Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Son of Heaven (Chung Kuo 01) by David Wingrove

In 1989 David Wingrove published the first volume of the eight-book Chung Kuo series. Due to pressures from the publisher, the final volume of that series was unsatisfying to both Wingrove and fans of the series. Fast forward to the present and Chung Kuo is getting a complete revision from Wingrove and Corvus Books. Two prequels will be added to the series, the final book will receive a near-complete re-write and be divided into two books and the original eight will be heavily revised and further divided into smaller books, bringing the re-booted series to a total of 20 books. Son of Heaven (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is the first volume of the new (and improved?) series, a prequel to the original series.

I never read and books from the original series, though I’ve been curious about them as I continually see them on shelves at used bookstores. I imagine that the people and events of Son of Heaven will have greater meaning to those that have read the books previously, but for me it was a blank slate – in a lot of ways, a wonderfully blank slate.

In the year 2043 the world is in a dark place – the US and China are engaged in a cold war and Western societies have reached a point where they wall off the privileged and leave the rest to fend for themselves. Jake is a hotshot trader, possibly the best in the UK, and living a large life. Jake is one of the first to notice something is wrong in the virtual marketplace that runs the economy – the prelude to the strike that destroys the world’s economy. Timed with strategic assassinations, the destruction of the world economy literally ends civilization.

Twenty years later Jake is a father making his way in an isolated village in the west of England. Crops are grown, goods traded at the market, disease can no longer be treated, and the land is plagued by armed bandits – though it’s an improvement over the chaos immediately after the fall. It’s an existence – one that Jake and the others living in their small, isolated corner of the world know can’t last. Then the Chinese come.

Son of Heaven is told through a limited number of viewpoints bouncing from 2065 to the year of the fall in 2043. Since the narrative begins in 2065, we know what will happen at the end of the 2043 story arc, just not the details. It’s the brilliant storytelling of Wingrove that makes it work. Wingrove instantly sucks you into his horrific post-apocalyptic future through his characters – principally, Jake. The simple act of walking through a field to get to the village becomes an adventure with the reader hanging on every word. This is greatest strength of Son of Heaven – the consummate storytelling of Wingrove.

The world of science fiction is rife with versions of Western society’s apocalypse. Son of Heaven does as admirable job of providing the goods on the fall of civilization, though it doesn’t stand out of the field. The near-future evolution of the internet, virtual reality and the integration of economics are presented nicely, if not entirely original. While it’s all believable while you’re reading, it does seem a bit implausible that the entire society could be taken out so quickly by a hugely complex plan devised by a single individual that executes perfectly. However, that’s not so much of an issue with strength of Wingrove’s storytelling.

As with all near-future apocalyptic stories, Wingrove’s version of the fall certainly has what would be considered a political/ideological flavor to it. While the economics of capitalism aren’t shown overly favorable, neither are they demonized – the demonization seems reserved for the political right. Wingrove’s future isn’t pretty and it’s a future shaped by the right. But again, while present, it doesn’t play much a role in the novel beyond the vehicle for the collapse – which brings us to the Chinese.

Wingrove has clearly done a lot of research into the history of China, its people and its interactions with the West. However, the portrayal of the Chinese is rather stereotypical and unfriendly – after all, they are the big bad villain in the story. Reading such a portrayal is very unsettling at times, but that seems to be the point. The presence of a very likable Chinese general who rises above the stereotypes only serves to reinforce them. The Chinese are equally stereotypical about the British. I get the feeling that Wingrove will spend a lot time in future volumes playing with the notion of stereotypes of peoples and cultures – or perhaps the Chinese are just painfully stereotyped.

One aspect of Son of Heaven that I find fascinating is the interplay of the past and future with a castle overlooking the small village Jake has settled in. It’s a beautifully presented thematic arc – modern society crumbles, in a way sending people back in time to a village overlooked by the ruins of an ancient castle. Both Jake and the Chinese general at times express a love and respect for this ancient past. However, the stalwart castle is eventually destroyed in the onslaught of the new Chinese Empire as they forge ahead with their vision of the future and effectively end Western civilization. I find this so powerful because I’m a child of the American west (or close enough), a place without the deep roots of Europe or China that can be so integrated into the modern existence that they get overlooked.

Son of Heaven kicks off the re-booted Chung Kuo series with a bang. It’s addicting stuff – addicting enough that I don’t have heartburn about embarking on a 20-book series (at least the page counts look to average less than 400). 8/10


Fence said...

I've just finished this one too, but it looks like a case of different horses for different courses as I really disliked it. Especially the women non-characters. It irritated me no end.

Neth said...

Ahh....I actually meant to include that in my review at one point, but I forgot. The women characters are rather poorly presented, and I find it hard to believe that the fall of western society would also include the reversion of womenfolk to mere homemakers, good for nothing more than marriage and making babies.

I can see how it could be an issue. I guess that while I noticed it and was annoyed by it the storytelling was so good that I forgot about it - which says something about how good I feel Wingrove's storytelling is.

Paul said...

Gah. Stupid Blogger ate my comment.

Anyway, having read the first five of the original seven books, I'm interested to see what you'll think of those books. I thought the books I read were rather strong alright, only the extreme violence and occasional very disturbing sex scenes threw me off a bit. And true, there are only a handful of really good female characters.

It's funny you should make that comment about the castle and about how America lacks the "deep roots" of Europe and China, because it reminded me of one of the original series' most iconic scenes: the Chinese ruler of North-America walking through his huge personal garden on Manhattan Island, and pausing in front of the ancient street-sign that was kept as a reminder of things past, reading "Wall Street".


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