A Great Wheel Turning is Mr. Wingrove’s primer to the original series and some of its over-arching themes. Those new to the series are advised that not much of this will make sense for another several books. There are some serious spoilers herein, so newcomers are advised to skip it. Veterans are sure to appreciate. Full text after the break…
A Great Wheel Turning
by David Wingrove
The story opens in 2196 AD [Editor’s Note: The re-imagined series begins in 2085 with Son of Heaven. This text refers to events that begin in The Middle Kingdom], when, after 115 years of stable Chinese rule, the world is once more set for change. Among the rich young elite of the European merchant class dissatisfaction with the status quo has reached an angry pitch. By both direct and indirect means they begin to attack the cornerstone of the Han worldstate, the Edict of Technological Control and, consequently, the ruling “T’ang”, the Seven. One faction particularly – the Dispersionists – want dramatic changes in the terms of the Edict to allow the expansion of Mankind into space and will do anything to achieve their ends. But the Seven are equally ruthless in their attempts to prevent the spread of the “disease” of change. Chung Kuo is the story of the violent struggle of these two diametrically opposed camps, a history of “The War Of The Two Directions”: a fight to the death between Western ideas of Progress and the deep-rooted Eastern belief in the virtues of Stability. It is a tale that encompasses the destruction of the old status quo and, after a long period of uncertainty and chaos, the emergence of a new order, with Earth – Chung Kuo – isolated, and the scientifically-created New Men slowly spreading out across the galaxy.
Covering half a century of this complex future society, Chung Kuo is not only unprecedented in its panoramic breadth of vision but totally unlike anything previously produced in the science fiction genre: a work which combines historical development, social realism, scientific innovation and psychological depth in a story which has the pace and readability of a best-selling thriller. “May you live in interesting times” say the Chinese, and Chung Kuo is a series of novels about the most interesting times of all – the event-filled years to come. In its pages we follow the fortunes of four main characters through childhood, adolescence, courtship, marriage and parenthood, sharing their common lot of grief and joy, ambition and accidents, success and disappointment, friendship and betrayal, on into their sixties, and, through them, experience the changing times of this richly-imagined future world.
Chief among these characters is Li Yuan, born the second son of a T’ang, but destined to rule after the assassination of his beloved elder brother. The failure of his marriage to his dead brotlier’s wife, his alienation from his first son, the defection of his trusted General and the death by poisoning of his father all serve to embitter and liarden the young man, and when the germ of division comes among the Seven he responds with a harshness born of experience and nurtured by necessity. By the time Li Yuan is 25 he is sole ruler of Chung Kuo, able at last to take full control of the planet’s destiny and introduce measures long overdue. But the virus of change is not to be so easily contained and the decades that follow see the gradual collapse of Han stability as plagues, revolutions, religious uprisings and geological disturbances shake – often quite literally – the foundations of City Earth.
Li Yuan’s opponent through all these changes is DeVore, a coldly intelligent and utterly ruthless European whose hatred of the Chinese and vision of a new race – a “cleaner, better species” than the old Man – result in half a century of struggle. DeVore is Change personified – the Idea made flesh – and from his base on Mars, he oversees the struggle for the destiny of Man – a contest fought by various copies of himself.
But Chung Kuo is more than the simple clash of West and East, Change and Stasis. It is also the story of Ben Shepherd and Kim Ward, the former the most talented artist of his time, the latter the most gifted scientist. The work of these two represents a whole level of creative life which, for more than a century, has been harshly suppressed by the Seven. The world into which these two are born is culturally sterile. Its science is at a standstill – filling in gaps in old research and perfecting machines developed centuries before, but making no new discoveries. Its art, if anything, is in an even worse state, having returned to principles more than 1500 years old, its practitioners little more than artisans. Coming into this atmosphere of creative sterility – a climate carefully nurtured by the Edict and the “Rules of Art” – Ben and Kim cannot help but be revolutionary. How their work affects and ultimately changes life in Chung Kuo, and how, in doing so, each reflects one of the two directions – the great life choices – present throughout Chung Kuo, is as important to the story as the complex twist and turn of event.
Ben Shepherd, the great-great grandson of the City’s architect, was born in The Domain, an unspoilt valley in England’s West Country. There, in those idyllic surroundings, is born his fascination with mimicry, darkness and “the other side” which culminates eventually in his development of a wholly new artform, the Shell. We see him shamelessly draw upon his own life – the death by cancer of his father, the suicide of a lover seduced away from her husband and children, and his complex sexual relationship with his sister, Meg – weaving these elements together to create a powerful tale that ultimately sweeps the City and makes him not merely the most respected but also the most popular artist of his time.
Kim Ward, on the other hand, is a product of the Clay, the dark land beneath the City’s foundations. Rescued from that savage hell, he is bought by one of the great Companies and experiences what is to be a commodity, with a price tag on his intellectual performance. Freed from this slavery by Li Yuan he begins to pursue his vision of a Web, a communications system unlike any that has gone before: a vision which is destined to bring him into conflict with the man who gave him his freedom.
Unlike Shepherd, however, Ward is a perpetual innocent. The savagery of his early life, his experiences as a “commodity slave”, several attempts on hit life, a difficult love affair with the daughter of the T’ang’s General – an affair that brings on them the full hostility of Chung Kuo’s elite social class – and his experiences in the cut-throat financial world of Chung Kuo, prove strangely ineffectual against his wide-eyed optimism and his unshakeable love of knowledge. His Web – glimpsed, like Shepherd’s Shell, in childhood – is the brilliant culmination of his scientific curiosity: his grail, and a discovery that could, and ultimately does, change Mankind’s whole future.
Shell and Web. These two are wholly antithetical. They represent, as ideas and eventually in their solid actuality, the very things over which Li Yuan and DeVore have fought so long and hard.
The Shell is the image of Han inwardness. In this, the ultimate art form, objectivity has been dispensed with totally, for Ben’s Shell is no less than a body-sized sensory deprivation unit – in appearance something like a huge, dark-shelled coffin – into which the subject of the experience climbs. The subject is connected directly to the unit, and thereby cut off from all external and sensory stimulae. But the body and the mind crave stimulae – crave input – and Ben’s new art panders to this craving. Using a mixture of chemicals and electrical impulses new signals are created and sent to the subject; signals which provide the subject with what seems in every last sensory detail a very “real” experience. Unlike reality, however, its very perfection is as seductive and consequently as addictive as the most lethal drug. Its perfection is a kind of death by separation, a withdrawal, almost a mummification of the life process.
The Web, on the contrary, is the very symbol of Western outwardness. Conceived by Kim in the darkness of the Clay, it is a vision of the all-connecting light: quite literally so, for Kim’s Web is a means of linking the stars themselves by means of pulsed signals, along which solid objects can be sent at the speed of light. Confronted by the enormity of space, by the cumbersome size and the equally cumbersome physics of spacecraft, Kim circumvents traditional Einsteinian physics – the principals of which have, like much else belonging to the West, been adapted to older, Han principals – and creates a new, non-relativistic unified fields theory which, when adopted by DeVore’s Neumann copies, opens up the universe to Mankind.
The safety of the Past or the uncertainty of the Future? Inwardness or Outwardness? Darkness or Light? Connection or separation? These choices, like the perpetual Yin and Yang of the ancient Tao itself, form the great threads from which the epic textures of Chung Kuo are woven. But as the Great Wlieel turns throughout these seven volumes the pattern of life – the mix of dark and light – changes dramatically, in accordance with some great unseen yet inexorable logic.