What follows is a talk given by David Wingrove regarding his experiences in researching for Chung Kuo – including the scientific aspects of the series and the Chinese cultural aspects. As usual, it’s long but worthy. Full text after the break…
Lost in the Library of Babel,
or Researching Chung Kuo
By David Wingrove
Babel. That singular, ancient word once possessed a mystical, nay mythical potency to anyone brought up within the Western Christian ethos. But in these godless, materialistic times it might well serve to remind ourselves of its meaning.
Babel. What do we know of Babel? Herodotus, in the Fifth century before Christ, writes of having visited Babylon and climbed the tower of Babel, stopping at a hostelry halfway up, yet from the Bible itself – the source of the myth of Babel – we learn rather little. Genesis tells us that in the days after the Great Flood, when the sons of Noah – Shem, Ham and Japheth – repopulated the Earth, one of the sons of Ham, Nimrod the Hunter, carved out a kingdom in the land of Shinar, in what was subsequently known as Sumeria – building the great Cities of the Plain, Babel, Erech and Arcad, and then moving on into Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah and Resen. Whatever the historical truth of this, the legend, as set down in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 11, reads as follows:
Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Babel. Though nowadays we tend to use only our modern derivative of the word, Babble – denoting confused and inarticulate speech – the word itself derives from the ancient Sumerian word, Ka-dingir-ra, meaning ‘Gate of God’, which, translated into the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, the oldest of the Semitic languages, became bab-ili.
Understanding this, the meaning of the Myth of Babel becomes much clearer. It was not that the sons were sinful – no, for hadn’t the Lord sent down a Great Flood to deal with that lot? – but that they were ambitious, nay presumptuous. Their ‘crime’ against Heaven was that they utilised the faculties the Lord had given them.
this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose will now be impossible for them.
In those two lines we might sense a God-like glimpse, perhaps, of the great global village to come – of modern twentieth Century science: of genetics, space flight, nuclear physicals and – that ultimate in restructuring reality – nanotechnology.
Nothing… will now be impossible for them.
Yet why should the Lord take such action? Why should he be envious of the powers he gave his own creations? Maybe because he did the job too well and was afraid of being supplanted? Or maybe I’m reading it wrongly. Maybe it was their inordinate pride he was objecting to. Maybe it was simply a case of Hubris being clobbered by Nemesis – to quote Brian Aldiss’s pocket definition of Science Fiction. But this is not what the Bible says. It was the Unity of Mankind and its singular purpose that the Lord smashed and scattered at Babel, like a spoiled child scattering his once-favourite toys. Indeed, whichever way you look at this, God doesn’t come out of it too well.
Thus the Western, Jusao-Christian myth of Babel. And the Chinese? The Han? Have they a myth of Babel? Well, first off it must be made clear that the Han have no real concept of a single, Almighty, all-seeing, all-knowing God, and never have had. They have traditionally embraced a mixture of three quite different ‘religions’ – Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, the last of which might be better termed an ethical code than a religion. ‘Three paths, but a single goal’, they say, and take what they need from each in that pragmatic and practical way that is quintessentially Chinese. In this context, Christianity, since it first arrived in China, has always been seen as at best an irrelevancy, at worst a blight, to the extent that those Han who converted were deemed to have ceased to be Han.
But to return to Babel. Whilst, throughout history, the Chinese have been scattered about the earth, they have always kept one language, always remained distinctly Han. Indeed, while there have been many periods in Chinese history where that great nation has been divided by wars, they were never fought to establish independent nations, but to re-establish the Middle Kingdom. That sense of unity, of one-ness, is strong among the Han. Indeed, until early this century, the two greatest periods of unrest in Chinese history, the ‘Three Kingdoms’ of the Third Century AD, and the ‘Five Dynasties’ of the Tenth, lasted but 44 years and 53 years respectively. Over the same two thousand year period one might look at historical maps of Europe and count the nation states in their hundreds, if not their thousands. A map of Germany in 1648 perhaps illustrates this best, looking like an ill-fitted jigsaw with its 234 principalities and 51 free cities. We see such fragmentation once again in our own lifetimes, in the break up of Yugoslavia and the old USSR. Such divisiveness is not merely the curse of Nationalism, it is the curse of Babel.
But Babel was not just the place of scattering, of disunity and confusion, it was also the ‘Gate of God’, the place where a once-unified Mankind attempted to build a tower to the Heavens and to do the impossible. Science is our modern ‘Gate of God’, forming a single, international language. And in its attempts to unlock the secrets of the universe, we might see the hand of those early men, on the Plains of Shinar, challenging the ‘natural, hierarchical order’ of things, for there is something quite iconoclastic about the endeavour. Something challenging. That’s certainly the view of the reactionary Christian lobby, who would happily throw out all of modern scientific theory – beginning with Darwin – and smash the great tower of learning that modern men (and women) have built.
Of the endeavour itself – of Science and the attempt to unlock the secrets of the universe – I wish to address myself, in the guise of talking about Chung Kuo and the problems of researching it. And I wish to do so through the medium of a short story written by the great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, entitled ‘The Library of Babel’.
In the story, Borges presents us with a metaphor for the universe: he depicts it as a library in which an infinite number of books are stored. Borges tells us that –
“each book is made up of four hundred and ten pages; each page of forty lines; each line of some eighty black letters.”
The alphabet in which these books are printed is made up of 22 letters, a comma, a period and a space sign, making a total of twenty five orthographic symbols. These twenty five symbols are randomly printed on the pages of every book, thus – because the number of books is infinite – allowing for every single possible combination. A book composed purely of commas, perhaps, or a book in which this very speech is repeated, verbatim, fifty times, each time in a different language. In the Library of Babel anything is possible. But in the main the books are full of nonsense – the linguistic equivalent of white noise. All is scattered and confused, and, after a long search through the shelves of the library, the most one might hope for is the odd word or sentence, the briefest glimpse of order.
So what kind of metaphor is this? What is Borges trying to say about the universe we inhabit – the universe which others, or so he says in the opening sentence of his story, call the Library?
In essence, Borges is talking here of the physical state of the universe – and of the balance in it between order and apparent chaos… His ‘Library of Babel’ mirrors the first law of thermodynamics, and the discoveries of the French physicist Nicolas Carnot in the early part of the Nineteenth Century, that energy was not merely conserved but unevenly distributed throughout the universe, leading to tiny, concentrated pockets of energy – and thus of ordered activity – within it, much as, in Borges library, one finds tiny pockets of linguistic meaning – whole books – amidst the endless shelves of random nonsense.
So the universe is, but we, as writers, are fortunate to inhabit one of those tiny, concentrated pockets of ordered activity, and our novels are exercises in structuring, in ordering. Even those novels which purport to mimic entropy – that ultimate running down of order in the universe – are, paradoxically, the end result of intelligent choice, of structuring on the part of their writers.
But what are writers? What makes us different from other folk? Perhaps it’s merely the degree of wide-eyed fervour with which we pursue our activity. In that we might, at first glance, seem akin to Borges’ official searchers, his inquisitors, forever searching for some tiny trace of meaning amidst the endless shelves of random babble. Like them, we might choose to “feebly mimic the divine disorder”, but not usually. We are usually a lot less humble, a lot more cock-sure than that. We writers suffer from the delusion that we can, ultimately, make sense of it all. We research.
Research. The very word suggests a high level of ordering. It presupposes the existence of a rigid structure of knowledge that has already been searched out and catalogued. The search that left the original inquisitors – the scientists and artists of days long past – exhausted, is not for us. We merely leaf through the shelves of their discoveries.
We RE search.
You see, we’re not really explorers. We might write about the cold, sterile wastelands of Mars, but we’ve never actually been there. No, if anything, we’re guides to the VR experience of being there, Ariadnes’ children, following a thread through the labyrinth, torch held high, a crowd of readers clustered at our back, their eyes fearful, curious…
But before this metaphor grows laboured, let’s back away from it and ask, in more simple terms, just what and why and how we research. Or, to be more specific and far more precise, just what and why and how I research.
Okay. So what areas do I research? Well, the answer’s straightforward. Anything I don’t know about, or that I don’t know enough about. Which is, to be frank, most of it, Fair enough, you might say, but why bother with research in the first place? Just what does it add to a book? After all, it’s all made up, isn’t it?
My personal answer would be no. Very little of what I write has been invented. It all existed, in various forms, long before I came along and borrowed it. In that sense I see myself as a synthesist, putting together what has already been found and charted, weaving my tale out of the great catalogue of Things Known. In the process I can be inventive, certainly, but only rarely can I actually invent. However, to return to the question, ‘Why bother with research?’, I’d answer thus:
I research to give my work greater depth and authority – to make it more convincing and thus more enjoyable for the reader. I also like to provide what you might term an educational frisson. By which I mean that I like to share with my readers my own delight in learning new things – of having new concepts, new ways of looking at things presented to me. All of which, I hope, creates a certain richness in the work.
Okay, but what specifically do I research, and how do I go about it? I mean, here we are, lost in the Library of Babel. Which way do we turn? Which compasses should we use?
Perhaps the best way to proceed is to ask the simplest of questions, like, What is Chung Kuo about?
Well, at its crudest level, Chung Kuo is about a future Chinese world state. So let’s imagine you’re all now seated in my study back in London and start by looking on the shelves to see what we have under China…
First off, there’s Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China in the original Left Book Club edition, a classic not merely for its pen portrait of Mao and the communists between 1934 and 37, but for Snow’s minute and telling observations of Chinese life. Beside it, in a glossy peacock blue cover, is R. Keith Schoppa’s Xiang Lake – Nine Centuries of Chinese Life, a book which, like Frank Ching’s Ancestors, provides us with a real sense of the deep-rootedness of the Chinese. These two books emphasise that the Han are a people tied to their land and to the earth their grandfathers tilled. Their reverence for their ancestors and for the family unit is ingrained and undiminished, despite forty years of Communist rule in which the traditional concept of the family has been under intense attack.
