Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Chung Kuo volumes 4 & 5 by David Wingrove. Book review

Ice and Fire (Chung Kuo Book 4) and The Art of War (Chung Kuo Book 5) by David Wingrove. Corvus £14.99

Reviewed by John Howard

David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo originally appeared in eight large volumes between 1989 and 1997. Now Wingrove has started to ‘recast’ the entire series, spreading it across an epic twenty not so large volumes, adding completely new material in two prequel volumes and two more at the end. Ice and Fire originally formed the second part of the original first volume (The Middle Kingdom); The Art of War was the first part of the former book two, The Broken Wheel.

The vast majority of the Earth’s population of forty billion has come to live in the City: pre-fabricated stacked hives a mile or so high, linked to one another across entire continents. A privileged few are able to maintain estates outside the all-encompassing City. By the time Ice and Fire begins in 2201, the seven T’ang – the Han rulers of Chung Kuo (which to all effects and purposes is the entire planet Earth and a few dependencies off-world) – have allowed the creation of a House of Representatives at Weimar, and granted it a measure of devolved government. But the House and the Council of Seven maintain an uneasy relationship due to the natural desire of parliamentarians to increase the power of the elected body – which could only be done at the expense of the ruling Seven.

Many are resentful of the Edict of Technological Control – the law enacted by the Seven to prohibit change – and so the resulting stagnation due to free enquiry and scientific research virtually ceasing. The Dispersionists pin their hopes on The New Hope, a starship whose development and construction has been barely tolerated by the Seven. And to complicate matters some of the Dispersionists have formed an alliance with a group of former insiders who wish to overthrow the ruling order.

Stopping change, stopping the ‘wheel of history’ from turning, is the Seven’s whole raison d’etre; anything or anyone that challenges the Seven’s hold on Chung Kuo is liable to be crushed without mercy. Now, in Ice and Fire, the latest threat to their rule comes from outside the City, when an apparently insignificant incident close to one of the great Seals in the outer wall begins to reveal the extent of the discontent and the illicit experimentation taking place in breach of the Edict. War seems imminent – and a war not only for control of the Earth and the development of space travel, but also for human history itself.

The Art of War opens some three years after the end of Ice and Fire. The Seven have apparently won the War of Two Directions and reasserted their control. They have exacted a savage revenge, with the luckiest of the survivors from the losing side being thrust down to lower levels within the City. A few still survive in hidden fortresses secretly built in mountainous regions that the City has never covered. But the ‘winner takes all’ attitude among many of the ruling elite cannot hide the fact that discontent wasn’t eradicated, and is still growing. An out-and-out terrorist group, the Ping Tiao (‘levelling’) has been formed, and riots have become more frequent. For some among the Seven and their supporters the only answer is to make it impossible for people to wish for change, to wish to unbalance the utopia of peace and stability that their rulers wish to bestow on humanity – on their own terms.

As with the previous books in the series, Ice and Fire and The Art of War move along at an exhilarating pace. From the outset the reader is enmeshed in a complex world-wide political and dynastic drama in which threads of friendship, alliance and betrayal are continually being woven, severed, and woven again into new patterns. For Chung Kuo – the world – the possibilities are the enforced survival of its ‘utopia’ or its bloody downfall and replacement with – what? These are the highest possible stakes – and there are still fifteen more books to go!

No comments: