Here, the world of Chung Kuo is portrayed as a combination of Orwellian cruelty and indifference and advanced social engineering concepts. The result, on each of the seven continents, is a two-tiered society not unlike that of ancient China, featuring the ruling cultured elite on the one hand and the billions of downtrodden drones doing the bidding of that elite on the other. The rulers, unsurprisingly maintain that those whom they rule are the beneficiaries of an orderly society.
As in all controlled societies, however, rebellion seethes below the ordered surface of Chung Kuo, threatening the State’s elaborate apparatus. This rebellion gathers strength among the poor and finally gains the attention of the seven T’ang kings, the most important being (for purposes of this book) Li Yuan, a young, at times idealistic king governing City Europe at the time of upheaval.
Li Yuan, the enlightened despot, listens to his European counselors and his own dreams, especially a recurring dream warning of a white mountain of bones which will someday replace his city. Fearing that the latter dream comes to him from his dead father, he finds he is the one who must lead his civilization either toward a more egalitarian future or one in which the uneasy status quo is maintained through force. Li Yuan struggles with his conscience, torn between opting for the safety and certainty of doing things the way they always have been done and the contrary desire to change society by acting boldly, a choice which could jeopardize everything he knows and loves.
Wingrove’s achievement is twofold. He does what few fiction writers are able to do—namely, to create their own universe, a world yet-to-come based on present-day conflicts recognizable to readers. Then, he creates a cast of characters that is believable rather than one-dimensional or cartoon-like. The reader quickly gets caught up in Wingrove’s compellingly realistic locales and in the manueverings of his complicated, often bizarre and off-putting characters in this tale which should appeal not only to science-fiction buffs but also to general readers who are interested in seeing classic human struggles placed in an incredible, exotic future. There is something for nearly everyone here.