Broad Paths and Narrow Ways, written in 1995, contains Mr. Wingrove’s reflections after seven books into the eight book sequence, including his thoughts on Chung Kuo’s impact on his life and career. Full text after the break…
Broad Paths and Narrow Ways
By David Wingrove
As books go, Chung Kuo has been something of a long haul. I began the work back in December 1983 and for the past twelve years have done little else until recently. As a writer, I always intended to have a varied career – to work both in the mainstream and in science fiction, and to produce regular works of non-fiction – but then Chung Kuo arrived and, like the proverbial black hole, swallowed up each and every last working hour.
Not that I’ve minded living on its event horizon. Researching all the different aspects of the novel has been a delight. I’ve always been fascinated by the exotic – it’s probably what drew me to science fiction in the first place – and no culture on this planet could be more alien in essence than that of the “black-haired people”, the Han. Reading Chinese history is a bit like overdosing on a diet of Jack Vance – it’s so colourful it defies belief. Moreover, as Chung Kuo wasn’t purely historical, but an SF novel, I was also allowed – obliged? – to spend a huge number of hours reading science popularisers – works on hyperspace, nanotechnology, genetics, brain sciences and the like – so that I could keep up with all the latest developments in science and technology. That, more than anything , changed me from being a writer with literary ambitions who also wanted to write some science fiction, into an out-and-out SF writer. It also, by the by, changed the nature of the sequence.
Looking back at what I set out to do with Chung Kuo, I’m amazed that it possesses the coherence that it does, for not only have I changed quite radically during its writing – having become the father of four daughters in that time – but my idea of what the novel is has changed, such that, looking back over the seven completed volumes and forward over the final, as yet unwritten volume, I have a sense almost that Chung Kuo has written me, or, at least, that it took on its own life after a while, using me as a kind of channel of expression. Most writers, I believe, have that feeling about their work, or some of their work, anyway. But with something as big as Chung Kuo that feeling is overwhelming.
So where did my life go? And where are all those smaller books I meant to write? The truth is, many of them went into Chung Kuo and got swallowed up by it, for as it grew, so the novel became a speculative catch-all, dealing with anything and everything that I felt needed to be expressed. Or, to put it another way, you might say that all of those potentially narrow ways became part of the broad path which was Chung Kuo. That’s not to say that the work became loose and baggy, for if anything, as the years went by, the whole thing grew tighter and tighter, the themes of the work clearer and stronger, volume by volume. On a technical level, Chung Kuo became a large scale exercise in structure, and structure, as any novelist worth his salt knows, is the single thing that separates the craftsmen from the gadflies, the serious moralists from the style merchants who’d rather spend most of their effort creating the perfect one-line sound byte than considering the deeper applications of what they’re saying.
I make no apology for it. My principle discovery in the writing of Chung Kuo was that I’m a moralist. Not a preacher – for I have no religious message – but a writer who seeks, through his work, to cast a moral light upon the world. To me that seems a valid thing for a science fiction writer to do. It is, after all, what does marvellously in The Dispossessed, and is what Phil Dick achieves in all of his best work, and for all the surface colour of Chung Kuo, – the endless wars and the betrayals, the sexploitation, the back room politicking and the grand ritualistic moments – what matters most to me, looking back over the sequence, are those quiet ts when certain characters make moral discoveries about themselves – when Kao Chen quit soldiering, for instance, or when Emily Ascher finally found inner peace as the ‘mother’ of her orphan boys. Those are the work’s core – its moral heartland.
In many senses Chung Kuo is a dark work, for it deals with the destruction and ultimate dissolution of a great hierarchical system, and such events are never achieved without great suffering, yet it is in those small moments of affirmation – of realisation, connection and love – that the work’s true nature is, perhaps, best expressed. Chung Kuo is also a work of restraint. “Restraint?” I hear you ask, with almost a laugh. Well, let’s put it this way: when was the last time you read a novel where the two main characters take 2812 pages to meet each other for the first time, as Kim and Ben finally do in Book Seven? Strangely, but perhaps aptly, it was only with that meeting, that the whole sequence finally took on a sharp and – perhaps – final definition in my mind. I knew, for the first time, just why I’d embarked on this massive literary journey. I knew also – quite unequivocally – whose side I was on in that titanic struggle of ideas and directions. And, knowing it, I felt I could finally close the tale.
So. Does life exist after Chung Kuo? I’m pleased to say it does. I have, in the last few months, written my first non Chung Kuo work in eleven years, a novel based on the Myst CD-Rom game, and I am currently working on two of my own – one set very close to home (in space and time), called Going Back, and another which is about as overtly science fictional as I could get, called Bia-Reh, which is perhaps best described as an alien David Copperfield. But with these books, and with whatever follows, I’m quite certain of one thing – that the lessons I’ve learned in writing Chung Kuo will make these singular, smaller books quite different from how they might otherwise have been; bigger somehow, and broader, more universal. Narrow ways that lead from the broad path I have followed these past twelve years.
June 27, 1995