on the large scale project of ‘recasting’ the entire series, revising and enlarging it across an epic twenty not quite so large volumes. The first two books, Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain, appeared in 2011 and contained all new material and formed an extended prologue to the main sequence. They set the scene and got us from here to there: from some thirty years hence to 2098, by which time the foundations for the Han Chinese-dominated new world order of Chung Kuo have been well and truly made, literally driven into the soil of the Earth.

The Middle Kingdom is a revised and expanded version of the first half of the original first volume (also called The Middle Kingdom) of Wingrove’s first excursion into Chung Kuo. Nearly one hundred years after the prologue volumes, as the twenty-second century is about to dawn, the world’s Han rulers – the Seven T’ang – maintain the same purpose as they ever did: a unified world, a utopia of peace and stability for all. On their terms, of course.

The vast majority of the world’s population of forty billion lives in the Cities: pre-fabricated stacked hives nearly a mile high that span continents. Most of Asia is a farm. The Cities’ inhabitants rise – and fall – through the hundreds of levels depending on their position in the new society and their attitude to it. Hard work and obedience can be rewarded; mistakes and disobedience can lead to banishment: removal to levels below. Towards the bottom of the teeming Cities are the Lowers: the Net, the first few levels above the floor, where life is hard and precarious enough. But below that, sealed away from the Above, out of sight and mostly out of mind, lies the Clay: the devastated surface of the planet, left in ruins and almost total darkness. Yet people still live in the Clay: feral tribes, the descendants of those excluded from the Cities and who survived and turned into a true underclass and in effect became a separate race. (Any analogy with Wells’ Morlocks would not be at all accurate.) There are also a few who prefer the anarchy and constant danger of a life, of sorts, under the floor.

The rulers of the world intend to ensure that permanent peace and stability is achieved through the virtual elimination of change, the systematic obliteration of all traces of the past – including the rewriting of history – and by strengthening further their iron controlling grip on all aspects of everyone’s life – all those in the Cities, that is. The Edict of Technological Control was promulgated in order to monitor and regulate all technological development, and to stamp on anything that threatened the new order planned for the next ten millennia (at least). But of course change can’t be entirely stopped and crushed by the force of an edict, no matter how all-powerful the rulers and their enforcers are. When the Minister in charge of the Edict is assassinated, suspicion falls on a number of high and well-connected people. Their loyalty and commitment to the system of New Confucianism comes under scrutiny, with conspiracy and counter-conspiracy blossoming as members of the ruling families fight to maintain continuity – and their rights of succession – and prevent their grip on the world from loosening. They will do anything to stop the dreaded spectre of change – chaos, to them – being let loose again.

Wingrove’s approach continues to be necessarily widescreen, with a cast of characters ranging from the most privileged to those scrabbling in the darkness of the Clay, from mere talking heads and execution-fodder to those with lives and motivations explored in some depth. From now on in it seems clear that the end of each volume will provide a sort of pause for breath rather than a conclusion, and many of the characters to be introduced in each volume will appear and re-appear, allowing the story to unwind and spread over the great space allotted to it, pushing out against its bounds as the inhabitants of the sprawling Cities press on each other and against the walls, floors, and ceilings that keep them in place. The main cast now seems to be assembled for the struggle ahead, although there will no doubt be unexpected deaths and betrayals, new developments and the intrusion of the unplanned to disturb the rulers’ dream of ten thousand years of their version of peace. A civil war of planetary dimensions seems in the offing, with those who resent the suffocation of their current situation lined up against the Han ‘establishment’. It might seem that nothing can withstand the weight of the new order, but…

As with the previous books, The Middle Kingdom moves along at an exhilarating pace. By turns portraying a world alien and mundane, brutal and sentimental, the scale continues to range from the tremendous and remote to the intimate and deeply personal. It’s still too early to tell how David Wingrove’s new version of the Chung Kuo future history will turn out – surely there are new developments in this recasting, surprises in store – but it seems set to be a roller-coaster ride that it will be impossible to leave until the author is done with it. 

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