Today’s entry into The Vault is a talk given by David Wingrove at the Cheltenham Literary Festival concerning the various currents throughout the history of the science fiction genre, and where Chung Kuo fits in that scheme.
To my knowledge, this hasn’t been published elsewhere. It’s lengthy but well worth a read. Full text after the break…
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The theme of my talk this afternoon is ‘Science Fiction: Tradition and Revolution’. A pretty straightforward subject, you might think, until you consider the ambiguities wrapped up in that teasingly simple heading. For science fiction, if it can be said to be about anything specific, is about change – that wellspring of all revolutions – and yet there is a very clear tradition within science fiction; a tradition that, to a great extent, has long defined the boundaries and rules of the genre. That has, if you like, been strongly opposed to anything resembling a real revolution. It is this paradoxical state of events to which I intend to address myself this afternoon, though not at the neglect of other matters – for this is a broad subject which touches not only upon the specific genre of science fiction but upon the nature and condition of the modern novel.
First, let me introduce myself: a useful exercise if the following talk is to have any kind of realistic context. My name is David Wingrove and I am, by profession and, it must be said, by overwhelming inclination, a science fiction writer. To many that might seem an absurd self-limitation, yet, as I hope to prove in the course of my talk, it need be no such thing. I have been a writer now for fifteen years, the last five in a relatively professional capacity. Like Eliot and Joyce before me, I spent seven years in the Head Office of a major London Clearing Bank – before throwing all caution to the wind and returning to education. Three years at the University of Kent at Canterbury saw me emerge with a First Class Honours degree in English and American Literature and a healthy respect for the vast potential of the written word. I embraced the academic world a while longer – long enough to complete the Masters degree section of a doctorate – before two projects, both of them pertinent to the subject of my talk, forced me to abandon my studies.
The first of these was Trillion Year Spree, a re-writing and update of Brian Aldiss’s 1973 history of science fiction, which Brian invited me to work on with him. The second was a novel, Chung Kuo.
I’ll come to Chung Kuo later in the talk, but it is necessary here to stress the importance of Trillion Year Spree in formulating my view of science fiction and its relationship to the wider literary scene, for, like my colleague Brian Aldiss, I come to my subject not as an advocate of either of these seemingly-exclusive worlds, but as an informed observer of both.
It’s a point which shouldn’t need to be made, but which I continually find I have to, for one of the sad truths of our age is that there is a schism between genre fiction and the literary novel; a schism which extends beyond the mere works to the novelists, critics and even – dare I say it? – the readerships of these ever-more-separate forms.
But how does this relate to my chosen theme? To tradition and revolution in the science fiction genre?
To answer that I need to travel back in time and look at the origins of the science fiction genre and of the schism that evolved between what, for convenience sake, we’ll term the scientific romance and the mainstream novel.
Science fiction, if it can be said to have begun anywhere, began with the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. Frankenstein is commonly misconceived as a simple horror novel – primarily, I suppose, because of the spate of movies from the thirties onward which reduced Shelley’s complex tale into the archetype of graveyard gore. The novel was a good example of genre writing – the genre being Gothic – but it was also a perfect example of something which, alas, has become all too rare in our own century; the fully rounded novel, concerned with everything and anything happening in the world contemporary with it. Frankenstein, to be explicit, is a product of the Industrial Revolution, and of the hopes and fears its authoress quite rightly had of the way her society was being shaped. At one level of the novel one can readily substitute unchecked Technology for the monster. In this regard Frankenstein could be viewed as the first Green novel, concerned that the runaway monster of scientific progress would – like all revolutions – eat its own children.
Change – social, personal and scientific – is at the heart of Frankenstein, but it is the explicitly scientific metaphor of the re-animated monster that makes the book stand out from its contemporaries and establishes it as the first real science fiction novel. In other respects – in its broad range of interests – it is merely typical of its age.
Revolution and social change were very much on peoples’ minds in those first few years after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. And so they remained for the greater part of the century, as rapid urbanisation, advances in technology and communications, the building of the railways and the opening up of vast empires exerted their enormous formative pressures on society. Writers as diverse in their styles and approaches to fiction as Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Thackeray, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky charted many of these changes and tried to depict their effect on the whole of society, from the aristocracy down to humble crossing-sweepers. In their novels we are conscious of a desire to set it all down; to try to make some kind of sense of the great flux of event. The “all” is all-important here, for the point I’m trying to make is that, whilst we might identify certain novels from the Nineteenth Century which, by modern standards, we would term science fiction, the label is very much an afterthought – a recognition of emphasis rather than intent, for none of those authors, Mary Shelley included, ever sat down to write ‘a science fiction novel’.
