Reviewed by Dominic Ball
Chung Kuo 1: Son Of Heaven
By David Wingrove
Paperback, 400 pages, April 2011, RRP: $32.99, ISBN 9781848875258
‘In 2065, two decades after the great economic collapse that destroyed Western civilisation, life continues in scattered, remote communities. In rural Dorset in the south-west of England lives Jake Reed and his 14-year-old son. Before the Fall in ’43, Jake was a dynamic young futures broker immersed in the datascape of the world’s financial markets… He saw what was coming, and who was behind it. Forewarned, he was one of the few to escape.’
This is how Son of Heaven (Chung Kuo book 1) opens; with a small, tightly knit community, living constantly in an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, knowing it is only a matter of time before they are found. Found by the same force that forced the collapse of the world as we know it, forced the collapse of the great and mighty West, forced the end of an empire. The Chinese. Chung Kuo.
The ‘Chung Kuo’ series was originally released in eight volumes from 1988 through to 1998 to international acclaim. Reading through the first of the twenty planned books in this new expanded and rewritten edition of the series, it’s not hard to see why. Author David Wingrove has devised a story that has the potential to become a classic. Filled with suspense and action, this science-fiction epic presents a vision of the future that is all too plausible.
Son of Heaven is a story told in three parts. It begins in the year 2065 with main character Jake living in fear of the inevitable return of the Chinese. We are quickly introduced to important characters, the basic elements of the plot and the setting in which it takes place. But the aspect of the story that is most important here, and will remain so throughout the book is the atmosphere, and it’s probably my favourite part. Tense and suspicious, and later gritty and brutal, the strong atmosphere of the book keeps it moving and drives the reader to sympathise with the characters. The author has excelled himself when it comes to conveying this atmosphere through description and dialogue, and it is just brilliant to read. Here is an example from early on in the book (page 13):
The front door was unlocked. It was never locked. Not these days. If you couldn’t trust your neighbours then who could you trust?
The use of short, concise sentences throughout the book make the events shown in it, particularly in some of the more brutal scenes, feel like they are being hammered home to the reader. We also continually see glimpses of the characters thoughts, which as well as building up a relationship between reader and character help us to understand the way they think at this time.
Having built up this atmosphere, the author then uses it to brilliant effect in later scenes that get your heart pounding. When some of the men travel to a nearby village to purchase food and goods, they are attacked by a band of raiders looking to kill them and loot their corpses. This scenario in itself shows how desperate the people have become since ‘The Fall’, but the way it plays out, with a brief gunfight in which most of the raiders are killed and the ones that aren’t turning tail and running; followed by a horrifying realisation that the ‘raiders’ that they have just killed were only around fifteen or sixteen years old and that Jake has just participated in killing a group of kids. The scene is made all the more disturbing by the fact that if they hadn’t killed the raiders, the raiders would have killed them. The fear and horror built up in these scenes once again showcases a writer at the top of his game:
Jake was still staring at the girl. For a moment he didn’t understand. It sounded a bit like a gunshot, only they’d stopped firing minutes ago and all the raiders were dead.
Wood splinters flew from a nearby tree.
Tom grunted, then dropped to his knees.
Behind him, Frank Goodman was crashing through the trees, heading further in. After a moment two shots rang out and then a third.
There was a yelp, then further crashing.
Jake knelt beside his friend. ‘Tom… where are you hit?’
Tom gasped for breath, then let out a tiny moan. ‘My shoulder… my right… shoulder’
Jake looked to the Giffords, who were staring out through the trees, watching the pursuit.
‘Ted… Dick… give me a hand. We need to carry Tom over to the wagons, and we need to do it now. He needs this cleaned up and bandaged.’
From deep among the trees, Frank Goodman’s voice floated back to them. ‘What was the fucking matter with you, you stupid cunt! You’d got away! You’d fucking got away! Now look what you’ve done!’
They heard the click as he cocked the gun again, then a soft almost muted explosion.
Jake closed his eyes. It was best not to imagine.
For the second part, the setting switches to London in the year 2043 and we witness ‘The Fall’ itself through the eyes of Jake, the character we have already come to relate to. It is here that we learn of Jake’s shadowy past and here that the main occurrences of the plot take place, with this section answering most of the questions raised about ‘The Fall’ in the first part. This section conveys a more ‘epic’ feel than the parts before and after it – as the world’s economy, which by now is based almost entirely around the vulnerable ‘datscape’, collapses and the cities of the West descend into total chaos – yet that tense atmosphere is perhaps lessened because of it. There is however a large number of emotionally affecting scenes in this section, which to say any more of would ruin the plot, but I will say that the author is skilled enough to make you care about even the most minor character death, and so when that emotion is elevated to the death(s) of a major character(s)…
Overall, the second part was thrilling, action-packed and epic, but I was glad to return to the tense and gritty atmosphere of 2065 in the third and final part, which sees the story come to a climax. Without ruining the ending, I will say that it is will not disappoint and it left me anxious to find out what happens next to the characters whose lives, by the end of the story, have been changed forever.
This book is brutal and unforgiving. The author is not afraid to graphically depict the consequences of violence, he is not afraid to introduce you to a lovable character and kill them off later in the story, and he is not afraid to let the characters become increasingly unhinged and desperate. He uses gritty dialogue, gritty events and gritty locations to depict a world in the throes of the greatest change it has ever seen. And all these things are just right for a story such as this one. I found myself intrigued by the complex plot and the superb characters, but most of all I was hooked by the atmosphere. The Washington Post of the 1990s was not wrong when it called Chung Kuo “one of the masterpieces of the decade”.
I can count myself among the many people who will surely be lining up to purchase the sequel to this excellent and engaging book. And then all the eighteen sequels after that, too.