2196. For more than a century, the Earth has been under the rule of Chung Kuo, a world-spanning civilisation founded by a Chinese warlord using advanced technology. That warlord was later deposed by the T'ang, seven senior rulers who feared his insanity. The T'ang now rule a strictly hierarchical world at peace, but one where the powers of the privileged few are built on a pyramid of oppression and strictly-enforced order. With thirty-six billion people packed into the vast, continent-spanning cities of 'ice' (a nanotech-based material with super-strong properties), the dangers of chaos are all too apparent.
But there is growing discontent in Chung Kuo. Wealthy industrialists and ambitious scientists want change and growth to prevent stagnation. The enforcers of order will not stand for this. When the Minister of the Edict, whose job it is to prevent any drastic change to the order of things, is assassinated, it becomes clear that a war is coming. The War of Two Directions, which could spell a new dawn for humanity or spell its utter extinction.
The Middle Kingdom is the third novel in David Wingrove's revamped Chung Kuo mega-sequence. Originally published in eight volumes in the 1980s and 1990s, the series was abruptly cancelled and the author forced to write a highly unsatisfying quick ending which satisfied no-one. With new publishers Corvus at the helm, Chung Kuo has been recast in twenty volumes, including an all-new beginning and ending. The first two novels, Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain, showed the foundation of Chung Kuo and the destruction of the world before, serving as scene-setting prologues. The Middle Kingdom, picking up a hundred years later, is where the story itself really gets started. It's also where the series catches up to the original series, and in fact The Middle Kingdom consists of the first half or so of the original novel of the same name, published in 1988.
This means that you don't need to have read the first two novels to leap straight into The Middle Kingdom. For those who have read the first two books, The Middle Kingdom features a surprising (and welcome) shift in gear. The first two books were extremely fast-paced, with some character development and worldbuilding having to be sacrificed to get through epic events in a reasonable page-count. The Middle Kingdom is slower-paced, with events more deliberately unfolding. Characters are established and explored, the opposing thematic concepts of change and stasis are set up well and complex conspiracies unfold with relish. This doesn't mean the book is devoid of incident, with several assassinations and bombings, some underworld crime machinations and high-level political intrigue making for a busy novel, albeit one that is not as rushed as its predecessors. The pacing is pretty solid, though the later-novel introduction of a whole new major character and situation does betray the book's status as merely the opening salvo in a much vaster tale.
The characters are split between the Chinese and Western-descended inhabitants of the world (those who've read the first two books will know that Africa and the Middle-East did not fare well during the takeover) and such characters are present on both sides of the central thematic argument of the series. Wingrove's characterisation is pretty good, though he tends to lean a little more towards the broad rather than the subtle. Still, it is effective. Wingrove is also non-judgemental (at least at this stage) about his thematic argument: in a society of almost forty billion people, utterly dependent on technology to survive, the dangers of both change and stagnation are clear. With a few exceptions, his characters are not clear-cut good or bad guys either, with both honourable men and the amoral present on both sides of the debate.
The Middle Kingdom (****½) is a highly enjoyable SF novel that leaves the reader eager to read more. It is available now in the UK, with US readers able to order (with free delivery) from the Book Depository. The fourth volume in the series, Ice and Fire, will be published in December.