There was, in other words, no schism. A ‘literary’ novelist might, without comment, deal with matters scientific. Indeed, a portrait of their society which omitted the effect of technological and social change was hardly likely to convince the reader. Not so now. Now – and I defy the listener to find more than a handful of exceptions – it is extremely rare to find a ‘literary’ novel that even presumes to describe the “all”, let alone sully its hands in dealing with matters scientific. Nowadays they leave all that technology stuff to the science fiction boys and settle down to something much more cosy – to Hampstead, failed marriages and the trauma of being Middle Class and lonely.
Well. I recognise I’m in danger here of sounding too much like D.J. Taylor, whose recent book, A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 80s, addresses itself far more cogently than I could here, to such matters. But the man has a point. Recent literary fiction – fiction of the last sixty years, I’d go as far as saying – exhibits a genuine fear of scale, of trying to set down the “all”. There are exceptions, of course. Whatever you make of Martin Amis, his London Fields is at least an attempt to address the great “all” of a society. Not that I’m arguing that novels that fail to fulfil this criteria should be dismissed out of hand, for that would be to rule out the excellence of Charlotte Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, John Fowles’ Daniel Martin and Peter Carey’s Bliss, together with the complete works of Kafka, Beckett and Golding, to name but a few. No, my point is other than that. It is to say that literature has in general been diminished by its tendency to look inwards – to think small – rather than embrace the vast complexity of modern society.
So where did things go wrong? When did the great schism occur? And why?
To be specific, the schism can be traced back to the 1920s and the golden age of Modernism. From this point on the tendency towards inwardness in the literary world and to a suspicion of, if not an outright hostility to ‘things scientific’, becomes marked. Once again we can identify this as a reaction to events in the ‘real world’ – to the after-effects of the barbaric decimations of the Great War – that first great exercise in techno-kill, wherein the great destructive machines of our modern age – the tank, the aeroplane and the submarine – were first used in significant numbers.
In all it proved one huge exercise in meaninglessness. Technology, it could be argued henceforth, had failed us. It had proved, as Mary Shelley had forewarned, not an instrument of liberation but a Frankenstein monster, devouring its children in huge numbers. And the society which had created and nurtured that monster was primarily to blame. Its social structures, its goals and ideals, even its words, had proved themselves bankrupt. Faced with the vast hollow-eyed spectre of social meaninglessness many writers turned their backs on it and looked inward once again – to try to understand what it was made individual men and women tick, rather than attempt the daunting task of trying to make sense of a society that had lost all coherence.
One other factor contributed to this schism and was, eventually, to perpetuate it long after the central cause had departed. That factor was the development of specialised genre magazines in the United States – magazines that developed out of the more broadly-based pulp tradition. In April 1926, even as Virginia Woolf was finishing the first part of To The Lighthouse, on the other side of the Atlantic a man named Hugo Gernsback was publishing the first issue of a ‘scientifiction’ magazine called Amazing Stories.
Astonishingly enough, Amazing Stories is still going, and even boasts a TV series of its own these days, but back then it was an off-shoot of various other Gernsback magazines, amongst them Modern Electrics and Science and Invention. It can be argued that America suffered little of the psychological and social trauma that Europe did after the Great War and that, in those years before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the whole nation was under the spell of the great inventor, Thomas Alva Edison. Nonetheless, against the general literary current of its time, Amazing Stories was staunchly pro-technology and established the progress-oriented, ‘Can Do’ philosophy that was to dominate American science fiction for the next fifty years and which, to a certain extent, still persists.
Let us make no mistake here. Those early years of the science fiction magazines produced, in purely literary terms, little that was readable, let alone anything that was truly memorable. What it did have that the literary field, with a few notable exceptions, didn’t, was a sense of vigour and a wealth of new ideas. Science fiction, even in its earliest pulp incarnation, was a brawny, muscular form. Necessarily so, for its audience was largely drawn from the poorly-educated masses of America’s lower classes. An audience which, if not wholly unintelligent, was more than willing to sacrifice literary standards for a good, inventive read.
