It’s been a while since the first and second volumes of David Wingrove’s twenty-volume expanded and revised Chung Kuo saga appeared, and I had been wondering where the next one had got to. Well, it seems that this third volume quietly slipped out in October, with the fourth, Ice and Fire, following this month. The fifth volume, The Art of War is apparently due in March, so perhaps we’ll get to the end of the series a little sooner than I was beginning to expect.
Unlike Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain, The Middle Kingdom takes us back to familiar territory. This book and the next volume are based on the original first volume, but both have been extensively revised. It’s been some years since I read the original, and my memory isn’t quite up to spotting specific differences, but that’s not really important. There was much that I recalled – some scenes, some characters came to mind immediately, but other parts have either changed, or my memory was faulty (and there was one bit where I was muttering “err hold on, didn’t he….”.
Anyway, time has passed since Chung Kuo’s City Earth was established in the upheaval we witnessed in the first two volumes. A World of Levels is firmly established, where everyone has their place, but by luck and hard work, with perhaps a little bribery, people can rise to higher things. Unless they are inhabitants of the dark underworld beneath the shining city – the Clay. And even then there can be exceptions…
There are, of course, those who aren’t happy with the way the world is. A group of largely rich, and exclusively European men (and they are men – the general status of women in this society isn’t very high) seek to bring about Change. And Change is the one thing the rulers of Chung Kuo – the seven T’ang, descendants of the men who overthrew the dictator who founded the city – can’t permit. Technology is strictly controlled – any new advance can be prohibited under an Edict that is strictly enforced.
And yet, a generation starship is being built – allowed as a concession to the wealthy and powerful Dispersionist faction.
And yet, the Dispersionists are not satisfied, and begin a war against the rule of the Seven. It begins with the assassination of the Minister in charge of the Edict, and gets worse from there on.
At this point, we’re just beginning to get to know some of the characters, and beginning to get a sense of how they’ll interact as the story develops, but this is good page-turning stuff. As with the first and second times I read the original version, I found myself eager to learn what would happen next. Recommended.