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From Saturday, 8 March through Friday, 14 March, I read David Wingrove's Son of Heaven (London: Corvus [an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.], 2011 [ebook / Kindle edition published 1 Sept. 2012]; ISBN [ebook]: 978-0-85789-169-3; 376 pps.); from Friday, 14 March through Monday, 31 March, I read David Wingrove's Daylight on Iron Mountain (London: Corvus [an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.], 2011; ISBN [ebook]: 978-0-85789-432-8; 360 pps.).

cover to Kindle ed of Chung Kuo Son of Heaven by David Wingrove

cover to Kindle ed of Chung Kuo Daylight on Iron Mountain by David Wingrove

I was a huge fan of David Wingrove's original Chung Kuo series, an eight-book (an "octology"? an "octet"?) sequence whose individual novels were all, save for the last, well over 500 pages long, about China's rule over the entire world, after their conquest of same: their annihilation of all blacks (whether African, Afro-European, Afro-American, or Australian Aborigine), all Japanese, all Indians, all Pakistanis, all Bangladeshis, and all Semitic peoples (at last! peace in the Middle East!), and their subsequent, massive rewriting of history to show that China ruled the Earth from the time when, in reality, outposts of the Han Empire and the Roman Empire made tentative contact around 200 A.D. (All of this has already happened when the series opens, in the 22nd century C.E.) Six continents are covered by seven gigantic, miles-high Cities, made of a super-strong, super-light polymer compound called "ice"; Asia is covered by two Cities, while North America, South America, Europe, Africa and Australia each have one City encompassing them. The combined population of these Cities is roughly 40 billion people. The Cities aren't built flush to the ground; the areas beneath the Cities, forever occluded, containing the wrack and ruin of the officially non-existent civilizations that the Han didn't want to salvage and rebrand, are called Clay, and those people unfortunate enough to be left to eke out a brutish and scant existence in the Clay have reverted to troglodytic conditions and apish mien, with their average life expectancies being thirty-five years. The Han are dominant, but a faction of wealthy Caucasians (or Hung Mao in Mandarin -- "redheads," although the sense is usually more accurately translated as “redheaded barbarians”) gradually rises that attempts to wrest control from them; a genius rescued from the Clay in what used to be Cornwall named Kim Ward, discovers an ultra-secret compilation of documents showing Earth's true history, called the Aristotle File, and thinks long and hard about disseminating this to a wider audience, for fear of pushing the world into chaos even faster than it's already hurtling.

The thing that made Chung Kuo so compelling, so much more than a wheels-within-wheels, big budget dystopian epic, was how Wingrove peopled it with characters who actually, honestly developed, as in believably changed, over the course of the series; how he was unafraid to kill off likable characters who were major players; how he turned readers' expectations on their heads, so that the characters you would normally expect to root for -- the people fighting to promulgate the true history of the Earth and to overthrow Han control -- turn out to be the major shits of Chung Kuo, and that the T'ang, the emperors or Seven (each T'ang controls a City) who rule Chung Kuo, or the "Middle Kingdom" (Chinese rulers traditionally considered China itself to be the Middle Kingdom, as it lay, in their minds at least, between Heaven and Earth; in Wingrove's series, all of Earth is the Middle Kingdom since all of Earth is ruled by the Han, or Chinese), are actually not (or at least, not all of them) the rotters, bounders and maniacal dictators that you would suppose.

Unfortunately, Wingrove's publisher lost faith in the series due to declining sales figures, and told him that, instead of the previously agreed-upon nine books (I'd read that he was supposed to be allowed ten books), he had to finish the series in eight, or forever hold his peace; in any case, he wasn't paid so much as a shilling for the eighth book, The Marriage of the Living Dark, which was apparently never published in the U.S. (The edition that I finally purchased, through Amazon.com in the late 1990s, was published in Canada.) As a consequence, the eighth book satisfied nobody, perhaps least of all Wingrove himself, given that he had to cram the main events of two books into one volume of under 400 pages in trade paperback, IIRC. Though I was disappointed with The Marriage of the Living Dark, I still thought that it contained passages of superb writing that any self-respecting author would've been proud to claim as his or her own. Certainly parts of it towered head and shoulders above most of what gets labeled science fiction.