In this original division between the pro-technology camp, willing to accept a lower standard of writing as the price they had to pay for the stimulus of new ideas and the chance of vicarious exotic adventure, and the anti-technology camp, obsessed with technical novelty and the portrayal of psychological subtleties – lie the seeds of the schism which exists to this day.
The deeply entrenched attitudes that are to be found on both sides of this divide date back to this period when the ground rules for these two new genres – for if it isn’t clear by now that I’m talking of ‘literary fiction’ as a separate genre, it never will be – were laid down. There were certain things which each genre scorned to deal with, to the diminishment of both.
Again, there were exceptions. Huxley, Orwell, Somerset Maugham, to cite but three, tried to cross the divide, but generally, from 1926 onward, we are looking at a period of almost forty years in which few bridges were thrown across the ever-widening abyss. A period during which both genres became highly specialised forms.
The literary form degenerated slowly into a pale shadow of Jamesian drawing room fiction – typified by writers like Evelyn Waugh, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Anthony Powell and C. P. Snow – with a brief, more-show-than-substance interval in which it embraced a generation of supposedly angry young men. Science fiction, on the other hand, took the Campbellian road.
John Campbell, editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding from 1938 to 1971, was, from all accounts, an argumentative, opinionated man who was quite capable of riding rough-shod over the sensibilities of his contributors. Nor was he interested in anything more than telling a good yarn. However, what Campbell almost single-handedly achieved was to give the science fiction field a sense of direction. Under Campbell’s editorship many of the household names of today’s science fiction first emerged – Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. Van Vogt and even the notorious L. Ron Hubbard.
What Campbell did was to make his magazine into a continuous think-tank which, month by month, chewed over the scientific speculations of its time – forming, perhaps, the longest running debate on scientific ideas (some, admittedly, outrageously cranky) that has ever existed outside the pages of the pure science journals. Moreover, for the first time ever, Campbell insisted upon a logical rigous to the stories he ran that produced, if not literature exactly, then certainly a more advanced story-form than anything that had proceeded it in the science fiction magazines.
That said, Campbell’s writers were still essentially hacks, producing fiction for the mass market at 4 cents a word. At that rate even the best of Campbell’s writers were rarely concerned with the literary polish of their ‘yarns’. Nonetheless, this period, called by some the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction, witnessed a great upsurge of ideative inventiveness that has perhaps been unsurpassed in science fiction. It was, in a very real sense, a revolution. However, as is the way of all revolutions, by the early 60s what had once been fresh was suddenly jaded and heavily cliché-ridden. Worse still, science fiction had become so insular – so cut off from other streams of fiction – that there seemed little chance of re-vivifying the form. It seemed to many (and to some still does) that the genre’s basic materials – its set stock of images and metaphors, settings and tropes – had been worn out. By 1964 it needed an infusion of new blood. A new revolution. And in the May of that year it got one, in the form of New Worlds, a British science fiction magazine edited by a young man named Michael Moorcock.
Too much has been made, perhaps, of the influence of New Worlds on modern science fiction, but what cannot be questioned is the fact that, in the space of eight brief years, a single magazine took on the prevailing American tradition – that great ‘Can Do’ scientific puzzle-solving philosophy that was unquestionably pro-technology – and set against it a post-Modern insistence that style was everything.
Modernism had finally hit the science fiction field – forty years on, but no less powerfully for that! Adopting the experimental writer, William Burroughs as its guru, New Worlds set about pushing the abrasive J. G. Ballard as the principal exponent of its stripped-down, anti-establishment style, its sole brief, it seemed at times, to be as iconoclastic and scathing of the old science fiction as it could be.
The ‘New Wave’ as it quickly came to be known, was every bit as anti-technology as its forerunner from the twenties. But whereas the work of Joyce, Woolf, Proust and Kafka was concerned with the vicissitudes of character, ‘New Wave’, for the main part, was wholly indifferent to character. Indeed, at its worst, New Worlds was guilty of a shallow, trendy nihilism that was very much of its time. Nonetheless, if it was, in itself, more style than substance, it did spark off a much quieter but more genuine revolution within the American science fiction field; one which is still going on to this day.
What ‘New Wave’ did was to make a lot of writers within the genre – and many who subsequently joined it – think about the kind of science fiction they wanted to write. Briefly, it broke down the great wall of exclusivity that had been formed about the genre and, for all its faults, inspired many who had been trapped within the old tradition to look beyond that wall for their inspiration. And not merely to J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs, but to the like of Kafka, Faulkner, Joyce and Graves.
