A View From The Cusp

I’ve got a real treat to post today. What follows is a review of Son of Heaven by Brian Griffin, a close friend of David Wingrove’s and a Chung Kuo insider from its inception (no Family Guy jokes please…). This piece goes into much more depth than most Son of Heaven reviews abound, touching on its place in the grander scheme of sci-fi and its inplications toward the rest of the series. It’s a fine read. Although not written by Wingrove, it’s a treat to have this in The Vault.

Full text after the break…

A View From The Cusp

A review of SON OF HEAVEN by David Wingrove; Corvus, 2011

By Brian Griffin

Some of us are still trying to write Literature, but Wingrove keeps on producing these monolithic epics. Like Wells before him, he’s far too impatient to produce mere Art; he must produce these gigantic agitprop posters in vivid primary colours. This is the Age of the Masses; and people must be told

Mind you, a lot of SON OF HEAVEN is a pleasure to read, especially the sections dealing with a West Country post-apocalyptic life, simplified and idyllic in the Hardy manner. Here, the Wyndhamesque prose has grace and a certain gravitas, and individual characterization is nicely executed. But in the middle section, dealing with the biggest of all Big Global Crashes, Wingrove deploys a soap opera style (expressive of the soap opera life led by the one-dimensional denizens of a capitalist society in its final stages); and, less forgivably, he uses an Andy McNab kind of shorthand to deal with the ‘action thriller’ element when everything falls apart under the electronic onslaught of China. But the final section of SON OF HEAVEN reverts, on the whole, to grace and gravity. Plot issues are worked out – but not the novel as a whole.

Indeed, is there such a novel as SON OF HEAVEN? Is it not just the first monolithic slab in the edifice of twenty coming volumes? One just has to accept this; just as one has to accept the formless, unstoppable flow of that great roman fleuve which goes by the name of the Collected works of Charles Dickens. Even Wingrove has expressed dissatisfaction with the way the original CHUNG KUO sequence worked out. It will be interesting to see how this re-worked and handsomely supplemented re-launch goes. Personally, I can see more – a lot more – in it the second time round. And SON OF HEAVEN is a necessary prequel. While it is unrounded as a work of art, it is far from shapeless. It is crammed with implications. That’s life, I guess Wingrove would say.

Yes, but what’s it all about?

It isn’t another example of Yellow Peril literature. There are undoubtedly archetypal villains – in SON OF HEAVEN it’s a degenerate bastard called Wang Yu-lai. He’s Cadre to General Jiang Lei, the latter being a kind of Chinese Marcus Aurelius, a consciously virtuous man in the fallen world of Chinese-occupied England. But Wingrove’s China has a real, haunting symbolic power. Like a vivid dream, it is ambivalent. General Jiang Lei, Poet and Warrior, represents the Confucian best of it; Wang Yu-lai the worst. But the very worst of Chung Kuo is representative of an evil that far transcends mere Sinophobia. At its very worst, Chung Kuo can settle the hash of Homo Sapiens for good, leaving nothing but a post-mortem race of half-beings. Chung Kuo, at this level, is Civilization-plus-Science as the answer to all our problems: and it means Death. Spiritual Death. Wingrove writes like a contrite Wells, admitting that he got the World State wrong, but his pessimism about the human condition is also Wellsian, not to mention Hardyesque. At heart, Wingrove can believe in no values beyond family values. That’s his main strength and weakness.

In his idyllic, post-apocalyptic West Country, he can depict everything he values: people who are distinctive individuals, families, friends, cider, rock music, all in a traditional, rural Vaughan Williams kind of landscape. In this landscape we find his central figure, Jake Reed. He’s a refugee from the fallen Babel of the City, laid waste twenty years ago by a Chinese massacre of cyberspace and electronic infrastructure. Here, as exiles in their Forest of Arden, Jake and his friends can act as humans have immemorially acted down the ages. Being both individuals and ‘like folks’; all different yet all built on the same model, they can muddle their way between individualism on the one hand, and sameness on the other – committing ‘the oldest sins the newest kind of way’. This way they can teeter on the edge of being real, authentic persons while not (of course) going too far, so that nothing is really resolved.  That, as they say, is life; and for Jake, who is a widowed loner, this means balancing the increased nearness he feels for Mary Hubbard, with the great value he places on the friendship of her husband, farmer Tom Hubbard, to whom Jake owes his life. Then Tom is wounded in a raid, and Jake has to nurse him across country while wrestling with his feelings. Plot-wise, the situation is worked out while remaining basically unresolved – because that, traditionally speaking, is life: Jake’s conscience is never really salved, past wounds still hurt, etc. One must ‘move on’, even if it’s all gnawingly unsatisfactory. Because life is a problem with no solution – right?

Except that, at this point, China steps in with a Draconian solution for everyone’s accumulated human problems. The solution is simple: to put a stop, for good and all, to all this nonsense about being individual persons, and concentrate on the overarching fact that all humans are basically the same – built on the same model. As such, they can all be herded up and placed forever in a new, vast global City of prefabricated Ice. For ten thousand years, or until the Moon falls. No problem. The basic, gigantic paradox of humanity has been at last resolved. Scientifically. Jake, Mary and the children can be rounded up and put where they don’t have to worry about moral issues any more. Basically, this is the old, makeshift kill-or-cure solution called ‘Civilization’ that was foisted on the ancient hunter-gatherer tribes circa 20,000 BC, as the last of the Ice Age receded. It has always been makeshift and unsatisfactory – see Spencer Wells’s book, PANDORA’S SEED. Until now, that is. Now, the Chinese have scientifically perfected a Civilization for all time. Only their global City of Ice looks for all the world like a vast, advancing glacier … Wingrove’s introduction of this new City into the landscape, with its fearful reality and dreamlike symbolism, conflating perfected Civilization with a new Ice Age of the spirit, is masterly.

