22 Jun

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CHUNG KUO, the future history – the re-launch of which we celebrate tonight – was conceived way back in 1983 – 34 years ago – as a much humbler and far less epic short fiction. Its first incarnation was as “A Perfect Art”, a rather slight tale of virtual reality and jealousy and murder. So slight, in fact, that, having written it, I decided it needed a far better backdrop than that which I’d come up with.

There was one scene in this shortest of versions, however, which I really liked – a scene set in the upper levels of a sky-high city, late at night, at a grand reception – which focused upon the inter-relationships of five young children who, it was inferred, would one day rule the sketchily-drawn world that could be glimpsed in the near distance.

Readers of the final sequence would recognise those five – Ben Shepherd, Kim Ward, Jelka Tolonen, Hans Ebert and Li Yuan. The latter, especially, would, in the weeks after I’d first created him, take firm hold in my imagination.

What if Li Yuan were, in time, to become ruler of this world? What if his people, the Han, had, sometime between then and now, taken over the world and shaped it to their taste? What would that entail? And just how different would that be?

I began researching. Buying endless books and reading them. Filling my imagination with scenes from Chinese history, Chinese culture.

And slowly it changed, until, six months later, I had expanded my short story into a 95,000 word novel, still called ‘A Perfect Art’ but by now recognisably Chinese.

I began again. This time round I gave it a Chinese flavour – called it “A Spring Day At The Edge Of The World” – and it grew… and grew. Until I had what became the bare bones of my epic story. Seven hundred and fifty thousand words that version was, cut up eventually into seven much smaller novels, beginning with CHUNG KUO – “The Middle Kingdom” as it translates from the Mandarin.

But I wasn’t finished yet. By now I had soaked up so much of China old and new that I could that I began what I thought would be the very final version.

CHUNG KUO, I called this version. THE MIDDLE KINGDOM. The rich and historically epic tale of how the world was after the Han had conquered it. In eight massive volumes.

It was the tail end of 1986 by now and China, economically, was on the march, Even so, there wasn’t a single pundit – not even the most perceptive of the China commentators – who would have bet on China becoming the largest economy in the world in the space of the next 30 years. After all, China was still something like the 100th largest economy. To think they might one day dominate the world. Well, it was a bit crazy. Even the science fiction field wasn’t willing to risk ridicule and present us with that scenario.

Which is where CHUNG KUO steps into the breach.

The rest, as they say, was history. I sold this epic to Hodder and Stoughton back in 1988. Eight big fat books which were trimmed and slimmed and eventually became sixteen and will one day be an epic twenty volumes.

A tale not just of virtual reality art-forms and jealousy and murder, but about what make a world tick. An entire world, that is. How empires fail and things change. About terrorism, for instance, and how it can blight such a society. And how this great carnival of event affects those characters we love even as it changes the great world surrounding them.

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