Fred Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Silverberg and Ursula LeGuin were among those from within the genre who benefited hugely from that brief period of change.
However, as is the way of all revolutions, what was new in the ‘New Wave’ was all too quickly absorbed into the older, more persistent Campbellian form. A new generation of writers have grown up since ‘New Wave’ who enshrine the traditional values and perpetuate the inward-looking nature of the genre. This is not to say that these writers are unaware that the ‘New Wave’ happened – indeed, a glance at a modern science fiction magazine like Asimov’s is enough to show the diversity of style now achieved by the genre. But…
Well, let’s put it this way. Certain underlying assumptions about the nature of science fiction have never been seriously challenged. The revolution, when it came, was not one of content but of technique. Science fiction became more stylish, better written and, in a small way, ‘literary’ in a way it had never been before. But, in essence, it had not really changed. Very little of its output was concerned with character and its development. Nor, indeed, with the development of a society – though we’ll come to that in a while.
This is not to say that science fiction hasn’t progressed to some small degree. Its hero is no longer to be found tied to his laboratory or rushing about on an alien planet zapping the bug-eyed-monsters. He has a wife now and sometimes children. Sometimes he even has problems with said wife and children. And sometimes he is even a she – particularly in the last fifteen years or so, since utopian feminism discovered science fiction.
But. Science fiction is still, even today, primarily a fiction of ideas. The idea, for instance, that a woman could be something other than she presently is – parthenogenetic, perhaps – and inhabiting a place that currently doesn’t exist: an all-female society. The idea that if we tinkered with human genetics in certain ways, we might produce beings who could live in radically different environments. That if a certain historical event had turned out other than it did, then we would all be living in a very different world today. In almost every case the idea is paramount, the character a mere vehicle for the thought-experiment. In this particular regard science fiction is still very much the inferior of literary fiction, which, for all its paucity of new ideas, is at least concerned with the nature and activities of its characters.
There are notable exceptions, and I’ll name a few. Silverberg’s Dying Inside, Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, Aldiss’s The Malacia Tapestry, John Crowley’s Beasts, and the novels in Doris Lessing’s Canopus In Argos sequence. Ah, but you see, there we hit upon those prejudices again – for surely one wouldn’t label Doris Lessing a science fiction writer?
Well, to return to the starting point of my talk. Science fiction is supposedly about change. Its principal mechanism is to ask ‘What If?’ and then to build its story, its setting, even its characters from that basic premise. This it inherits from John W. Campbell. This – its most predominant trope – is pure tradition. Even so, one might imagine that science fiction – the literature of change – would be a hotbed of radical ideas. That the very process of asking ‘What If?’ might produce startling, even revolutionary results. Indeed, what is Revolution itself but that moment when a whole society asks, “What If?”.
One might think so. But science fiction is a curiously conservative genre. It prefers change with a small c to the kind of CHANGE – capitalised – that sends a whole culture into flux. In this regard science fiction writers are, in their generality, very tidy-minded people. They like the problems they set themselves to be of an order that can be solved. After all, if you put too many ‘what ifs’ into the mix you might run up against the problems of plot complication and of keeping one’s hypothetical society consistent. In this respect most science fiction writers are game-players, happier with the neat projection than the tangled reality. This is why most science fiction writers like their ‘what ifs’ to be singular, and to have happened long before the story gets underway. Change – that is, the real historical process of change; the extraordinary and unpredictable complexity of social revolution – is, sad to say, as rare in science fiction as androids and rocket ships in the novels of Anita Brookner.
Writing Trillion Year Spree back in 1985 brought me face to face with many of the things I’ve been discussing here this afternoon. The very act of studying the long and varied history of SF made me realise the limitations and thus the untapped potential of the genre.
What if? I began to think. What if?
Fortunately, I had a vehicle for my speculations, a science fiction novel I had completed only months before. A broken-backed, cluttered, over-ambitious little book of approximately 75,000 words. A novel that attempted to deal with the lives of five main characters in a future world run by the Chinese. A novel which was so bursting with ‘what ifs’ that its few readers could only advise me to trim any number of them if I wanted to sell the book.
