Dec 11 2013 8:30am
Oh No! A Brief History of the Chung Kuo

Chung KuoWelcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus,’s regular round-up of book news from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

With only two weeks to go before Christmas day, you’d think the British genre fiction industry would be winding down for winter... but it isn’t!

Today, the troubled run of David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo takes another turn for the worse, with the author himself suggesting that his current publisher, Corvus, is poised to drop the radically recast sf series from its forthcoming calendar—though I dare say fans of the man need not be entirely dismayed: he has plans to save the saga, plus he’s been plenty busy with a brand new trilogy about time travel. In this week’s Cover Art Corner, we’ll take a closer look at what Wingrove insists is his best book. Last but not least, a lovely new look for Harry Potter, as Bloomsbury announces its plans to rerelease the bestselling seven-book series complete with full colour illustrations by Jim Kay.

Oh No! A Brief History of the Chung Kuo

I can be forgiven, I think, for missing the Chung Kuo when it was first published. I was five years old when the first of its eight eventual volumes was released after many years in the making, and its inaugural run was unutterably troubled. The last part, The Marriage of the Living Dark, was published in 1997, but there was supposed to be one other; a ninth and final novel, without which the series was essentially sunk.

That said, the Chung Kuo had its fervent fans, and in 2008, one of them—an estimable editor named Nicolas Cheetham—bought the rights to the incomplete series and put into practice an ambitious plan to both repackage and rerelease it for modern audiences: people like me!

Alas, the Chung Kuo Recast, as this radical reworking of the eight initial novels became known, didn’t see the light of day for another three years. Cheetham, you see, took leave of his previous position, bringing the books to his new job at Corvus in the process. Revised schedules were set then and there: the series would be rereleased in the form of twenty shorter volumes between 2011 and 2014, complete with a brand new prequel and an entirely rewritten resolution.

David WingroveA little later, the new prequel bloomed into two books, and delays became the word of the day. Instead of a volume being released every three months, six months passed between Son of Heaven and Daylight on Iron Mountain, and there was fully a year between that and the second edition of The Middle Kingdom, which had originally started the massive saga.

To Corvus’ credit, things have certainly been smoother since, with three recastings released this year, and The White Mountain pencilled in for publication in March 2014. That’ll take the new and improved Chung Kuo up to book eight of a projected twenty. As to whether we’ve see the twelve remaining texts, however...

With a nod to Adam Whitehead of The Wertzone for alerting yours truly to the following post on Of Gifts and Stones, here’s what the author had to say about the status of the series last week:

Corvus are seriously considering winding down Chung Kuo after book eight. They’ve the right to, according to the contract, and their view on it is that it isn’t performing well enough for them to support it any longer, but then whose fault is that? Not since Son Of Heaven have there been adequate stocks of the books in the stores over here, and even in these days of Amazon and e-books, a series just can’t live and breathe unless it can be discovered on the shelves of your local bookshop.

I can’t help but heave a “hmm” at that last comment, because of course a series can live and breathe without help from the high street. Many speculative sagas have in fact thrived absent anything but the most negligible presence on store shelves: just look at Wool.

Determined as ever to see this series complete, Wingrove went on to discuss a backup plan with fans:

At some later stage I’ll set down the history of all this, but for now let me assure you that we’re going to finish this. Sue and I have sat down and worked out our strategy, and I guarantee that not only will you get to see Volumes 9-16, which have already been thoroughly rewritten and polished and (up to 10) copy-edited, but you will be able to buy (maybe three years on from here) copies of the new ending, which is the last four books of the sequence.

Are we going to self publish? I don’t know. But we certainly have enough friends with enough skills to consider that, including one of the finest cover artists SF has ever had. But this is just to forewarn you. What I’ve currently in mind is forming a “Friends Of Chung Kuo” society, with matching t-shirts and access to the short stories I’ll still be producing.

But as they say – Nil desperandum.

Could this mean a Kickstarter, perhaps? Methinks it may, what with all this talk of t-shirts...

My own feelings about the current incarnation of the Chung Kuo have been mixed. I didn’t enjoy the new prologue at all, but once I’d struggled through its bland beginning, I really did get into it. I’m a few books behind at the moment, but that’s a factor of how busy I’ve been in 2013 rather than a lack of interest; if the series was stopped in its tracks a second time, I’d be very disappointed indeed.

So it’s good news, indubitably, that Wingrove hasn’t simple given up the ghost of the Chung Kuo. Whatever form the remaining recast texts take, I’ll be there, I do declare.