For another slant on the subject, I might take down Paul Chao’s Chinese Kinship which, in its detail, must be the last word on tradition and ritual in Chinese life. However, for a less abstract account, I couldn’t do much better than to look at my well-thumbed paperback of William Hinton’s Shenfan, his 800-page account of life in Long Bow village in Shansi Province. Few Western books really get under the skin of the Han, but Shenfan (and its companion work, Fanshen) is certainly one of them, bringing alive the peasants and officials of early Maoist China with a vividness that none of the missionary accounts – determined to get across a dogmatic message – could ever achieve.
Being a peasant in pre-revolutionary China was bad enough, yet being a woman there was much worse, as Maria Jaschok’s Concubines and Bondservants reminds us, its catalogue of man’s inhumanity to woman far outdoing anything Marilyn French could dream up. For two fictional views of the same phenomenon – at either end of the social scale – we might go to Chang Hsin-hai’s The Fabulous Concubine or Wang Ying’s The Child Bride, both of which are filled with the kind of minute observed detail that a dozen years of purposive research might not unearth. So too with Jung Chang’s recent and excellent Wild Swans, which, with its insider’s view of the early years of communism in China, provides a necessary counterbalance to the socialist idealism of Snow and Hinton.
In pre-revolutionary China, it seems that to be anything but male, heterosexual, the father of sons, head of the household and a wealthy landowner to boot, was to be as nothing. Even so, any portrait of traditional China that sees it merely as a deathly bastion of male power and suffocating ritual is to neglect the great range of its culture and philosophy. For that we need to move further along the shelf and maybe take down C. P. Fitzgerald’s 1935 study, China, A Short Cultural History, still by far the finest overview of China’s history and culture. Beside it, in a handy paperback version, much annotated, is Fung Yu-lan’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, a good guide to the basics of the ‘Hundred Schools’ which have dominated Chinese thought throughout the long centuries. For a closer focus, however, we might turn to D. Howard Smith’s study of Confucius, to Alan Watts’ delightful Tao, The Watercourse Way, or, plunging into the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life, we might take down the lavender-coloured paperback of Chu Hsi’s Learning To Be A Sage, which presents us with a selection of the Twelfth Century sage’s thoughts and maxims.
There is more, of course, much more, wherever you look on the shelves. Books on Mencius, Lao Tzu and Chung Tzu, on the Triads and the Chinese Secret Service, on the Chinese art of tea and herbal medicine, on Feng Shui, hand analysis and the meaning of names, on poetry, calligraphy and Myth. There are expensive collector’s volumes with glossy full-colour prints on porcelain and lacquer, on snuff bottles, furniture and costumes. One whole shelf is taken up with various histories, another with studies of China’s Science and Civilization, dominated by the works of Joseph Needham and his acolytes. Another is taken up with turn-of-the-century Western accounts of China – volumes crammed with fascinating minutiae, like Kwang Tung, or Five Years in South China by the Reverend John Arthur Turner, The Middle Kingdom by Doctor S Wells Williams, and Reginald F. Johnston’s Lion and Dragon in Northern China. That last is an account of Johnston’s experiences as District Officer and Magistrate in the British-run territory of Weihaiwei in Northern China, published in 1910. Most people these days know Johnston only through the rather snobbish and inaccurate portrayal of him by Peter O’Toole in The Last Emperor, where he was the young Emperor, Pu Yi’s tutor, but the man was – in reality – a sympathetic and accurate observer of the Han.
Which brings us to an important point. Reliability. For amongst all of this information about China, culled from many places and many times, how can I be sure just what is honest and reliable, and what distorted and inaccurate?
There are a number of reasons for the distortions and inaccuracies one encounters – religious, political and pseudo-intellectual in the main – and the experienced researcher learns to recognise the pitfalls. Missionary accounts, the abstract theorisings of 19th Century German academics, the apologist effusions of Kuomingtang supporters and the twilit recollections of ex-pats are all usually suspect and should be taken with a whole rice bowl of salt. As the years pass and you read around the subject more and more, you develop an instinct for what’s sound and what’s suspect. Where well-documented facts are overlooked, or some patent idiocy used to ‘explain’ some aspect of Chinese life, you can be certain that this is the product of bias, ignorance or malice – and often a combination of the three. It’s not merely the Sun and Express that distort the truth, text books are prone to take the party line too. So take heed. The shelves of the great library are cluttered with such misleading nonsense. One is advised only to trust facts that one can verify from several independent sources. Well-respected texts like the Cambridge History of China and Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China are good foundations for such a venture.
Even so, there is usually something of value in their accounts; something which can be used to enrich the mix. Williams’ The Middle Kingdom, the second edition of which was published in 1904 in two massive volumes, is a case in point. Like Fitzgerald’s China, A Short Cultural History, it purports to be an overview of ‘Things Chinese’, and, to be honest, is crammed full of interesting detail. Unlike Fitzgerald’s books, however, it is written very much from the high ground of Western moral superiority and over-emphasises the role both of Buddhism and Christianity in China’s history. It is an outsider’s view, written more from a need to explain the ‘social aberration’ of China than understand it. All in all, then, it’s a book to be used with extreme care – one of many of its kind.
Okay. So having gathered together one’s sources about China; having read, notated and verified them, as far as is possible, what then? How do we use all of this information gathered from the shelves of Babel?