In other words, if I wanted the book to work as a science fiction novel, I had to simplify. To reduce the rich complexity I had had a vague and unsatisfactory glimpse of, into a neat little cartoon.
But the vision was stronger than the urge to sell a novel. What if? I kept asking myself. What if I took my five main characters – all in their late fifties – and told the stories of their lives? Their whole lives, from birth to death?
I knew at once what that would entail, for character does not exist in isolation. Character is formed. By relationships. And by the society into which a person is born. If I were to achieve my end of telling their life stories I would have to tell the story of the world in which they lived. A world which, in the sixty or so years of their lives, would no doubt undergo such changes as our own had undergone in the last sixty.
Imagine it! To attempt to invent the story of the last sixty years – of everything that happened, say, since the Wall Street Crash of 19th October 1929, through to the present time. The rise of Fascism in Europe and Japan, the Second World War, the Atom Bomb, the dismantling of the British Empire, the Korean War, the development of television and mass media, the exploration of space, Kennedy’s assassination, the discovery of DNA, computers, rock music, famine in Africa and the depletion of the ozone layer. The enormity of it struck home at once.
It was madness, Utter madness even to contemplate the idea. It would need a novel several times as long as War And Peace, and maybe a decade or more to write it in. And who the hell would buy a novel like that anyway, or give me ten years to write it in?
I was hooked. I HAD to write it.
Even so, as I began the task, some time late in 1985, of going back to my characters’ childhoods and discovering who they were and where their society was heading, I did, on occasions, ask myself why I didn’t simply write a ‘contemporary’ novel, set, perhaps, in my native Battersea – i.e., a novel firmly grounded in this century and dealing with real historical events. It would have made my task much easier by disposing of the need to invent and people a world. But to do so would have been to deal with the past in more than one sense: for not only would I have to deal with past event, but also with past ideas – with matters which were, to my mind, dead in terms of what is important to us now. No, in choosing to set my novel in the future, I could, I contend, deal with matters which matter to us here and now. With the great ‘what ifs’ that confront us as a species right now, while, at the same time, getting to grips with what I saw as eternal in the human condition – both social and personal.
What if? The list of ‘what ifs’ that finally went into the mix of Chung Kuo was lengthy. What if the population of the Earth continues to rise at the present rate? What if the urbanisation and despoliation of the countryside also continues at its present rate? What if we finally succeed in killing off all the animals? What if we develop a new building material – a super-plastic – that would allow us to build 300-level cities? What if nuclear weapons were finally abolished? What if the Western economic system finally collapsed? And who would step into the gap and restore order to the world? What if China got its act together socially and economically and finally became the great nation that it potentially is? And what if, having stepped into that social vacuum, China took over the world, imposing its rules, its culture, even its own history, upon us? What then?
I began, taking all the above as assumptions and seeing how they affected the kind of world my characters inhabited. But all the while I was conscious that I didn’t want this to be the normal kind of science fiction exercise. I didn’t want my characters to be vehicles for the game of ‘what if’. The what ifs would be there, solid, like pillars holding up the roof of my fictional house, but my characters would be real – at least, as real as I could possibly make them. They would be shaped by the world about them, but they would also be shapers – both of their world and of their own destinies. Of course, chance and genetic inheritance would have a great say in who and what they were, and I was careful to bear that in mind, but again I wanted my science fictional venture to reflect this very human complication.
It was not – I was determined – going to be a neat little book. It was to deal with the “all” of my society in the same way that Dickens and Dostoevsky dealt with the “all” of theirs. In a sense I wanted to capture its every last detail, from basic sanitation and economics through to the complexities of food production and supply, political activity, scientific development and the arts. I wanted to show how it would feel to live two hundred years from now. To depict, in fairly realistic terms, the potential outcome of various present trends.
And to treat it as if it really all existed. As if it were all as real as a Hampstead bed-sit or the slums of Dickens’ East End.
