Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Chung Kuo: Last Call for Greatness

Over the last few months (since January, in fact) I have been reading this 8-book science fiction epic series called Chung Kuo, by David Wingrove.  I just finished the series, and felt compelled to write something about it.  I don't do many reviews these days, but this will be part review and part commentary on the experience of reading this epic.

The only good logo I could find online.
From the official website.

The Background

A little background on the series.  I had never heard of it until late last year, when someone recommended it on Kindle Boards (I post there every once in a while).  I did some investigating and found the premise fascinating and immediately searched online for it - only to find that it was entirely out of print even though it was not that old (1989-1999).  Apparently the author was "forced" to complete the series a book ahead of schedule by the publisher (there were supposed to be 9 total), that he didn't get paid for it, that very few people liked that last, rushed/condensed book (#8) and that it had a short print run, making it very rare and commanding prices upwards of $40-$50 online for a used copy.

Then I discovered that the series was in the process of being reissued as 20 volumes by a new publisher, with 2 new prequels and a rewritten ending.  How do they get to 20 from 8?  Well, the originals are quite long (roughly 250K-300K words long each), so each of them were split into two volumes for the "recasting."  Intrigued, I noticed that the first prequel (Book 1 of the new version) had just recently come out.  So I got it on my Kindle and figured I could read the series as they were reissued, rather than buy the original version - the schedule was for 4 books a year for 5 years.  That's pretty fast, I thought.

The Premise

It's hard to be brief when you're talking 8 large volumes, but here is the setup in a few paragraphs:

Nearly 200 years in the future (the original version of the series spans 60 years: 2190 - 2250), the world is dominated by the Chinese, or the Han as they are called in the story.  They essentially conquered the world by the late-21st century and built vast continent-spanning Cities made of a super-material called "ice."  There are seven Cities, one on each continent (except Antarctica, which is ignored), two on Asia.  These cities are massive, rising thousands of feet into the air, with hundreds of levels that people live on.  Beneath the Cities themselves is what's called the Clay, the actual earth upon which these Cities rest, which houses the remains of old Earth and stunted humans that have regressed.

One term the Chinese have for their country is Zhōngguó, which basically means "Central State" or "Middle Kingdom."  The Anglicized version of that name is Chung-kuo, hence the title of the series.  The Chinese have renamed Earth to Chung Kuo.  And their empire doesn't stop at Earth - there are colonies on Mars and various industrial operations throughout the solar system.  The rulers of Chung Kuo (the seven T'ang) even have palaces in space, orbiting the planet.

At the center of the epic is what is called The War of Two Directions.  This essentially is the struggle between those who want change (the West, non-Chinese) and those who don't (the East, Chinese).  The Chinese have been winning this war in a variety of ways, one being that the true history of the world was abolished and rewritten to say that the Chinese have been dominant for thousands of years.  Over time the few that remembered the truth died, their descendants forgot and soon accepted what they were told.

The Prequels

(Minor Spoilers)

Sounds like a kickass premise for a sci-fi epic, right?  That's because it is.  Essentially what I expected was that by the end of the series, we'd see the vast empire of Chung Kuo torn down somehow, as no empire lasts forever.  History has shown us that, right?

So I start reading the first entry in the recasted 20-book version, Son of Heaven.  The first two books are new prequels, covering the years 2043 - 2098, and explain how the Chinese came to conquer the world, how they built their enormous Cities and made the world Forget about the past.  This first book was slow to start, but picks up about halfway through.  I thought it was awesome.  It was realistic and gripping.

It also made me think... if suddenly our economies completely collapsed, what would I do?  Where would I go, and what lengths would I go to protect myself and my loved ones?  Watching the main protagonist (Jake Reed) go through the collapse of society, the aftermath and then the coming of China and the Cities - it was fascinating.

And the next prequel, Daylight on Iron Mountain, took that even further.  Here we see Jake Reed growing old, the current world in the new Cities so drastically different than what he was born in.  He has fallen on hard times and just cannot let go of the old world, much to the consternation of his progeny.  It is very sad and touching to see how he copes with that as the seven T'ang wrest power from the tyrant Tsao Ch'un, the man who conquered the world and built the Cities.  These new books set up the rest of the series perfectly.

So I Bought The Original Version Used

After the prequels, I couldn't wait for the rest of the recasting to get released.  It was scheduled to end in 2015, but things were already delayed and off to a slow start.  Impatient, I decided to just buy used copies of the original 8-book version.