Cover Art Corner: On the Roads to Moscow

The Empire of Time David WingroveCorvus’ lack of faith in the epic sf saga is undoubtedly dispiriting, but in the same blog post discussed above, David Wingrove shared some good news, too. News about a brand new time travel trilogy set to start just a month after The White Mountain brings this chapter of the Chung Kuo to a supposed close.

Which is to say: in the UK, Del Rey plan to publish book one of Roads to Moscow in early April. It’s called The Empire of Time, and the elevator pitch makes me think of Connie Willis:

Christburg, 1236AD. Otto Behr, supplicant of the Teutonic Order of St. Mary’s Hospital in Jerusalem, is more than just a medieval Knight. Otto is a German agent, a time-travelling operative tasked with fighting the Russians across three millennia of history.

When his fellow Knight falls in battle, Otto returns to 2999AD and the German base, a bunker in ’no-space’ and the last refuge in the fight against the Russians.

But the harsh realities of time travel leave their mark, as evidenced by Otto’s best friend who, supervising operation ’Barbarossa’, attempts to change the course of World War Two and prevent the long war. But in a war across time, nothing is certain.

The Empire of Time will be followed in short order by The Ocean of Time and finally The Master of Time, all within a year of the year of the first part’s publication. Moreover, Wingrove has a very high opinion of this pretty much pre-written trilogy:

Because I’ve plotted it and re-plotted it, written it and rewritten it, until it really, really worked as a work of fiction [Roads to Moscow] was, and I make no apologies for the boast, the best damn time travel novel anyone had ever written, and by some degrees the best thing I’d ever written. But it clearly wasn’t its time.

That was to come, ten years later.

Which brings us to today, give or take, and as immodest as Wingrove’s opinion of the trilogy is... I’m in.


Picturing Potter

Harry Potter Jim Kay paintingLast Friday, by way of a portrait painted by the award-winning artist Jim Kay, Harry Potter’s new face was unveiled.

Lucky it looks so lovely, because this is very much the shape of things to come: Kay will be illustrating the covers and the interiors of Bloomsbury’s newly-announced rerelease of the complete seven volume series, beginning with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in September 2015.

Kay is described as “a lifelong Harry Potter fan,” and indeed, he appears appropriately pleased to be involved in the project:

"From my point of view it is, without doubt, the commission of a lifetime... to design the characters, the clothing, the architecture and landscapes to possibly the most expansive fantasy world in children’s literature, well let’s just say I’m extremely excited about it. However, I am also mindful of the huge responsibility this represents. I want to make sure I do the best job I possibly can.”

If you’d like to see what Kay is made of ahead of time, I’d very much recommend seeking out a copy of the illustrated edition of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. It’s a brilliant book even absent Kay’s illustrations, but they absolutely add to its impact.

This is UK news for now, but there’s reason to believe the repackaging of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels will make it to the States sometime soon, because Bloomsbury “is in touch with all international Harry Potter publishers and hopes to make the publication [of the illustrated editions] a global event.”

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.

1. Enderboy32
Major flashback for me here for Chung Kuo....I used to work in a bookstore when I was just out of high school in 1995. I remember starting this series and while I had a hard time initially getting into it, I really starting enjoying it. I lost the book and then was never able to find it again. I eventually forgot about it until just this morning. Thanks for the story!
Jason Bergman
2. loonyboi
I've been a fan of Chung Kuo for so long, and I never got to finish it the first time around. I've been buying all the recast books as they come out (even importing a few from the UK, as US dates have been spotty at best).

Whatever path Wingrove takes to get the rest of the series out there, I'll follow. I just want to get to the end this time!
Walker White
3. Walker
The series was incomplete? I just assumed that it had ended, albeit with a whimper.

He clearly let the story get away from him after the second or third book. He was foreshadowing great things coming at the end of each book, that as the story grew in the telling, became insignificant. And worse than middle WOT books, the middle books felt as if there was absolutely no progress in the story at all.
Niall Alexander
4. niallalot
@Walker: To be completely clear, it was and it wasn't — completed, I mean. Though the Chung Kuo was always supposed to run nine novels, Wingrove did have advance warning that the eighth was going to be the final volume his publisher would suffer to publish, so he squashed the plot of the two books into one... with, I gather, predicatably disastrous results.