Books are rarely deliberate. And if they are, then they’re generally no good. It’s not often that the full and final shape of a work appears in a blinding flash at the outset. Each book, or so I’ve found, is a journey of discovery. In the specific instance of Chung Kuo, the Chinese setting was, originally, quite arbitrary – a piece of exotic colouring to a long short story I was writing called ‘A Perfect Art’. I worked on the story, as I often do in first draft, without researching any aspect of it, using only what I recollected of China and its history from my sixth form studies. It was only when the story became a novel that I realised how much work needed to be done. At that stage I recast it entirely, a process that took the best part of three years to complete. The society and the City that society had built, had to reflect something intrinsically Han. Its structures and relationships had to reflect what I had read in my researches. So too the form of the work and its themes.
The City, for instance, had to be rigidly hierarchical: had to be, quite literally, a place of levels, reflecting in a very direct manner the strict social levels of its mainly Chinese inhabitants. I liked that. It had resonance and a certain metaphoric potential. As for the structure of the work itself, that had to be Taoist, had to reflect in its development the great cycle of change enacted in the sixty four hexagrams of the I Ching, the Book of Changes.
That said, I wanted to write a science fiction novel, not a work of historical romance or fantasy. And science fiction is a distinctly Western form. Its pacing and orientation is quite different from that of most Chinese fiction.
Science Fiction, did I say? Well, doesn’t that involve… science?
My experience is that, as a non-scientist, it’s not so easy to research the sciences. Specialist texts are of little use when you don’t have the keys – linguistic or mathematical – to unlock them. You tend to fall back upon science popularisers, and upon that most reliable of all sources for modern scientific speculation, The New Scientist.
Fortunately, we live in an age in which the science populariser has become a minor genre of its own, and a best-selling one to boot, which means that you don’t have to search out specialist bookshops to find copies of works by the like of Richard Dawkins, John Gribbin, Richard P. Feynman, Roger Penrose or Stephen Jay Gould, they’re usually there in your local bookshop. Nor, usually, do you need much more than a keen and flexible mind to understand such books – though Penrose’s, I admit, demands a much greater mathematical understanding than the others. Beyond such works are a whole array of others, less popular but no less interesting books, that narrow the focus. A list of their subject matter will suffice here: The New Era of Nanotechnology, The Theorems of Mathematics, The Creative Mind, The World of the Senses, Physics as Language, The Body in Time, The Mathematics of Symmetry, Chaos Theory, The Nature and Uses of Light, The Structure of the Universe, Philosophy and the New Physics, the Bio-Revolution.
Fine. But what can we learn from these works? And how can we use what we’ve learned to create good, thoughtful science fiction? To the first question – what can we learn? – my personal answer is not specific but general. What I learned from reading across the disciplines is that the future is likely to be more varied and more unlikely than we can currently imagine: that whatever we take to be ‘normal’ now will, fifty years hence, be considered as old-hat as making flint tools and wearing skins. That is, unless things change in other ways, such that Change – or, scientific progress – is no longer the norm.
Now, as to the second question – how can we make good SF of it? – I’d argue that it’s very difficult to do, though easier – much, much easier – in short stories than at novel length. The future looks likely to be information-dense, technology-rich. Future shock looks likely to give way to Future Blitzkrieg and to what Bruce Sterling depicted in the final part of his novel, Schismatrix, where Change has become a wind, blowing through all things and transforming them constantly. In the face of this, charting any kind of ‘realistic’ future at all is daunting, let alone a large, detailed canvas.
Now, I’ve been told many things abut my books these last few years, by critics who are obviously better informed in these matters than I. I’ve been told, for instance, that “the futuristic trappings are few and unremarkable”, that “there aren’t many SF trappings, and not much extrapolation either”, that “most of the SF elements … are the common currency of modern SF” and, recently, that the work is “an amalgam of Gilbert and Sullivan Chinesery, Mafia thriller, ‘Sci-Fi’ B-movie and high-camp US soap opera”.
Well, it’s fascinating to learn these things, to have my misapprehensions of my work so gently and tenderly corrected, but forgive me if, for a moment, I dissent. Now I know that an author isn’t supposed to do this. An author, traditionally, is supposed to squat there, like a rabbit in the glare of a juggernaut’s headlamps, and let the bugger hit him. But I’m afraid I’m not so docile.
Of all these comments, that about the “common currency” of modern science fiction ideas is perhaps fairest, and I’ll come to it. But let me first deal with the whole question of the science in a science fiction novel: of what extrapolative forces ought to be at work, and how such material should – to be successful – be incorporated into the text.
Back in January 1983, Isaac Asimov’s Magazine published an article by the late Terry Carr, entitled, ‘Greater Realities, or How To Write Science Fiction Without Knowing Much About Science.”
In his piece, Carr says that most SF writers are great collectors of reference books – of source material – and that most of us maintain what he calls “a layman’s interest in science and research”. From my experience that’s true, even among the more overtly ‘literary’ of our number. But Carr goes on to argue that “science fiction isn’t really about science – it’s about the aesthetics of science … the fascination of logic.” And, he adds, “It’s this logic, this playing-by-the-rules, that makes an imaginative story fascinating.” It’s also, I’d argue, what makes the form radically different from any other genre.