In this regard, too, I was departing from the normal expectations of a science fiction novel. In his 1980 essay, ‘Belief and Creativity’, William Golding writes of the relationship of the reader to a book as being more one of “instinctive complicity” than of “willing suspension of belief”. To my mind, however, the term should not be used instead of but alongside the old-fashioned Coleridgian definition, for they express different kinds of reading response. Science fiction, with its creation of often absurd social constructs, demands a “willing suspension of disbelief” – i.e., that negative “disbelief” is out natural reaction. Opposed to this is our normal response to the novel which deals with our everyday world. There, because the setting is one we know and thus have little difficult imagining, there is no real need to disbelieve. Our natural instinct is to comply with the fiction – to go along with the story, I’m not suggesting that there is any kind of hierarchy of response involved here. The two processes seem to me to involve different functions of the mind – but the few science fiction novels that I know function on the basis of “instinctive complicity”, novels like Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, LeGuin’s aforementioned The Dispossessed, and Aldiss’s Greybeard – all inherit a richness and reality that science fiction rarely possesses. I was determined, therefore that my world should seem natural, lived in – that my reader would feel not the urge to suspend disbelief, but the instinct to comply.
Moreover, it was important to me to deal with Chance with a capital C. To deal with a society which was undergoing the most profound kind of transformation: that began as one thing and by the end of the tale had become something utterly different. In this regard the Chinese concept of a cycle of sixty years served me wonderfully, as did the Taoist concepts of return and balance, for Chung Kuo, in its seven volume entirety, was to chart one full turn of the Great Wheel – one cycle of existence- both of its characters and of the world in which they live.
This, then, was the brief I set myself. To break new ground. To write something which, in terms of what had been done before in the science fiction genre, was quite unique. Above all, however, I was determined to have the best of both worlds – to fuse the metaphoric richness of science fiction with the deeper satisfactions of characterisation. Not to abandon, chameleon-like, the ideative strengths of science fiction, in an attempt to create some pale imitation of literature, but to build a huge bridge across the abyss that existed between the two genres.
I say I realised at once the scale of my conception. That’s not strictly true. It was only some two and a half years later, and with four books of the eventual seven completed in draft, that I had any real idea of what I had taken on. But by then I was four and a half years into the project. Besides, at my fourth attempt the opening volume of Chung Kuo was approximating to my vision, and my characters were beginning to speak with their own voices, act in their own idiosyncratic manners. Most important of all, however, they were beginning to defy my attempts to force them into the strait-jacket of plot. They had achieved – as far as it is possible for literary creations to achieve it – their own separate existences.
It was at this stage that I had to step back and consider the practicalities of what I had set out upon. Chung Kuo was no longer simply a vision in my head, it was, to an almost frightening extent, a reality. What was I to do with it? How was I to go about persuading someone to take on this vast megalith? After all, I was – in terms of fiction – an unpublished author, without even a single science fiction story sale to my credit, and here was I contemplating asking a publisher to take on not one huge book but seven. It was unheard of, even within science fiction, that traditional home of the series novel.
Not one to duck such a challenge, I took that backward step and set about writing a lengthy overview of the whole conception and a detailed synopsis of each of the seven volumes. In doing so, my vision of Chung Kuo was sharpened considerably. Before the project even went for auction, I set about rewriting the first volume – trying hard to instil in it a few of those things I had glimpsed in stepping back.
Two months on from the UK publication of that first book, and fourteen months on from the moment – on the 8th day of the 8th month of 1988 – when I handed the project over to the tender mercies of my agent – I am still in a state of constant astonishment at the existence of Chung Kuo, for it is, in a very real sense, a revolutionary text, unlike anything that has preceded it. And yet, at the same time, I see it as a step backward – as a return to the traditional concerns of the novelist; an attempt to recreate the kind of “all inclusive” vision of the world – science and all – that was once the province of the very best of our novelists.
In doing so, I make no claims for the literary worth of the resultant work – that, perhaps, is for you readers to discern – but I do believe that unless novels like Chung Kuo exist – big, ambitious books that seek to break new ground and create bridges – then the continuing degeneration of both the literary and science fiction genres is inevitable. For at present the two seem like the schizophrenic halves of a single entity, constantly at war with each other.
Tradition or Revolution? 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, form the great threads from which I have sought to fashion my vision of Chung Kuo. Ultimately, however, we must all learn from the Tao – that the dark and the light are complimentary not antagonistic, and that the true path – in fiction as in life – is ever towards balance.
If there is any other wisdom in this overcrowded, much-polluted, ill-governed and inequitable world of ours, I know it not. Unless it’s this – that Revolution and Tradition are themselves eternals, following each other in unending cycles, turn and turn about. And that the Way, though desired, is the hardest path of all and balance the most difficult thing to attain.
Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for coming to listen to me.
Tsai Chien! [5752 words]