For what it's worth, the 2014 release of The White Mountain from Corvus only takes us up to book three of the original series, so the middle books you mention are still ahead... and all of a sudden I can't say I'm anticipating them greatly.
Brian R
5. Mayhem
I can remember the first few Chung Kuo books coming out back home, they were one heck of a series to start with. There is certainly a fair bit of imagery that is permanently embedded in my memory for good or ill.
I definitely agree on the wavering middle though, and the indifferent publisher support meant that even my local library (known for its SF&F selection) was having to special order the titles in for those of us that wanted them.
Walker White
6. Walker
For what it's worth, the 2014 release of The White Mountain from Corvus only takes us up to book three of the original series.
Yeah, that was the last book I remember being good. The whole Kim Ward/Ben Shepard plotline complete fell apart.
Walker White
7. Walker
So I just went back to look at a few plot summaries and realized that I have never read Marriage of the Living Dark. I stopped at Days of Bitter Strength and assumed that was the end of the series. After reading the synopsis of Marriage of the Living Dark, I think I would be happier to go on believing that.
8. avidreader514
Chung Kuo is hands-down the worst thing I've ever read cover to cover. I should have quit...well, before I began, really.
9. Petar Belic
I gave up Chung Kuo about after the third book. It was not only a real slog to get through but had some very yucky parts that made me squirm (not in a good way). It certainly seemed quite ambitious but the execution simply didn't work for me. Props to David for putting in so much effort though, fans will be happy.
Theresa Wymer
10. Tekalynn
Chung Kuo is still going? STILL?!

Well, that's certainly good news for the author and fans. Not my cup of tea, but to each their own.
11. AndieN
Definitely not a Chung Kuo fan either...
Michael M Jones
12. MichaelMJones
I had the opportunity to read several of the recent Chung Kuo releases, books 5 and 6 I believe, and what I saw didn't impress me. Too many subplots and characters, too little payoff. Too many frquent point of view shifts. Some really troublesome attitudes towards women and sex and both together. Somewhat explicit sex between brother and underage sister. A poor feeling for the actual setting.

Ambitious, yes. Epic, yes. But a story worth telling in 20 volumes? When each book feels like several chapters in a larger work? Not my thing at all. I hope fans can get their hands on the full series and it makes them happy, but I'll be sitting out the rest of it. :)
13. Squamous Gambrell
I actually enjoyed the first book. But I thought it was wearing thin by the third book and by the time I'd got to the last book I was reminded painfully of Checkov's Dictum - a gun seen in the first scene is meant to be fired by the time the last scene rolls around. In other words, WTF!?!?

In my very, very humble opinion, he lost his way, and should've been made to trim it down, drastically.
14. Edward Leber
I've been waiting a long time for some more Chung Kao. I found the series it in a used book stall in a market when travelling in Europe in the early 90's. I had no idea there were more stories out in the last year.
While I felt the series went in a direction that I found unpleasant and unnecessary, I still think its a hugely unique and great read.
15. Van Plexico
I started the series in 1995 with the first mass-market paperback publication in the US. (I even got the free copy of book 1 later, which they sent out to anyone who bought a later volume!) I LOVED the first volume (fantastic ideas and imagery) and really liked the next 2-3 after that. Pushed them on friends. Anxiously awaited the ending. And then.... it just dragged... and nothing much happened.... book after book... It changed to a larger-format trade paperback at one point, but that only meant the books didn't match up properly on my bookcase. And reviews at the time of the last couple of books' release were so negative I never read the last one (8). One of the most disappointing experiences in all my years of reading SF.

One question: Why does the writer of this article keep referring to the series as "THE Chung Kuo?" It's just "Chung Kuo."
16. chaosprime
I read one of the Chung Kuo books. I remember it as a mess of heavy-handed political allegory, shoved in your face in that vaguely Randian-but-without-all-the-subtlety nerdbro way some sf writers have, and unbelievably poorly written incest. (Seriously, Wingrove's fascination with Meg Shepherd delivering that one smarmy-ass line over and over is far worse than the situation itself could ever be alone.) Publication of further books of that dreck could not possibly be having as many problems as it deserves.
17. Andr
Having learned never to trust the persistence of publishers I felt right from the start that 20 volumes was far too much.
10 bigger tomes (like the original books) would have been perfect.

I also have the original series in paperback. I loved it 15 years ago and I love it now. It made a huge impression on me, even though the 8th volume was disappointing.

It would be a crime against science fiction if this important epic series would not get finished. As far as I am concerned it belongs right up there with Dune, Hyperion and the Foundation.

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