Science fiction can, of course, be written many different ways. In its shorter form you often find that one single, transforming idea is used as the starting point for the tale, the internal ‘logic’ of that idea dictating the form, the very nature of the story. A great deal of fifties science fiction is like that – the work of writers like Dick, Sheckley, Tenn and Pohl abound with instances. In essence it’s a cartoon form, playful games with ideas which, at its best, comes close to fable. On a larger scale, however, it’s much harder to get away with that. If you’re using a larger canvas you need to deal with Change not in two dimensions but in three. One single act of extrapolation isn’t enough. In its most extreme case, everything has to be re-thought.
In The Middle Kingdom, the first book in the Chung Kuo sequence, I had to introduce my future world to the readership; to present a coherent and hopefully consistent vision of a world two hundred years from now. A world in which major changes had taken place; changes as radical and all-transforming as any that happened between, say, 1792 and the present day.
To get an idea of what I mean, let’s just stop a moment and look back at the world of the 1790s.
The 1790s were the Age of Revolution, with vibrant new Republics in America, France and the Netherlands shaking the established order. In fiercely monarchist Britain another revolution – the Industrial Revolution – was gathering steam: a powerhouse of ideas and inventions that would transform the world in the following century. The Ottoman Empire was in decline. George Washington was an aged warrior and statesman, Napoleon Bonaparte a young corporal. The United States of America was a fledgling nation of some eight hundred thousand square miles and a population of four million. The great westward expansion, which had started a decade before, had progressed only as far as the Tennessee River, a fifth of the way across that vast continent, halted by Indian Wars. In Australia the first of the convict ships were setting down their loads of English and Irish dissidents, while in France ‘The Terror’ claimed 35,000 lives in the same year (1793) that Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, were guillotined.
Revolution – social and technological – was in the air, yet for the common man it was a distinctly primitive era, little advanced in its material aspects from the Middle Ages. The great age of scientific discovery – and, more important, the physical harnessing of science – lay ahead. Edward Jenner’s development of safe vaccinations for smallpox came only in 1796, William Murdock’s invention of gas lighting in 1800, the same year that Galvani invented the electric battery. Steam locomotives were not to be invented until 1804, nor made a working proposition until 1825. Morphine was not available until 1805, iodine until 1811. It was not until 1844 that Morse perfected his telegraph, and a further 35 years before Edison gave the world electric lighting. In many ways, then, it was a bigger, darker world than ours – a world of poor communications and mass ignorance, of physical suffering and social injustice. A world in which vast parts of the globe were as yet uncharted.
We, in the late twentieth century, live in a world transformed. In the last sixty years alone we have seen the development or discovery of the electron microscope, artificial radioactivity, radio telescopes, penicillin, DDT, helicopters, television, jet planes, nuclear reactors, lysergic acid, Teflon, nuclear fission bombs, artificial kidneys, bacterial and virus genetics, holography, transistors, cybernetics, quantum electrodynamics, cortisone, superconductivity, fluoridation, tranquillizers, the double helix and the genetic code, heart-lung machines, spray cans, robots, oral contraceptives, contact lenses, masers, space rockets and satellites, pacemakers, lasers, integrated circuits, microwaves, semi-conductors, heart transplants and artificial hearts, cloning, gene synthesis, fibre optics, supersonic transportation, space stations, pocket calculators, computerized axial tomographic scanning, laser discs, genetic engineering, microchips, test-tube babies, home computers, nanotechnology and virtual reality.
In small ways and in large these developments have transformed not merely the quality but the very nature of our lives. Compared to our ancestors of two hundred years back, we in the West live like kings. Nay, better than the kings of yore in many respects. So change is. So it affects us. And in looking two hundred years ahead, the conscientious writer must bear in mind the lessons of history, taking into account both the rapidity and the extent of change in our modern world. But history teaches us also that our social institutions are fragile and generally short-lived, and that whilst scientific progress currently proceeds unchecked, it is far from certain that those structures which underpin that great venture – the complex and costly infrastructure of a modern technological society – will persist. Ecological calamity, war or economic collapse remain as potent threats to scientific progress. Moreover, the fate of Babel, whether true or myth, reminds us that some jealous God (or Son of Heaven, let us say) might choose to knock down the great tower and scatter those Sons of Men who dared build it in defiance of the natural order.
It is that last scenario – or, to be more accurate, a combination of economic collapse and jealous tyrant – that I chose to underpin my own tale of the future, positing a world which, having suffered the catastrophic effects of rapid change, has turned its back on progress, Such a scenario could, I admit, be something of a cheat – the easy option, if you like – for a lazy writer. After all, the circumstances conspire to allow the writer not to extrapolate from the present, but to re-hash something old and tired: a world, say, where the old religions have come back and where all of our technological gains have been lost. Moreover, it might be argued with some conviction that it’s actually very hard to see with any degree of accuracy just where current trends – social, political and technological – are taking us. The opportunities for copping out are manifold. But…
Well, to put it bluntly, personally I chose not to cop out. In fact, I put a lot of extrapolative thought into Chung Kuo in the five years I spent creating it. Because it was going to be a crowded world story, I got hold of and studied the United Nations’ 108-page Concise Report On The World Population Situation in 1983 and came to my own, quite different conclusions about where the population trends might take us: conclusions which were borne out by later reports – such as that in The Independent of 21 May 1990, with its headline, “Population Growth Has Alarmingly Overshot UN Projections”. An understandable event, considering that most of the so-called rational assumptions about human behaviour made in their Concise Report were little more than the utopian daydreams of half-arsed bureaucrats, Even so, some of the detailed reasoning in that report – about environmental degradation and shortages of food, fuels and mineral resources – set me off in other directions. If the population in 2200 was going to be 35 billion, as I estimated, then how were they going to be fed, how sheltered?
