There are moments when Western sensibilities meet horrifically with oriental inscrutability. The West would have you believe it happened during times of conflict, with oriental forces met and flattened on the field by the superior technology and individualism of the Western soldier. The orient would smile their small, enigmatic smiles and remember various anecdotes of the boorish westerners swinging blindly into any social situation forgoing all subtle processes in favour of the end result. Very rarely does a combination happen of chemistry and power, bringing with it the potential and raw energy of a new dynamic that could shake the earth to its very core.
David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo speaks of such a dynamic, imagined in a world where China, due to economic skill and superiority gradually took over the world in the latter part of the 21st century. Set 200 years in the future, the population of the Earth has reached 40 billion and each continent is ruled over by T’angs making 7 T’angs in all, a council being the highest ruling authority on Earth. The continents themselves consist of nothing but cities, meaning layers of houses built like tenemens. The cities consist of 500+ levels of floors, containing markets, housing etc. with the bottom layers existing in the pits of penury and progressing up the levels towards luxury and rarefied styles and taste. In Chung Kuo, only power or money can raise you up the levels. The world exists in peace with variations of ruling ideologies being practised in different parts of the world, all ultimately coming under the authority of their respective T’ang.
The main point of the plot is this – Chung Kuo has lived in relative harmony and peace for the last 200 years. However, in this cycle, the political front is threatened by ‘dispersionists’, a European cartel wanting technological research constraints removed so as to escape the authority of the T’angs. One individual is silently pulling the strings in a plan set years back to completely destabilize the entire world and return it to a state of anarchy. A young prince must learn to manipulate power under the watchful eye of his father, a T’ang.
Nevertheless, the real meat of Chung Kuo lies in its characters. Through the course of the series, over several hundred characters will be presented to you with every single one involved in the great plot. There are over 16 plots intertwined in the first book alone, all ending in a common convergence. Every page will turn onto a new possibility with no single situation or reaction of a character being boring.
Explaining the motives behind the actions of characters in this book is too complex to even attempt. At times, it would seem that Wingrove carries around a miniature universe in his head, peopled with characters of utter dignity, power, avarice, rage and purity. The only way to even introduce the immense scope of the book is through the character sketches of a few people in the book.
The dutiful son, who always assumed he would be second best to his brother thrust into a seat of power and risk because of events past his control.
A low level hit man, a Kwai, known as a ‘knife’ first searching for status, and then redemption up through the levels.
A general, tasked with protecting a T’ang who serves with dutifulness that never once blunts his efficacy or his pride.
A nihilist, an utter enemy of the world, who can break the world and make it burn with just his manipulation of the political environment.
A brothel owner, a princess, a child and many more are characters within Chung Kuo, never living in isolation, each affecting the others lives knowingly and unknowingly but with terrific narrative impact.
Within all this chaos, what emerges is a masterpiece of a book, an evolution of Tolkien. Writing has always been about exploring new ideas, concepts and potential. This is a book that is nothing but.