Imagine my delight then when I learned, around 2010, that Wingrove was going to reissue the series and rewrite parts of it, expanding it, and bringing it to proper conclusion, instead of a hasty, half-assed leave-taking à la the Americans leaving Saigon in April 1975. And when I learned, a year or two later, that he would be expanding Chung Kuo to a whopping twenty books, I was gobsmacked, and a little apprehensive: as difficult as it would be for him to rewrite even the last two books in the series as published, and resist the temptation to endlessly revise "just this bit here and that bit there," how in the hell could the series possibly retain its interest, its narrative drive, its cohesion, if Wingrove opened it up that bloody much?

The answer, provisionally at least, after reading the first two, prequel novels in the revised series -- Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain (both published in the UK in 2011; while Wingrove's Wikipedia entry states that the eighth book, The White Mountain, was published in March of this year, it is not available through Amazon's U.S. site) -- is, "Not entirely."

Son of Heaven opens up in the year 2065, and starts out as a straightforward post-apocalyptic family drama / survivor's tale set in Somerset, England (specifically in the environs of Corfe), focusing on the middle-aged Jake Reed and his fourteen-year-old son Peter; Jake was taken in as a callow, high-flying twentysomething refugee on the run from Han assassins by a small village whose spokesman, Tom Hubbard, would come to be Jake's best friend and related to him by marriage, as Jake eventually married Tom's wife's sister, Annie, and had Peter with her. Unfortunately, in the wake of a complete societal breakdown and the degeneration of most of the Western world into neo-feudalism, modern medicine is in short supply, which means that relatively minor injuries can develop into deadly infections, as happened with Annie. (We never meet Annie, as she has died before Son of Heaven opens.)

The book then jumps back to the year 2043, to look at Jake's stellar career as a login or “webdancer,” a kind of prognosticator for a big financial concern who has near supernatural success predicting changes in the financial markets by immersing himself in the virtual reality of the world stock exchange: healthy companies look and smell different than unhealthy ones (the latter tend to give off a reek of decaying meat, no matter how much their I/T boffins try to disguise their companies' avatars -- think Second Life -- with rude good [virtual] health). Things start to come a cropper when he notices a Yellow Peril-type avatar of unknown provenance popping up in the datascape, and soon weird virtual beasties are swarming all over healthy companies, sucking them dry (i.e., draining their capital reserves) or smashing them into a million fragments (i.e., executing a hostile takeover and selling off the company piecemeal to realize whatever profit they can). This is soon followed by a series of fatal "accidents" that eliminate various key players in world finance and 2043's version of the internet -- Jake himself is targeted, but survives -- followed again by undisguised assassinations, including of the U.S. President, killed with a headshot at a ball game at Chicago's Comiskey Park.

The action then jumps back to 2065, just in time to present Chinese paramilitaries in advanced aircraft as they begin to blanket England, eliminating the numerous fiefdoms, and "processing" the surviving population, prior to covering the British Isles with what will be the westernmost fringe of City Europe.... (This last section also introduces another POV in the person of one of the Han generals, Jiang Lei, who is also a published poet as Nai Liu, “Enduring Willow”; Nai Liu’s poems offer as much veiled dissent from the new world order as he can sneak past the censors, and Wingrove’s character list describes him as “a good man in bad times.”)

Daylight on Iron Mountain opens up the point of view to include more than Jake and Jiang Lei: while Jake is still a character in Daylight, his prime time has obviously passed, and his function here is primarily as a memento mori for the whole of Western civilization; even his new wife, Mary (Tom Hubbard's widow), doesn't cling so fiercely to what the Han under the conqueror and ruler of the world, Tsao Ch'un (who was aided and abetted primarily by two technical advisers: the wheelchair-bound Chao Ni Tsu and the Hung Mao Amos Shepherd, whose family will continue to play a major part in the series), have distorted -- covered with a filigree of falsehood -- or simply extirpated. Jake's son Peter is on the rise with a rare surviving Western company, a bioengineering / genetics firm called GenSyn, headquartered in Bremen; Peter is fully acculturated into Han society, "more Han than the Han" as the Hung Mao have it, and is annoyed with his father's mooning over what is lost and what, as Peter, the Han rulers, and their hand-picked Caucasian administrators see it, never should have been. (That Peter, who was fourteen when Son of Heaven began, should have so completely and thoroughly drunk the Kool-Aid, as it were, causes Jake no little pain and discomfort, and may cause some readers to recall James Clavell's “The Children’s Story”, a cautionary tale about the reeducation of elementary school-aged children by the unnamed conquerors and occupiers of the U.S.)