So I ordered the originals used off eBay.  Even the rare Book 8, which I bought from a UK seller and spent $34 on (for a normal paperback).  Below is the list of books in the original version:

1. The Middle Kingdom
2. The Broken Wheel
3. The White Mountain
4. The Stone Within
5. Beneath the Tree of Heaven
6. White Moon, Red Dragon
7. Days of Bitter Strength
8. The Marriage of the Living Dark

The used copies I bought of the original 8-book series.

The Reaction

I can confirm that most of the series is awesome.  It has just about everything you'd want in an epic tale. There is a ton going on, lots of story threads, yet Wingrove weaves everything together into a cohesive tapestry and the more you read, the more you want. He sure can write, there is no doubt about that. The series is a fascinating view into how events shape the future and I loved seeing how the world changed within the lifetime of the main characters, and how they changed (or didn't change) with it.

It also added many twists and interesting subplots that I did not expect, and expanded beyond Earth / Chung Kuo to Mars and the moons of Jupiter.  It's like a casino buffet for fiction: anything you want, any time of day.  It has touching and shocking moments, some so graphic and disturbing that I had to pause for a bit and think about what I'd just read.  There was one near the end of Book 3, The White Mountain, during Kao Chen's storyline.  When you read it, you'll know what I mean.  It is easily the most shocking moment of the series for me and shows just how cruel humans can be to one another.

He's not afraid to kill characters, either. Before George R.R. Martin was famously killing main characters, Wingrove was doing it. Each book has a list of characters at the beginning, and by Book 8 the list of dead characters is 12 1/2 pages compared to the 4 pages of living characters.

And some of the science behind the world is also explained here and there.  When I started, I was confused about the Cities.  Did they cover all of the land?  If so, how is oxygen generated for the atmosphere?  Where did all the food for tens of billions of people come from?

The size of the Cities are a bit vague and halfway through the series you learn that they really only cover certain parts of each continent.  The rest, like mountain ranges and generally uninhabitable areas, are left vacant.  Massive oxygen generators are built across the world to help maintain the atmosphere. There are giant plantations and orbital factories for food, as well as massive "meat animals" that are nothing more than a huge cube of living flesh that is alive, ever growing, trimmed regularly to provide meat for the masses.

Pretty wild, but it all fit into the context of the series and felt realistic to me.  It truly was an epic, unlike anything I'd ever read before.  The review blurbs painted it as a mix of Dune, Blade Runner and Shogun.  That sounds about right.

Um... kinda looks like Chung Kuo, I guess.

And then I came to the final book.


The End

I was nervous when I started Book 8, The Marriage of the Living Dark.  Was it really as bad as everyone said?  Most reviews I've found have panned it.  You can find some on Amazon, but here are a few that you might want to check out.  The titles alone say it all.

The Worst Ending Ever to a Novel?
Marriage of Disappointments

The giant spider here is your clue to the
craziness that soon follows...

Anyway, by Book 7, Days of Bitter Strength, the great Cities are gone, destroyed, all the T'ang but one dead, yet humans are still at war with each other.  Without any new frontier on Earth to discover, all they do is fight and bicker for power.  History repeats itself.  It seemed the only way forward for the Human race at this point was to leave Earth and colonize the stars, much as many left Europe / Asia and colonized the Americas hundreds of years ago.  Spreading our seed, so to speak.  And it seemed that's where it was headed, for at the end of Book 7 a plague had devastated much of the world population and some survivors were doing just that.

But that's not really where it went.

I will admit, Book 8 is a page-turner.  Wingrove knows how to keep the reader engaged.  It's just about the longest in the series, but I zipped through it in a week, faster than any other volume.  And you can guess where things got condensed and rushed, because there were 4 parts when normally there are 2 in each book.  The volume essentially brickwalls from climax to climax with little filler in the second half.  Major events and deaths are skipped and mentioned off-handedly later on to help speed things up.

Now, in all fairness this happens occasionally throughout the entire series, but here it was too much - especially when it's the death of a major character.  After 7 books of following a character, to be suddenly told, "Oh yeah, he's dead now... anyway, to get back to what I was talking about..."  To be suddenly told that is a kick in the teeth.

Something's Not Kosher...

But what's even worse is how the story takes the low road to WTFVille and pretty much throws out the window everything that happened in the previous 7 books.  Again, to be fair, there are small clues throughout the series that some things are not exactly kosher in the world.  But those are drops compared to the coming tsunami.

