If you were reading science fiction in the 1990s, you might remember the Chung Kuo series by David Wingrove. I do, and I remember it as a magnificent masterpiece of worldbuilding and characterization, where the good guys and the bad guys weren’t all white or black, but shades of grey. The problem is, the series ended very poorly, which is probably explained by the publisher pushing Wingrove to finish before he was ready, so he had to cram the ending into fewer books than he’d planned on.
I’m pleased to announce (if you haven’t read it anywhere else on the web yet, and you might have) that Wingrove has started rewriting and expanding Chung Kuo. Please note, he’s not, as far as I’ve heard, re-imagining it. The core story of the War of Two Directions will be the same, but he’s adding new material to the same story. The first book in the new series, Son of Heaven, is part of the new material, being the first of two prequels that explain how the world of Chung Kuo came to be. In it, we follow one of the survivors of The Collapse, as the crash of the global computer system that handles the world’s finances is called, as he experiences the world both before and after The Collapse, and the coming of the Chinese to England to take over.
The War of Two Directions I mentioned before is the core of the entire series, but it doesn’t appear much in Son of Heaven, since this prequel is set before the War really begins. It’s a cold war, being fought mostly with politics, policies, and the occasional sabotage or assassination. At its heart is the conflict between the Chinese (or Han) desire for absolute stability, or as some say, stasis, and the Western (or Hung Mao) desire for progress and change.
In order to achieve that stability, the Han build continent-spanning cities a mile high (just glimpsed being constructed in Son of Heaven), where status is determined by where one lives and vice versa. There are four major demarcations, called The World Of Levels. The Above, where the elite live, The Lowers, where lower classes live, Below The Net, where criminals are exiled to keep them from “contaminating” the higher levels, and The Clay, which is underneath the city on the actual surface of the earth, where believe it or not some people still live. Within each section are multiple floors where the people live and work, most of them never seeing the world outside the huge cities.
The original Chung Kuo series was praised by many as being a masterpiece of science fiction, with comparisons made to James Clavell’s Shogun and Frank Herbert’s Dune, among others. He’s kept all the ingredients that made the original Chung Kuo so fascinating intact in Son of Heaven, including characters that are believable in their humanity and frailty, people who agonize over the hard decisions life hands them, but try to make the best of what they’re given.
If you like stories of wars being fought in the shadows; of political intrigue with people who think they’re all doing the right thing, but have very different ideas of what is “right”; and stories showing the lives of people at all levels (literally!) of society and how they shape and are shaped by the shadow war, Son of Heaven is very definitely for you. Heck, if you just want an absorbing read that makes you reach for the next book just to find out what happens next, I still strongly recommend Son of Heaven.