Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Jun 12 11:55:28 EDT 1991

Raymond's Reviews #114

%T     Chung Kuo: Book 1 -- The Middle Kingdom
%A     David Wingrove
%I     Dell
%D February 1991
%O paperback, US$5.95
%P 654
%G     0-440-20761-4

Start with David Wingrove's obvious skills: his masterly ear for the English language, his ability to make fictional characters seem more vivid and unique than half the politicians we've seen on television, his ability to choreograph and depict scenes with the dramatic immediacy of television and the microscopic detail of a medieval illumination. One would expect an author with these abilities to be ideally qualified to write the sprawling epic of a Chinese-dominated Earth of which Wingrove has dreamed.

Yet something is oddly amiss about "The Middle Kingdom," the opening volume of "Chung Kuo." Though apparently genuinely inamored of minutiae, Wingrove is oddly disinterested in making the broader background of his epic believable. Instead, he buries one-sentence explanations amid pages of drama. In year 2190, virtually of the 34 billion people alive on Earth live in -- and have never been outside of -- a vast tower of a city called Chung Kuo. History before the Chinese takeover has been rewritten to eradicate all memory of the Roman Empire, the United States of America, and any other suggestion that the "Hung Mao" -- Europeans -- were ever anything but Chinese subjects.

Wingrove's answers leave too many questions in their wake. Among them: Even with a super-plastic, how do you build a tower large enough to hold 34 billion people without toppling or breaking apart? How did the Chinese succeed in overthrowing the entire West? And how, for god's sake, did they manage to build a super-civilization and virtually obliterate all memory of prior history in a scant 200 years? Perhaps Wingrove has answers to these questions, but he shows no sign of willingness to reveal them to his readers.

Smaller scale implausibilities also cast shadows on the credibility of Wingrove's story. For instance, at the very beginning of "The Middle Kingdom" a pair of assassins nearly botch their getaway (from an act of destruction critical to the novel's plot) because one of them mistimed the dosage of a drug needed to tolerate conditions "Above the Net." But why should street-wise killers from the savage underbelly of the City (where the assassins live) need drugs to tolerate conditions in a supposedly better neighborhood? And readers are likely to doubt the accuracy of Wingrove's lavish use of Mandarin terms and lore upon reading his description of yin as "positive and light and male" and yang as "negative and dark and female." (p. 312).

There is a territory outside Chung Kuo called the Domain which is a re-creation of a quaint old British village. Ben Shepherd, one of the few individuals privileged to live there, outside the City, thinks of the place as "a marvelous sham. A gaudy, imaginative fake." (p. 335). It is ironic indeed that Wingrove has set forth such a perfect description of "Chung Kuo -- The Middle Kingdom" within the very pages of that novel.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Jun 12 11:55:28 EDT 1991

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>