Daylight on Iron Mountain offers shifting POVs: we spend time with Tsao Ch’un, who is arguably the least interesting character in this volume (while he’s a brilliant strategist and tactician, and isn’t, at least at first, quite as self-confident and bloodthirsty as he later becomes, and as the Seven remember him, he’s also a political manipulator at least on par with Stalin, as well as an entomophobe and, to a lesser extent, a zoophobe), and his chief advisers, Chao Ni Tsu and Amos Shepherd (the latter of whom personifies the dangers inherent in a hyperintellect with minimal empathy), one of the Seven, Li Chao Ch’in, and Jake and Peter Reed. The timeframe covered in Daylight on Iron Mountain stretches from 2067 to 2098, although the main action occurs in 2067 and 2087.

As far as the POV opening up in Daylight on Iron Mountain, it feels more like one of the books in the original series (which maintained its high quality at least through the fifth book, Beneath the Tree of Heaven, and arguably through the sixth book, White Moon, Red Dragon; while the seventh book, Days of Bitter Strength, was by no means a disgrace, there was a noticeable drop-off in quality) than Son of Heaven does; however, Daylight on Iron Mountain is still tonally different from the original series, given that, in the first part (“Part Four: Black Hole Sun -- Summer 2067”), Tsao Ch’un hasn’t quite conquered the world: as the book opens, he orders the wholesale nuking of the Levant and the Holy Land, eliminating the unlikely coalition of Christians, Jews and Muslims (and, presumably, Druze and Bahá’ís) that had come together to oppose him and their major religious sites at a stroke, while the U.S., though fragmented into different polities, is still very much an independent, and troublesome, concern. Tsao Ch’un has already wiped out the Japanese, the Indians, everybody in Africa who wasn’t at least partly Han or Caucasian (though it’s not made explicit, one presumes, particularly on the strength of the original series, that all Semitic peoples and natives of the Indian subcontinent were likewise exterminated, wherever they were found), and, presumably, the Australian Aborigines.

Ultimately, it feels like Wingrove has made a misstep in allowing a little more daylight into the story of how Chung Kuo came about: one of the strengths of the original series was that it opened in media res, several generations after Tsao Ch’un had consolidated his rule; since the Han conquest of the Earth (and their deliberate sidelining of the further development of much of the extant technology, out of an obsessive fear of change) was already a fait accompli, there was no need for a detailed presentation of how this conquest was accomplished. While the presentation of the conquest in Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain is more impressionistic, limited as it is to handful of points of view, it does raise enough specific details to prompt the reader -- this reader, at any rate -- to challenge Wingrove’s premise.

That Tsao Ch’un would effectively hamstring the West (the entire world, really, due to the interconnectedness of much of the world’s financial markets; while reference is made to the devastation that Tsao Ch’un wreaked upon China as part of his attack on the West’s computer networks, very little details are offered) by attacking the stock market, the internet, and the various secure military and governmental computer networks rather than risk a thermonuclear war that he probably couldn’t win is obvious, and well in keeping with current fears about Chinese hackers and industrial espionage; while the financial attack plays out as a kind of video game version of the 2008 financial crisis, there is a glaring omission in Wingrove’s extrapolation: climate change. Nothing is mentioned of the opening up of the Northeast Passage or the partial opening up of the Northwest Passage due to the melting of the northern polar icecap, or of the scramble for resources in the largely thawed waters of the Arctic Ocean, in which China is currently a major player, although countries such as Japan, India and Brazil are also trying to stake a claim. (This is not exactly late-breaking news that happened after Wingrove wrote these two prequel novels; see "Cold Rush: The Coming Fight for the Melting North" by McKenzie Funk, in the September 2007 issue of Harper's Magazine, which unfortunately is available online only to subscribers.) Then too, there's the covering of much of the Earth's surface with gigantic Cities built of the ultra-light, super-strong white plastic called ice: the white Cities would reflect much of the Sun's heat back into space, which should gradually reduce the Earth's average temperature; no mention is made of how this might counteract some of the damage already done by the massive burning of fossil fuels over a couple of centuries, never mind the strong likelihood that these white Cities would, ultimately, reduce the Earth's average temperature more than was salubrious for its inhabitants.