Which brings me to the City.
The City was always there, from the opening pages of the original short story, though not in its current form. Back then it was little more than a hand-me-down from any number of SF stories. In fact, it’s one of the few elements in the mix where I can clearly identify its antecedents. The first, and perhaps most obvious, was Asimov’s Trantor. I always wondered what it would be like to actually live there, long before Asimov took a crack at depicting just that in Prelude to Foundation. The second was a little known story from the New Worlds 6 anthology, published back in 1973: Barrington Bayley’s excellent “An Overload”, with its vision of a giant City, with Supraburgh at the top, the abandoned Central Authority in the centre, and UnderMegapolis beneath it all, reaching down into the Earth’s crust.
Okay. But how would such a super-City work in practice? How would it be structured? How would it be lit and heated? How supplied with food and water? How policed? How governed? How would the dead be disposed of? How would they get rid of all that dead skin that accumulates everywhere? And what about all the other waste substances?
Research into super-plastics and fibre-optics, water-engineering, re-cycling, biological pest control and sewage disposal followed. And a growing consciousness that, were the thing to exist, it would need to be super light. Not only that, but, to be strong enough, it would need a hexagonal hive-like structure with all of its plumbing fitted into the hollowed-out supporting columns. So it became. But practical considerations were not the only ones I had to bear in mind. My City was not simply an exercise in architectural planning, it was meant to be a symbol, a giant metaphor for what has happened to Mankind in the two hundred years between now and then. The future I was depicting was supposed to represent a kind of ice-age for Mankind – emotionally and creatively – the City a vast high-tech glacier covering the globe, obliterating the world that we know. That image suggested the name for the super-plastic of which the City was to be built. Ice.
“…the machines hummed…. Not to stop their operators forgetting they were switched on; the vibration of the machine had a function. It set up standing waves – like the tone of a bell, or a plucked string, but perfect, unadulterated. The uncongealed ice rode those waves, forming a skin, like the surface of a soap bubble, but a million times stronger because it was formed of thousands of tiny corrugations – the menisci formed by those standing waves.
Kim saw the beauty of it at once. Saw how East and West had come together here. The Han had known about standing waves since the fifth century BC: had understood and utilised the laws of resonance. He had seen an example of one of their ‘spouting bowls’, which, when its handles were rubbed, had formed a perfect standing wave – a shimmering, perfect hollow cone of water that rose a full half ch’i above the bowl’s rim. The machine, however – its cybernetics, its programming, even its basic engineering – was a product of Western Science.”
That mixture of East and West – of ancient and modern – is not usually quite so explicit in the novel, yet it is there throughout. The great City itself is such a mixture. On the one hand there is its vast and comprehensive communications system – a system that can trace a face by a retinal print and instigate a computer search in a matter of seconds, all to allow the simulated face of a beautiful woman in a wall advert make a personalised sales pitch to a passing stranger. Then again, because it is a labour intensive society, the sweepers and guards, sedan carriers and hawkers, bartenders and prostitutes, foot soldiers and servants of Chung Kuo are all human. Only the fantastically rich can afford genetic synthetics and those are usually curiosities, kept more for their status value than for practical use – like the ox-men and goat-men of The Middle Kingdom. Moreover, what technology there is is kept strictly within limits.
The Edict of Technological Control, the legal instrument by which the Seven prevent change in the first three books of the sequence, was the result of a great deal of thought on my part. I had to decide where to draw the line, and settled, eventually, on the rule of thumb which evaluated whether a thing was useful to the System or a potential danger. If the latter, it was strictly proscribed. If the former, then it’s there, somewhere in the mix. Let me give you a few instances.
Among the permitted technologies are those which provide food, allow security surveillance and provide necessary entertainment for the citizens of Chung Kuo. Thus we see the huge jou tung wu or “meat animals”, and glimpse super-hybrid crops much taller than a man; we hear of the orbital farms and see numerous soya derivatives that have replaced most naturally grown foods. We see HeadStims – wraparound headsets which are sense-stimulation, direct-input machines, and, on the creative side, the Artmould machines which, at the touch of a switch, allow an artist to work in three dimensions by physically fleshing out the sides and back of a two dimensional painted image.
