The year is 2065 and two decades have passed since civilisation in the west was destroyed by economic collapse. In the UK no central government exists and people survive in broken pockets of civility - small communities who have banded together to build some semblance of order amid the chaos.
In the rural county of Dorset Jake Reed lives with his 14 year old son and first hand memories of the great collapse of '43. Back in the day Jake was a young, rich futures broker - deeply immersed in the datscape of the world's financial markets.
Seeing the market crash and burn first hand, he was one of the few to escape the fall and has lived in fear ever since, fear of what and who are coming.
I first learned of David Wingrove when I picked up a copy of The Middle Kingdom while on a book hunt last year but due to the sheer volume of review novels I receive I never got chance to read it and so this is the first novel I have actually read by the author. Son of Heaven is the first novel in the "re-imagined" series Chung Kuo which was originally an 8 volume epic. It's now planned as a 20 volume set - re-rewritten, fleshed out with over half a million new words and containing two completely new novels to start the series off.
Those regular visitors to this humble site will know of my fondness for dystopia and post-apocalyptic stories (we're not far off living that dream right now) and I must admit that the ideas behind Chung Kuo sounds fantastic, not only scarily close to reality but also totally epic in scope with a huge cast and set over 200 years. I also have a real fondness for our eastern neighbours China - the company I work for has an office out there and I speak to our colleagues on a regular basis. I also love the food (both eastern and western varieties), have a great respect for their ancient culture and have always wanted to learn more about the history and the language.
Reading Son of Heaven hasn't diminished this excitement either, in short it's incredible and one book I really couldn't put down.
Interesting fact about China - due to the production of the "china teacup" the country never invented glass and didn't start using it until the 19th century - this small anomaly has given rise to different materials where you would usually see glass such as paper lanterns, screens and so on.
Back to the subject of the novel and the authors voice is clean and confident while the characterisation is just superb, in style it reminds me very much of Brian Aldiss - both authors managing to create a realism to their creations that is very rarely matched anywhere else. The story is nicely broken up too, with the middle third going back to the actual time of the collapse and this does a great job of heightening the tension while acting as a strong agent to bond with the protagonist.
The world building is remarkable - managing to pay excellent attention to detail without causing problems with the pace or descending into technobabble or hard-scifi descriptions. Using China as the dominant power feels almost prophetic, China is at this moment one of the most powerful countries in the world and one of the few that still show economic growth in this age of austerity.
The fact that China has a closed monetary system helps, as does the fact that unlike Europe and the US they don't owe trillions of pounds or dollars. When you combine this with the unofficial knowledge of not only their hacking abilities but also that they admit that (theoretically) they could use this technology as a form of warfare it becomes easy to understand how the vision presented by the author here could quite easily come to pass (let's not forget that the series was originally started in the late 1980's). There is even reference to one of my favourite authors - Philip K Dick - and his novel Ubik, which in Wingrove's version of the future is serialised on TV.
I also loved the disparity between the UK existence of a low tech lifestyle - brought on by the collapse - and that of the ultra high tech Chinese, this evokes an almost alien, first contact feeling which when combined with the quality of the narrative allows the reader to share the powerful feeling of overwhelming hopelessness to the invasion, one which you could imagine an alien invasion would really feel like. This also creates an almost otherworldly quality to the invaders themselves, although their human strengths and weaknesses are still very prevalent.
Son of Heaven is a powerful start to what promises to be an incredible journey, managing to create a voice that is reminiscent of the very best classic science fiction authors - particularly Asimov, PKD and Aldiss, epic science fiction on a grand scale.
Written on Thursday 9th September 2010 by Antony.
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