Jake adjusted the settings, then looked in the direction Peter was indicating, resting the edge of the glasses on the brickwork to keep the image still. At first he didn’t understand. Beyond the great urban sprawl of Poole and Bournemouth that lay just across the water from Purbeck, was a patch of whiteness that hadn’t been there a week ago. A pearled nothingness, like the world just ended there in a perfect geometric line.

‘What is that? It’s like a wall of mist, or the edge of a glacier…’ [p.261]

But before everyone is rounded up and herded into the City, there are four central chapters of flashback to the Old City Crash of all time in which Jake was caught up, twenty years ago. In the Old City, Jake is a login or web dancer. He is a global broker in cyberspace, centrally placed to bear the full impact of China’s initial onslaught upon the Market – the divine and sacrosanct Market itself, the very ground of Western reality – and its entire electronic infrastructure. Wingrove knows the feel of this at first hand, and I’m a sucker for the ‘datscape’ – the cyberspace in which his Market appears like something out of Rimbaud’s LES ILLUMINATIONS, each surreal detail within the avatar-inhabited ‘datscape’ having a runelike virtue. Destroy the rune and you’ve destroyed the reality … Wisely, Wingrove doesn’t go too deeply into technicalities here. Mainly, he leans explicitly on Dick’s UBIK, a teleplay of which has been conveniently adapted for wallscreen throughout the Old City. But luckily these SF virtues and vices are underpinned by a deeper underlying rational.

As Max Horkheimer says in ECLIPE OF REASON (Chapter IV) the burgeoning Free Trade movement of the Enlightenment saw a crucial development in the growth of the modern self. Your bourgeois trader, with all his heavy responsibilities, was obliged to act as if he had a Self or Soul which would make sense of all his endless busy activity. This was the compliment paid by mercantile vice to the metaphysical virtues of medieval philosophy. Thomas Aquinas might make wild speculations about the human Soul or self, and its relation to a universal Self, but your trader had to act as if it were a reality. But that approximation was fatal, because sooner or later the central lie would have to be faced. Which is what happens in these central chapters of SON OF HEAVEN. The almighty datscape is ultimately an extremely fragile, schizoid reality; and the Chinese call our bluff. They shatter the datscape. Irreparably. And with it they shatter the ‘Self-Image of the Age’. Apparently the human race never had a Self in the first place: nothing that could hold us together as a species without subsuming the individual members (or sub-selves). It was all a hollow pretence. All the time o9ur society has had a pseudo-Self. And we…?

‘I mean,’ Jake said, turning to face Charles again, ‘exactly that. It’s been destroyed. Attack programmes have turned the datscape into a wasteland.’ Jake saw the shock on the other man’s face. Up until eighteen months ago, Charles had been part of that world. … And now, it seemed, it was gone.

‘What are we going to do? I mean … all of us… if it’s gone …’

Charles had grasped it at once. If there was no Markey, there was no wealth. Everything everyone had was suddenly illusory. Nothing was worth anything. Aside, that was, for basics. And how could they get hold of those? [p.193]

The loss of self, or soul, is played out in microcosm by Jake Reed. Amid the universal debacle, he takes refuge for twenty years in his West Country Eden, living the simple life. But the Wasteland catches up with him in the end, when he is forced to brutally slaughter a marauding raider in pure, mindless revenge. Unable to fight off the spiritual Wasteland, he has become part of it.

Peter [Jake’s son] watched … as his father stepped from the front of the old coaching inn and looked about him.

Jake looked tired. His body language spoke of a man who had been pushed to his limits. Lack of sleep was part of it, but it was much more than that… He knew his father prided himself on doing the right thing, and for once he felt he had transgressed. [pp.264-5]

In fact, Jake is ready to be rounded up and taken to the City of Ice. He has capitulated. He has lost his standards, his self, his soul. He is already a dead man, or at least that’s how he feels: the ghost of his true self is a long time fading. Like the West that he represents, he is poised on a cusp; and we can share his viewpoint. Ahead lies an endless dark age of Chung Kuo – the spiritually lethal answer to all our problems. Meanwhile …?

Jake looked down. Since he’d first seen it, he had been wondering what on earth it had been, out there on the horizon. Now he knew.

‘There’s something out there, Geoff. On the edge of things…’

Geoff shifted slightly in his chair. ‘Are we talking metaphorically now, or for real?’  [p.269]

Actually, it’s hard to tell at first. It’s a kind of Freudian – or, rather, Jungian – slip, either on Jake’s part, or on Wingrove’s. Literally speaking, Jake is referring to the City of Ice. But metaphorically speaking, there is ‘something out there, on the edge of things’, throughout the entire CHUNG KUO sequence. Ultimately, it’s one of the things Wingrove didn’t deal with to his own satisfaction the first time round, especially in the final volume. Is it the Collective Unconsciousness? Hardy’s Immanent Will? Is it Heaven or Hell? It is certainly there, waiting.

It’s still a heady prospect.

Brian Griffin   3rd March 2011

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