There's this Western character named Howard DeVore who, at the beginning, basically wants to overthrow Han rule and destroy the Cities.  A worthy aspiration, you think.  He starts out okay, the underdog you want to root for... then soon degenerates into this ruthless, sadistic psychopath who wants to destroy all life and colonize the world with millions of copies of himself.  He anticipates everything.  And I mean everything.  He has an answer for every plot against him.  A back-up plan for every failure.  Even when you think he's killed (in Book 4, I think), oh no it wasn't really him, the whole time the real DeVore was on Mars and the one you were reading about was some clone he sent to Earth.  Really?  It gets tiresome and it's no fun to read when you know he's going to get away every time.  Oh, and he doesn't seem to age, either.

Then there's Tuan Ti Fo, a wise old Han who kind of abruptly appears in places where he shouldn't be without explanation.  It confused me, but I figured that despite all the DeVore nonsense, the series is ultimately rooted in reality and there will be some kind of explanation eventually.  Who knows what kind of technological advancements we'll come up with 200 years from now, right?

Then two younger characters establish some kind of mind bond where they can talk to each other telepathically.  It's weird and not fully explained, yet it works within the context of the series and the progression of the science of the day, so you suspend your disbelief a little bit to cover that.

So we have these little drops of "strange things" going on from Day 1 and as a reader you are aware of that, but generally gloss over it all because the rest of the series is solidly grounded in reality and science, is gritty, hard-edged epic sci-fi filled with tons of action and drama and interesting subplots, and you never know where it's going next.  Even the subplot of the Old Men searching for immortality (and eventually succeeding by transferring a mind to another body) was realistically done.


But then, in the last half of the final book, we enter WTFVille.  I don't mind surprises or unexpected directions, there had been a lot already and I had embraced most of them, but this got too wild even for me.

David Wingrove even admitted to sffworld.com recently that he "got the ending wrong."

"...the real reason I wanted to rewrite and rework CHUNG KUO was because I’d got the ending wrong. Totally wrong. To my annoyance and to the fans’ annoyance. If you stick around long enough to read Books 17-20 in the new edition, you’ll see a radical transformation of the material. You’ll have the ending it ought to have had first time round. One which, I hope, will move the reader, not leave them with a feeling of disappointment."

So let me just briefly go over the mess that is the old ending, just to give you a taste of how ridiculous it is.  I can only hope that Wingrove truly means the current ending will change, and not just be an expansion of the existing one.  Because he's right, it merely left me with a feeling of disappointment.

1: Voracious Plants
Earth is suddenly overrun by "floraforms" - mutated genetic material released from the labs of a prominent research company.  The entire planet is slowly turning into intelligent flowers while the humans fight each other.

2: Immortal Space Spiders
DeVore and Tuan are not actual people, they are interstellar, immortal, giant space spiders - a race called the Eddariminaru (and hence the cover of the book).  The two are twins, but DeVore had "forgotten" who he really was, and spent thousands of years on Earth, unaging, sowing discord throughout history.

3: Parallel Universes
One of the main characters, Kim Ward - a scientific genius who came from the Clay and heads the effort to leave Chung Kuo and journey to a new planet - stumbles across a way to enter a parallel universe.  It's like the current one, but slightly different.  He meets his doppelganger in the alternate universe, they collaborate on jumping back to Chung Kuo to stop DeVore once and for all, but in an alternate universe that's much closer to "reality" (i.e. the Chinese never took over the world, Li Yuan is instead a stockbroker, his once-wife Fei Yen a whore, etc).  The two Kims have a three-way with the first Kim's wife.  Oh, and there are now two DeVores to destroy.

4: Oh Hey, FYI, He's Dead
Really Important Main Characters abruptly die off-screen.  Why care for Kim and the struggles he's gone through across 8 books when he's only going to get shot in the head off-screen at the end and be replaced by yet another of his doppelgangers (the second one, his first gets killed too), one named Joseph from a parallel universe?

5: The Chung Kuo That Never Was
Both "immortal" DeVores are destroyed easily and people from both realities merge into a new one, and they are on a new planet and can begin a new life, forgetting about the Eddariminaru aliens and the science behind parallel universes.  Which means the Chung Kuo universe we've been reading about for 7 books really never existed and is gone...?