One also questions the alluded-to extermination -- or attempted extermination -- of much of the Earth's animal life, particularly its insects and arachnids, and major fauna; even with the growing of genetically manipulated jon tung wu, or "meat animals", to supply the protein needs of Earth's still significant population, despite Tsao Ch'un's wholesale slaughter of perhaps a third to a half of it, one can't help but question how humans could survive such a violent hacking away at the food web. (The fact that a jon tung wu has "something like 20 per cent of its body weight" carved off once a week for its lifespan, roughly eight years [Kindle location 2046 and 2055; Daylight on Iron Mountain, Chapter 14: "A Change of Sky"], recalls James Bruce's account of Ethiopian tribesmen who would "cut steaks from the shoulders of live cattle [to eat] them raw, then stitched up the hide, packed the wound with clay, and set the cattle forth to graze" (Fawn Brodie, The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton [NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1967; 1984 reprint edition; ISBN: 0-393-30166-4]; p. 121); but see also the Wikipedia entry for Bruce's Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, In the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772, and 1773.) And what about the curtailment of photosynthesis? With much of the Earth's surface covered by Cities, precious little photosynthesis can occur, at least with the plants that formerly grew on the Earth's land masses; wouldn't this lead to the Earth becoming an anaerobic environment?

By attempting to show how China took over the world, Wingrove undercuts the power of his original series' fantastic, dreamlike element; I don't think it's possible to tie his future history to merely one or two distinct elements or events in the present and expect his readers to suspend their disbelief as readily as they did for the original series. By slowing down to look at how China, or Tsao Ch'un, did it, Wingrove inevitably causes readers to question the details, thereby distancing themselves from his narrative.

That said, Wingrove's extrapolation of certain tendencies in Chinese history to suggest the whys and wherefores of a Chinese takeover of everything is clever, and more than a little unsettling: Chinese xenophobia and nationalistic pride (two relatively recent expressions of which were the Boxer Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution) are foregrounded by Tsao Ch'un's wholesale extermination of a goodly portion of the Earth's population, particularly of those nationalities and ethnicities whom the Chinese have historically found the most troubling (one is prompted to question China's current engagement in Africa all the more thanks to Wingrove) -- the elimination of the Japanese makes perfect sense, given the lingering fallout over World War II and the collapse of Japan's so-called "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere", part of which includes the ongoing dispute between Japan and China over ownership of the Senkaku (in Japanese) or Daioyu (in Chinese) Islands, and the potential oil reserves that await exploration and exploitation in the islands' waters; the wholesale rewriting of history to show that the Han have ruled the Earth for over two millennia echoes Orwell's 1984, of course, but also the Qin Dynasty's fenshu kengru, "the burning of books and burying [alive] of [Confucian] scholars," enacted by the decree of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (a.k.a. King Zheng of Qin; he unified China in 221 B.C.) between 213 and 210 B.C.; and the ambivalent distrust, if not out-and-out fear, of technology evinced in China's Confucian-mandated cessation of iron and steel production in the 12th century and of ocean-going vessels in the 15th century, is reflected, in the original series (and, presumably, in subsequent books of the revised series), by the Seven's rigid control of technological development and outright banning of space exploration and colonization. (As William H. McNeill notes in his masterful The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press {Basil Blackwell Publisher Limited}; 1982; trade paperback edition 1984; ISBN: 0-226-56158-5; 411 pps.], China's total iron output in 1078 A.D. was 125,000 tons, while, by comparison, the total iron production of England and Wales in 1788 was "only 76,000 tons, just 60 percent of China's output seven hundred years earlier!" [pps. 26-7]; and, "After 1433 [China] launched no more expeditions to the Indian Ocean, and in 1436 issued a decree forbidding the construction of seagoing ships. Naval personnel were ordered to man the boats that plied the inland waters of the Grand Canal [which links the Yangtze and Yellow rivers] , and the seagoing warships were allowed to rot away without being replaced. Shipbuilding skills soon decayed, and by the mid-sixteenth century the Chinese navy was unable to fend off the pirates who became a growing nuisance along the China coast." [pps. 45-6])

Obviously it's a bit premature to evaluate a proposed twenty-book cycle (an "icosagology"??) based on the first two books; readers unfamiliar with the original Chung Kuo series will also likely have a different reaction to Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain than fans of it will, perhaps not least because of the stronger whiff of "Yellow Peril" that attaints it than was the case in the original series. I intend to read further, if only till I am convinced that Wingrove really can't go home again; as with everything, however, "Your mileage may vary."

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.


The supreme space lord who will now DEST
The Feckless Wonder

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