Reviewed by John Howard
David Wingrove’s epic Chung Kuo originally appeared in eight large volumes between 1989 and 1997. Now Wingrove is ‘recasting’ the entire series, spreading it across twenty not so large volumes, adding completely new material in two prequel volumes and two more planned at the end. An Inch of Ashes was originally the second part of the former book two, The Broken Wheel.
It is now the autumn of 2206. Several of the T’ang – the seven men who rule with all-but absolute power over the various parts of the continent-spanning City that is Chung Kuo – are increasingly unsure of their ability to hold on to power and to exercise it in the way they wish. Tensions are growing between them, and the spectre of change remains at large in the conditioned air of the Levels. The terrorist group Ping Tiao (‘levelling’) is still causing trouble, and is just one of many unpredictable human factors threatening the vision of channelled and controlled peace and stability that the rulers have for the planet. The loose opposition headed by Howard DeVore still manages to keep one step ahead of the T’ang despite all the efforts made by the Seven’s security apparatus to track down its members and sympathisers and eliminate them.
One response by the Seven is, despite the misgivings of some of them, to give the go-ahead for research into the possibility of making it impossible for people to even wish for change: a stupendous project masterminded by the enigmatic Ben Shepherd. Those plans are monstrous, both in scope and (to some) impact. At the same time Shepherd finally discovers his true nature, and the secret in his family that has been hidden in open sight since the foundation of Chung Kuo. Shepherd’s status as an official ‘wild card’ is further enhanced, with all the danger and uncertainty for the massed billions inhabiting the City.
In An Inch of Ashes the reader is immersed once more in a complex world-wide political and dynastic drama in which threads of friendship, alliance and betrayal are continually woven, get frayed, sometimes break, and are knitted again into new and often previously unthinkable patterns. The pace never lets up; the contrast between the beauty and elegance of much of the Seven’s culture and the high moral language of their aims, and the utter ruthlessness and violence of how they execute (pun intended) them in reality is maintained, strengthening the impression that nowhere is potentially as alien as the Earth itself, and no-one and nothing is as alien as humanity and what it could become – or be forced into becoming.