And then there are the tiny, parasitic implants prostitutes have that keep their hosts clean by living off Aids, herpes and venereal diseases of all kinds, and that inhabit a tiny sac in the womb. There are the speech-responsive, pre-programmed holograms of dead ancestors that can give advice when called upon. And there are the communications implants that most Security officers possess, as well as the complex, semi-autonomous prosthetics of the age. There are GenSyn re-designs of extinct animals and artificial wombs that can nurture a child from foetus on. All of these are commonplaces in the early books; the outward signs of a society that has not so much suppressed technology altogether as tightly harnessed it in order to prevent change.
The proscribed technologies we see are – almost without exception in the first phase of the sequence – violent and nasty. The cutting edge of technology has turned against the rulers of Chung Kuo, the Seven. There are hoop-like bombs, containing illicit ice-eating substances which are triggered by harmonic resonance. There are the ‘copy’ humans that come in from Mars to try to assassinate the young Prince. There’s the soft-wiring in the head of a Minor Family prince, Pei Chao Yang, that makes him perceive things wrongly, and there are genetically-coded poisons and new strains of old diseases. Even the apparently harmless – the great generation star ship built by the Dispersionists – is, because of its potency as a political symbol, effectively a weapon against the Seven who rule Chung Kuo. Yet such a situation cannot, and does not, persist. Change must come, and does, in Books Four and Five, when the Edict is relaxed. But what effect does Change – technological revolution – have on such a rigidly structured society when it comes?
From Book Five onward I begin to give answers. In other words, I have not ducked the issue, merely delayed it.
But even if much of the detail, much of the thinking behind Chung Kuo is science fictional, the question remains: how much of this is commonplace and how much of it genuine extrapolation? After all, it’s easy – surely? – to knock together something out of standard “SF trappings” and call it a work of scientific extrapolation?
Well, to be frank with you, no, it isn’t. It’s the most difficult thing of all if you want to get it right. It is genuinely hard these days to be truly ‘original’. Science fiction has a long and varied history and the general rule seems to be that if it could be thought of, then it already has. Now, if it were merely a question of originality then few SF writers would bother to put pen to paper, or their stubby little fingers to the keyboard. No. These days, it’s much more a question of your approach to and interpretation of existent material. Most science fiction writers have read a whole stack of science fiction and are generally conscious of how many ways there are to bell a cat. Most so-called new ideas are merely variants on the old – even William Gibson’s. In this regard I have a degree of sympathy with Joanna Russ’s view that the basic subject matter of science fiction – its “genre materials” as she terms it – “wear out”. But that’s not the same as saying that we can’t use and adapt what already exists and find new ways of putting it all together.
That process of finding out just what already exists and ringing new changes on it, is part of the general research a science fiction writer has to undergo – I’d claim – as a prerequisite to writing the form. In my own case fifteen years of reading SF and twelve of criticising it, gave me a fair idea of the tropes – the rhetorical devices, that is – that science fiction has developed over the years. Knowing them, I could look for new angles, new departures, fresh ways of doing things.
But to return to Chung Kuo. Just think of it a moment. There are no aliens in Chung Kuo, no psy-powers, no time-travel, no faster-than-light spaceships, no supermen. The work isn’t ‘exotic’ in that way. In fact, I chose, at the very outset, to make all of its elements as credible – as possible – as I could, limiting, by that means, the scope of the work. Such self-imposed limitations are, I’d argue, good for the writer, yet the absence of those ‘exotic’ elements is one reason why, perhaps, the work appears to some readers to lack the ‘flavour’ of science fiction. Okay. But I’d suggest that the real reason why it seems more ‘epic’ than science fictional is that the world of Chung Kuo is something that’s very much taken for granted in the story. It’s a lived-in environment which, like our own world, needn’t constantly draw attention to itself.
There’s always, in modern SF, a line to be walked between the need for some kind of realism and the desire to provide a science fictional frisson – that shock of the new and strange. Consequently, there’s always the danger of explaining too much, of having your characters go about telling each other how various techno-thingummies work rather than getting on with their lives. It’s something that bad SF is always prone to do. As Carr commented in his article: “Such explanations can undermine the feeling of reality”.
I’d argue the case more strongly than that. What we’re doing here, as SF writers, isn’t designing blueprints for new and better worlds, we’re creating fictions, entertainments – thought experiments that must be coherent enough and subtle enough to affect our readers both intellectually and emotionally. Cleverness alone – that propensity some science fiction has to lecture the ‘dullard’ reader at great length – is not simply inadequate, it is a fatal flaw. The point is not to create the reality itself, but the illusion of that reality. We mustn’t – like the current crop of SF movies – let the special effects take over. Nor, historically, am I alone in this view. Fiction – all fiction, and not merely science fiction – must fulfil its contractual obligations between writer and reader. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Chapter 14 of his Biographia Literaria, published back in 1817, the year before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, spoke of the need to
“transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
In this light, we might see research as that which enables the writer to provide that “semblance of truth” to the “shadows of imagination”.
