This version of Why China? appeared on the official Chung Kuo site in Janurary 2011 and is a different piece than the Why China? that was written as the original The Middle Kingdom first appeared in publication. Though the answers to that titular question are the same, the perspectives are written more than a decade apart. Full text after the break…
It’s one of those questions I’m always asked with relation to Chung Kuo. Why China? These days it’s posed with a slightly incredulous air, as if I were Nostradamus. How the hell could I have foreseen what’s happening right now, before our eyes? And how come that I, and not some expert in the study of Things Chinese, managed to see the path ahead when no one else did? Because that’s how everyone sees it; That I saw it all, like some crazed visionary, when all I did was what all science fiction writers do – I extrapolated.
Extrapolation – “To use known facts as the starting point from which to draw inferences or conclusions about something unknown.”
Science Fiction is full of extrapolations. Only few of them quite fit the definition I’ve used above. SF writers tend not to follow a straight line the way true scientific extrapolators would. They tend to twist the fabric a little and draw inferences that maybe oughtn’t to be drawn. Why? Because as Robert Anson Heinlein said, many decades ago, science fiction isn’t really about the extrapolation – the big change you choose to make in whatever future society you’re showing us – but about the effect of that change on the people in your story.
So it is with Chung Kuo. My purpose was never to provide a guidebook to my future world. It was to see – to reveal if you like – what it might be like to live in such a place. And though in one respect it was a thought exercise, it was also an attempt to picture real people, living real lives – in all its complexity – within this framework. And to do that you need to make your backdrop as real and convincing as you possibly can.
The story came before the backdrop. I’ve told this often, too, but Chung Kuo (all two and a half million words of it) began life as a short story called “A Perfect Art”. It should have been twenty maybe thirty pages at most, but all kinds of things crept into the mix, extending it, changing it, making me stop after a while and re-think the whole thing.
No, a novella. Definitely a novella. Only this was 1984 now and Deng Shao Ping had just announced that the peasant farmers would from henceforth be allowed to sell off their excess produce in their local markets. China, in one crucially important area, had just shed its communist skin and was returning to its old, industrious ways. It didn’t take a genius to tell that this was the very thinnest edge of the wedge, and that further changes would follow. It was a process that, if allowed its head, could not easily be reversed. Given a taste of autonomy, the Chinese would grasp it with both hands and go for it.
Well, I was right about that, anyway. But what about the novella?
I stopped at the 65,000 word mark. A short novel. Not entirely satisfactory, but as I was reading SF manuscripts for Andrew Motion at the time – yes, THE Andrew Motion, poet laureate and all – I thought I’d submit it to him and see what he thought. Andrew was running Chatto & Windus’s SF line back then, alongside their poetry, but his comments were undeniably correct. The damn thing had too much in it. The structure had been forced to bear too much weight. It was broken-backed. Not only that but, while I was about it, maybe I ought to research the background, to make it more convincing, more… Chinese.
To cut a long story short. That’s what I did… for the next twenty six years.
Yeah, but that still doesn’t answer the question. Why China? Why, when there were so many other possible futures about, choose the world’s 66th largest economy and show them bossing it all two hundred years up the line.
The truth is that it was the first thing that came to mind. As far as I knew (and I wasn’t quite correct, but we’ll come to that*) no one else had USED China as a science fictional future. At least, my extensive reading for Trillion Year Spree, the History of Science Fiction (co-authored with Brian Aldiss) seemed to suggest they hadn’t. So that’s what I chose. And not merely because it hadn’t been used, but because, years before, researching my history project in the sixth form, I had once spent a whole summer reading book after book about the Opium Wars and the Treaty of Nanjing. What if the Chinese got their own back for the humiliation of 1842? What if the shoe were on the other foot?
It wasn’t hard, you see, to extrapolate from that. All of that sixth form stuff was still in my head, and with a bit more reading I began to see all manner of ways in which I could twist the tale and make it much more fascinating, much more readable. Because Chinese history is fascinating. Perhaps the most fascinating I’ve ever encountered. And as alien as you could wish for as a science fiction writer. I mean, why travel parsecs when something every bit as strange is half a world away?
And my god wasn’t it fun, reading up on all aspects of such a fascinating and rich culture. I’ve never found research such a joy, and I really love the researching part of making novels. It was just so satisfying unearthing countless little treasures that I could use in my text. Strange little things. Wonderful little things. Endless ways in which the Han were different from us. And yet recognizable. Only now that the emergence of China as a super power is in the news every day, what do I make of it? Am I really something of a sage, or did I just get lucky?
The truth is I’m not sure, but I know that when I started on this journey of five thousand pages, I was convinced enough that it could seem to me at times a future possibility. I mean, what was to stop it? If the world’s largest nation and its oldest culture decided to get its act together, who in god’s name was going to prevent that? And so it’s proved.
“Why China?” everyone still asks. To which I ask my own question… “Why not?”
Note: *The one exception was Fred Pohl’s 1985 novel, Black Star Rising, where, in the late 21st century, Russia and the USA have obliterated one another and the Chinese have taken over the Americas. Throughout the writing of Chung Kuo Pohl’s novel sat on my shelves, unread. I guess I hadn’t bothered to read the blurb!)
PS: I did a talk last night – my first in quite some while – to the Creative Writing course at Middlesex University, over in Hendon, North London. We had a good crowd in. I spoke on world-building and, after a question and answer session, read a chunk of SON OF HEAVEN – the infoblog… you’ll see when you get to it. It was fun to do, and I aim to do a lot more of this over the next few years. So hi to anyone who was there and good luck with the remainder of your course. It seemed a great place to be learning how to write.