A Chinese Future?

At the beginning of March Art of War - the 5th book in David Wingrove's re-imagined epic Chung Kuo series was released (expect a review of books 4 and 5 on SFBook soon). To celebrate David Wingrove has kindly graced our site with an article about "Future Histories", an insightful look at how he wrote about China in the distant future.

Future histories. I used to love reading Isaac Asimov’s and Robert A. Heinlein’s, ditto Frank Herbert’s and Ursula LeGuin’s. And I’m a sucker for Iain Banks’ Culture novels. I love the incredible sense of time and space these futures envisaged. But – with maybe LeGuin’s as an exception – I never felt they captured the true feeling of actually living in those futures. Of how the all-too-human characters reacted to events – the kings and the paupers, each suffering in their own fashion.

Chung Kuo is the portrait of an age and, apart from the two prequels, which bridge the century and a half gap from here to then, its story effectively opens and ends with the (premature) birth and death of a single character, Li Yuan, aged sixty. In that regard it forms a single cycle of the Great Wheel, and when I went about plotting it out – having very much written it off the cuff a good five times, the emphasis changing with every new draft – I modelled my invented ‘reality’ with the very real events and changes in our society in the previous sixty years – say from 1930 to 1990. In that sense, mine is very much a different take from Space Opera. It’s much more like the Miles Vorkosian books of Lois McMaster Bujold. And because that’s so, there’s a far greater emphasis on character than in most future histories. We follow not just Li Yuan’s story, but those of Gregor Karr, Kao Chen, Axel Haavikko, Emily Ascher, the Shepherds, Tsu Ma, Fei Yen, Knut Tolonen and his daughter Jelka, Kim Ward, the Eberts, Howard DeVore… and many more, each of these individual stories markedly different from the rest. Each adding to our understanding of those distant times.

Of course, it helps that I have my great city of ice, within which those characters can rise and fall, in a society which is as hierarchical as you could imagine. It gave my story a solid backbone. And, in the course of the writing, allowed me to show that same society – which, at the outset, is as solid and immutable as an ice-age glacier – in the throes of violent change. Like George R. R. Martin, I wasn’t afraid to kill an important character now and then, because that’s how life is. And fiction, even in an exaggerated form, should reflect real life.

And, because this is a Chinese-oriented future, I tried to assimilate the three thousand year history of the Han, and use a few of its more familiar historic episodes to add colour to my work. The story of Fei Yen and Li Yuan, for instance, reflects, in some ways, the very real story of the T’ang dynasty Emperor, Hsuan-tsung and his own ‘Flying Swallow’, Yang Kuei-fei. In fact I shamelessly raided Chinese history for many a scene, many a plotline, which I then gave my own distinctive twist to. But the underlying historical sources peek through for anyone who knows about China and its wondrous past. Which was a lot of fun to do. And not just fun. Hopefully my use of wei ch’i (more commonly known as Go) throughout the book, and the Tao, give the sequence a metaphoric richness it would otherwise have lacked.

And now, much to my surprise, China has become a great power in the world once again, precisely as I envisaged it would all those years ago. Back then everyone – and I mean everyone – felt my scenario was as batty as they come. China? Ruling the earth? China? A superpower? China? Running the world? Not so now. Now the work seems acutely prodromic. A warning to us all, much in the same vein as 1984, or Brave New World. A work which, in a very real sense, reflects a path we yet might tread. Certainly, the great army of Chinese hackers, busy infiltrating the Western internet, suggests that – like Tsao Ch’un in my tale – they are seeking to control not merely their own citizens but the rest of us, too. To slow down change, prevent dissent and – as is happening in Africa and in Space – to dominate. Chung Kuo, in this respect, is a great thought experiment. It always was. But it’s one that I wanted to clothe in the garment of reality – to show it through a whole range of characters who would each have their own distinct take on that experiment.

I’m now in my thirty first year of working on Chung Kuo. Years in which the world has changed in ways we science fiction writers couldn’t have imagined back in the early 1980s. i-pods and i-pads and i-phones and all the rest of it have changed how we communicate, how we view the world, how we partake in the world, and I’m perhaps fortunate that I didn’t suffer too greatly in that regard with my humble comsets and wrist implants and neck slots and all the rest of it in Chung Kuo - tokens of an intrusive technology that was frozen by the Han in my fiction. Nowadays the Chinese authorities are struggling to keep a lid on weibo – their own form of facebook – which might yet change China’s future in ways we in the West might welcome by creating a more accountable form of government in China. And maybe that will make my vision of a Han-dominated future seem just plain antiquated…

Only it doesn’t look that way. I mean, just imagine this world, with its massive high-rises, its New Confucian faith, its seven powerful leaders, sharing the business of making China’s decisions, and then consider that none of this existed in the form it now does back in the early eighties. And then ask whether – in all kind of ways - China is growing more or less like the future I’d conjured up in Chung Kuo.

Future histories. They’re not supposed to come true. They’re supposed to make us think. And maybe even take some form of action to prevent such worlds from ever coming into being. But how do you prevent the kind of change we’ve been seeing these past thirty odd years in China? How put the lid back on Pandora’s box?

David Wingrove March 2013

PS: When I came to give names to the settings I was using in Chung Kuo, I drew on Chinese history a great deal. For instance, the great palace owned by the Li family I called Tongjiang. And when it came to naming their floating palace, in geostationary orbit above the earth, I called it Tiangong, "Heavenly Palace". That was twenty five years ago… but last year, when they launched the first part of the space station they are in the process of constructing, they called it… Tiangong-1. Which kind of makes sense… but it’s weird all the same.

The Art of War, no. 5 in the epic 19-book Chung Kuo Series by David Wingrove, is out now in paperback - rrp £14.99