More recently, the Nobel prize-winning British author, William Golding, came up with something which seems to me even closer to the mark. In his speech “Belief and Creativity”, Golding, talking of writers in general, adds a gloss to Coleridge:
“We rely,” he says “on the readiness of people to perform an operation every bit as mysterious as the writing. It is our nature to receive writing. This has been called the willing suspension of disbelief, but to my mind that implies a too conscious decision and effort. A child has to make the effort when he learns, but the adult who has learnt has not. I would prefer to use a phrase of my own and hold up my hands in outright astonishment at what I will call the reader’s instinctive complicity. It is his, it is our ability unconsciously to accept the scraps, the hastily gathered observations, the leaps and gambols of language and thereby share some level of reality. It is as if we were to take the stutter of the morse code and not merely hear it as a language but turn it, instant by instant, into a world.”
It is, indeed, a kind of mystery. A wonder. And research – the gathering together by the writer of all the scraps and observations from the great Library of Babel – is an important part of creating those worlds. When we research we look to shore up our illusions, to make it easier for the reader to ‘let go’ and venture out into the worlds we have created. But let me make one final point before rounding off this talk. Research, at least as I’ve discussed it here this evening, might seem slightly self-conscious, a much too rigidly structured process, yet this kind of directed research – this ‘searching for facts’ – is only half the equation. Experience has taught me that you should move into other areas at the same time, randomly, if possible, if only to see what is generated. Indeed, I’d go further. I’d claim that this is a necessity if one wishes to avoid the work becoming narrow.
This serendipitous approach is often much more rewarding than the more conscious ‘searching for facts’ that takes up so much time. Much of what I’ve been talking about – the Chinese and Science research – is essentially about getting it right. But there’s an element of the research process – especially the more random part of it – that feeds directly into the creative process itself, spawning new growth, new ideas, a broadening of horizons.
To this end, I try to read at least one book every few months which is well outside of my general area of research – biographies, for instance, are particularly useful, reminding you that lives and ‘character’ are rarely linear in development, but are often the result of chance and outward event. In a similar vein, I keep a newspaper cuttings file – on just about anything and everything that’s different and catches my attention – a file which, after eight years, covers just about every aspect of human behaviour, good and evil.
Films, too, are part of the great landscape of research. Watching countless Chinese movies gave me a far better understanding of how the Chinese behave towards each other than all the text book accounts I’d read. Similarly, Kurosawa’s epics – films like Ran, Kagemusha, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood – whilst Japanese in origin, gave me a vivid glimpse of the Eastern imperial and military mind-set.
And there’s no doubting, either, the influence of genre films – films like Blade Runner, Videodrome, The Terminator, Robocop and Total Recall, for not only do they create the cityscapes, the high-tech gimmickry and glossy visuals by which modern science fiction is known to the masses – a whole pallet of images which we ought, as professionals, to be acquainted with – they also provide us with the opportunity to re-invent these richly potent symbols for a whole new generation turned on to science fiction by the big screen.
Okay. So research takes many forms. But research is also costly and it takes time. While you’re researching, you’re generally not writing, and unless you’ve a private income or plenty of free time, researching a book properly can be something of a problem. Textbooks are expensive, and the more specialised the area the greater the cost. Not only that, but it’s often very difficult to find what you’re looking for. You can lose a lot of valuable time searching the shelves of Babel before you find the exact text you want. That’s why, perhaps, so many writers are content to limit the search and work within narrow constraints. It may also explain why so few science fiction writers try to create whole worlds or choose to write in the epic form. You see, a true world culture would be rich and diverse, not narrow and specialised, and you ought to get some sense of that from the work. But to do that – to input that kind of diversity and richness – entails a lot of work and a great deal of initial expense. That’s why we don’t see it all that often. That’s why a lot of writers are content to re-hash this world, with a few minor variations. Such writing is claimed by some to be more challenging, but it’s not harder to be ‘literary’ in this way, it’s actually much, much easier.
On another level, however, Chung Kuo is a simple Taoist tale of balance and the loss of balance, both within the individuals of my tale and within the society in which those individuals have their being. Where these two levels comes together lies the dynamic of the tale – the great debate over which direction Mankind should take in the future: a debate which encompasses each and every aspect of their lives.
At the beginning of Chung Kuo, as the epigram to the “Yin/Yang” Prologue of The Middle Kingdom, I chose to use three lines of the Tien Wen, the “Heavenly Questions”, written by the poet Ch’u Yuan in the second century BC:
“Who built the ten-storeyed tower of jade?
Who foresaw it all in the beginning,
when the first signs appeared?”
Those lines, like the myth of Babel itself, have a curiously modern feel to them. In that ten-storeyed tower of jade – jade the symbol of purity and perfection – we might glimpse the idea of Babel, of a ‘Gate of God’, of Science, perfect and gleaming, a great tower built into the Heavens. Yet the lines have a strangely warning ring to them, too. The first signs of what? we might ask. Of Nemesis? Of depleted natural resources and over-crowded cities? Of dead oceans and a burning sky? Of a great white mountain of sun-bleached bones, filling the great plains?
It is my contention that the first signs are already here, that the myth of Babel is more pertinent now than it ever was, and that we must address ourselves to the question of direction. We are lost in the great Library of Babel, armed with more facts, more information than we’ve ever possessed, and yet without a clear moral direction – a way out of the great labyrinth of words. Is Science the answer, or must we look to other, older solutions? In Chung Kuo I have tried – via the medium of a popular entertainment – not to impose an answer, but to ask the question.