Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom

Chung Kuo:  The Middle Kingdom (1989) is the first volume of David Wingrove's massive Chung Kuo science fiction series.  I read most of the series a long time ago and recently decided to revisit the novel(s).  After reading it the first time, I was fairly amazed that the series as a whole has gotten so little attention from scifi readers.  After this read, I find it to be nearly as good as I remember--not a literary novel by any means, just solid, shoot-from-the-hip adventure and intrigue.  I would rate it 3.5 hamsters if my silly system allowed me to do so!

The novel is set in a future Earth where China (or at least Chinese culture) dominates the world.  The events leading to this massive shift in world culture have not been made clear (though a prequel novel to be released soon might shed some light on how it originates).  At any rate, the continents of Earth are ruled by a council of seven T'angs, who are akin to Chinese emperors and have absolute control over the life and death of the populace.  The family of Li Shai Tung, the T'ang of Europe, is at the heart of the plot in Chung Kuo: TMK.

The entire population of Earth lives in a 300-story structure made of a super plastic material known only as Ice.  Success in Chung Kuo (which is, incidentally, the ancient name for China itself, meaning 'The Middle Kingdom') is measured by where you reside in the structure:  residents of the highest levels are those with the most power, while lowborn citizens are confined in the dirty, chaotic lower levels.  Underneath Chung Kuo lies 'The Clay', where packs of humans live feral lives at best.  The world-building in the novel is absolutely fantastic; Wingrove's Chung Kuo provides a wonderful setting in which the plot unfolds.

When we pick up the story, the T'angs are coming under increased pressure from a faction of wealthy industrialists and their political allies (known as the Dispersionists) for reforms.  As seems to be the case with just about any entrenched ruler, the T'angs seek to avoid loosening their grip on power at any cost.  They are particularly loathe to allow any sort of Western influence to work its way into society.  This conflict in ideoology eventually leads to a bitter clash known as the 'War of Two Directions' for control of Chung Kuo and, with it, the population of Earth.

The novel tells the story from the viewpoints of a number of characters as they are swept into the unfolding  struggle for power. As a result, we get a view of Chung Kuo society from the absolute top (the leaders of both factions) down to the lowest of the low (a Clay-born boy).  There are a TON of characters in the novel and a lot of them have Chinese names.  It is somewhat overwhelming at first, but the book has a handy cast of characters section to help readers keep them straight.

To be clear:  Chung Kuo: TMK  is not without its faults.  Wingrove most definitely falls prey to a good dose of Orientalism every now and then (a definition from wikipedia: preconceived archetypes that envision all "Eastern" societies as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar to "Western" societies).  Hmm...sounds a lot like the whole plot of the book, doesn't it?  While the menace was always looming close, I feel like Wingrove only grossly fell prey to it on a few occasions.  The reader will have to decide if this taints the whole novel--I don't think it does.

If you go to any book website and read reviews of Chung Kuo: TMK, you will see that much has been made about its violence.  In fact, the most strident objections are raised over one sexually explicit scene in the book that lasts for maybe five pages.  As with most anything you read on the internet, take these rather strangely impassioned reviews with a grain of salt.  Yes, the scene is explicit.  Yes, it is uncomfortable reading.  BUT:  the scene is not gratuitous and does serve a purpose.  Namely, to cement in readers' minds the evilness of the leader of the Dispersionist faction, who, up until that point, may have turned out only to be an ideological hardliner.  Who knows how many people have been scared away from reading what is a fairly good novel because of these reactionary reviews?

Despite some flaws, Chung Kuo: TMK is a great start to what can only be described as an epic science fiction series.  As I said in the introduction--if you are looking for a deep book, put down Chung Kuo immediately and pick up the likes of Hyperion instead.  Instead, if you go in expecting a well-written series with plenty of interesting characters and adventures, you won't be let down!

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