Okay, first off, I’ve known Dave Wingrove for over 25 years, from back in ’86 when I was manically assembling my 1-page Shark Tactics fanzine and mailing it free to anyone in the SF field whose address I could get hold of. So I was there when vol 1 of the original Chung Kuo saga, The Middle Kingdom, hit the shelves in 1989. Well, here we are, 22 years later, and Dave’s mighty epic – now substantially revised, renewed and reloaded! – is being republished by Corvus Books. The 1st volume (being the 1st of two prequel books) is Son Of Heaven, due for publication on March 1st. The publishers were kind enough to send me a reader copy which I at last got down to reading earlier this week.
In terms of the timeline, Son Of Heaven and the next, Daybreak On Iron Mountain, are intended to reveal how the world in 2065 (a harsh Bladerunner-esque near future) changed and became the ice-city world of tiers of The Middle Kingdom.
Most of the book centres on Jake Reed, a futures broker who works in the global VR moneyscape – he witnesses the collapse of the entire financial system and barely escapes London with his life, although everyone else he knows perishes in the ensuing chaos. His escape route takes him out to Corfe where he spends the next 22 years making a new life. The book actually begins at that point, 22 years after the Fall, and delineates a subdued world without phones or connectivity, small communities reduced to a near pre-industrial stage. However the relics and antiques of that dead Western civ are omnipresent, which gives that section of the novel an aura of sadness, like the dying notes of an immense symphony, still lingering on.
The second section is a long flashback, showing Jake’s experiences 22 years ago during the Fall, a global collapse whose instigators meticulously concealed their hand in it. The final section returns to the present, those last weeks before China arrives, building its great cities, covering the British landmass in whiteness. It is seen again from Jake Reed’s viewpoint, and from that of a Chinese general, Jiang Lei, a cultured man in charge of a brutal process designed to winnow down the native British population, to exclude undesirables from those who will allowed inside the massive city. The undesirables are executed.
Other reviews, and the Wikipedia entry, have pointed that the central theme is the clash between unchanging balance and the forward motion and consequences of change – the War of Two Directions. Son Of Heaven’s characters also reveal the division between cultured civility (Jiang Lei) and the authoritarian love of raw, naked power (Wang Yu-Lai) which is a strong component of Chinese establishments ancient and modern. A similar division, between the elite enclaves and the ‘unprotected’ underclass, is also visible in the Britain of 2065, almost as if the West was already moving towards a severely stratified society.
In summary, a terrific, highly readable book with standout characters, a steady build towards an awful, inexorable fate, and an excellent introduction to the Chung Kuo saga.