WTF?  Doesn't all that sound ridiculous?  That's because it is.  It's essentially the same reaction I had after seeing J.J. Abrams's horrible 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise that took a huge, steaming dump on everything that previously happened in that universe.  And it doesn't help that all of the characters (even in the parallel universe that's supposed to be more "real") basically accept all the strangeness that's going on as if it happened every day and not once in a billion years.  It is not believeable at all.  Not after the content of the previous 7 books.

In Retrospect

I'm really not upset by how the final book came out as a whole.  I understand why it seems rushed and why events are glossed over, based on what Wingrove said.  I understand why some characters suddenly vanish and are barely heard from again, their actions 10 years later unexplained.  I understand the trade-offs and cuts he had to make to get to the end.  I applaud the fact that he gave us some kind of conclusion even though he wasn't getting paid.  It's the conclusion he did arrive at that I don't understand.  It's his story, of course, but still... it's baffling to me that he would end it that way after all that came before.

I was okay with those guys being aliens.  I can accept that.  But the alternate reality crap and jumping around at the end and merging was so unnecessary and confusing.  It turned what was a gripping, serious and believeable sci-fi epic into a laughable and campy farce that's so ridiculous you actually can't stop reading.  By that point the Chinese/Han element of the story has completely vanished.  It's not about Chung Kuo and the War of Two Directions anymore, it's Immortal Space Spiders vs. The Three Kims Across the Eighth Dimension!

The idea of aliens helping humans when they are on the cusp of new technology and science, helping them colonize the stars - that's an ending I could have lived with it. The series would then basically be about the next evolution of the human species, and the united world of Chung Kuo was the last great attempt at an empire on our home planet of Earth.  I thought that was the point of the series.

Yet in Wingrove's Buckaroo Banzai version, the last few chapters basically invalidate everything that went before it.  It's almost as if Wingrove himself became the First Dragon and was told to wipe out the true history of Chung Kuo in order to start a new world, much like the Han in the series wipe out the true history of the world and build their Great Cities over it.

I can only hope that Mr. Wingrove has now morphed into Shang Han A (Hannah) and written the true history and conclusion of Chung Kuo with his recasted version, and I hope he can forgive me for being a bit harsh.  He did have this to say in that same sffworld.com interview I quoted earlier, so the future is looking good (Books 17-20 in the new recasting basically correspond to Book 8 in the original version):

"...Book Nineteen, THE KING OF INFINITE SPACE ... will be an entirely new book. Four long chapters of it are already done. After that, books 17, 18 and 20 will receive a cut and paste job with at least fifty per cent of new material added to each. And the ending, LAST QUARTERS, will receive the most radical reworking of all (for a start it’ll be twenty times larger!). As I said earlier, I want the reader to go away this time round with a lump in the throat and the whole thing resonating in their head, and with them wanting to start the journey all over again."

I will say, though, that having read the prequels first and armed with the knowledge of how the world "ended" - Jake Reed was involved in the global stock market and saw the whole thing collapse - it was nice to see that element again in the alternate reality at the end.  It felt like it was coming full circle (pun intended if you've read the last book), which I'm sure is part of his intention with the new recasting.



Last Quarters

Alright.  So I loved the original series until the last half of the last book.  It's tough to recommend that version, though, because you will get addicted to it and most likely only end up disappointed and feeling incomplete like me.  I haven't read anything quite like it, though, so in the end, if you have the chance to read the original 8-book version, I recommend it merely to experience something different and sufficiently epic.

One side note... it was nice to be able to read a long series like this for the first time without having to sit and wait for the next volume.  I did that with Harry Potter; I refused to read any of it until the last volume came out.  As I've mentioned before, I've been burned by neverending and meandering series that span decades of my life (The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire) and I'm very reluctant to start anything without an actual end these days.

All I can say now is to repeat my hope (prayer, really) that the new ending in the 20-book version is truly the "right" one that Wingrove keeps mentioning, and not merely an expansion of what already exists in the original Book 8.  If it is different, and lives up to the quality of the material that preceded it... then this will definitely be an epic for the ages.

For more info on Chung Kuo, you should visit the following sites:

http://chung-kuo.net/ = David Wingrove's official site for the series
http://ofgiftsandstones.com/ = A fansite (the only one, really)
http://chungkuo.wikia.com/wiki/The_Chung_Kuo_Wiki = Work in progress Wiki
http://corvus-books.co.uk/ = Publisher of the new 20-book recasting

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