LOST IN THE LIBRARY OF BABEL or, Researching Chung Kuo
by David Wingrove
Babel. That singular, ancient word once possessed a mystical, nay mythical potency to anyone brought up within the Western Christian ethos. But in these godless, materialistic times, it might well serve to remind ourselves of its
Babel. What do we know of Babel? Herodotus, in the Fifth Century before Christ, writes of having visited Babylon and climbed the Tower of Babel, stooping at a hostelry halfway up, yet from the Bible itself - the source of the myth of Babel - we learn rather little. Genesis tells us that in the days after the Great Flood, when the sons of Noah - Shem, Ham and Japheth - repopulated the Earth, one of the sons of Ham, N@od the Hunter, carved out a kingdom in the land of Shinar, in what was subsequently known as Sumeria - building the great Cities of the Plain, Babel, Erech and Arcad, and then moving on into Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah and Resen. Whatever the historical truth of this, the legend, as set down in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 11, reads as follows:
Now the whole earth had one language and few words.
And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain
in the land of and settled there. And they said
to one another, 'Come, let us bake bricks, and burn them
thoroughly. I And they had brick for stone, and bitumen
for mortar. Then they said, 'Cam, let us build ourselves
a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let
us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad
upon the face of the whole earth. I Arxi the Lord came down
to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had
built. And the Lord said, 'Behold, they are one people,
and they have all one language; and this is only the
beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they
propose will now be possible for them. Come, let us go
down, and there confuse their language, that they may not
understand one another's speech.' So the Lord scattered
them abroad from there over the face of all the earth,
and they left off building the city. Therefore its name
was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the
language of all the earth; and from there the Lord
scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Babel. Though nowadays we tend to use only our exn derivative of the word, Babble - denoting confused and inarticulate speech - the word itself derives from the ancient Sumerian word, Ka-dj-ngir-ra, mean 'Gate of God,, which, translated into the Babylonian'dialect of Akkadian, the oldest of the Semitic languages, became bab-ili.
understanding this, the meaning of the Myth of Babel becomes much clearer. It was not that the sons of men were sinful - no, for hadn't the Lord sent
down a Great Flood to deal with that lot? - but that they were ambitious, nay presumptuous. Their 'crime against Heaven was that they utilised faculties the Lord had given them.
- this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing
that they propose will now be possible for them.
In those two lines we might sense a God-like glimpse , perhaps, of the great global village to come - of modern Twentieth Century Science: of genetics, spaceflight, nuclear physics and - that ultimate in re- structuring reality - nanotechnology.
Nothing... will now be impossible for them.
Yet why should the Lord take such action? Why should He be envious of the powers he gave his own creations? Maybe because he did the job too well and was afraid of being supplanted? or maybe I'm reading it wrongly. Maybe it was their inordinate pride he objected to. Maybe it was simply a case of Hubris being clobbered by Nemesis - to quote Brian Aldiss's pocket definition of Science Fiction. But this is not what the Bible says. It was the unity of and its singular purpose that the Lord smashed and scattered at Babel, like a spoiled child scattering his once-favourite toys. Indeed, whichever way you look at this, God doesn't come out of it too well.
This the Western, Judao-Christian myth of Babel. And the Chinese? The Han? Have they a myth of Babel? Well, first off it must be made clear that the
Han have no real concept of a single, Almighty, all-seeing, all-knowing God, and never have had. They have traditionally embraced a mixture of three quite different 'religions' - Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, the last of which might be better termed an ethical code than a religion. "Three paths, but a single 1,11 they say, and take what they need from each in that pragmatic and practical way that is quintessentially Chinese. In this context, Christianity, since it first arrived in China, has always been seen as at best an irrelevancy, at worst a blight, to the extent that those Han who converted were d to have ceased to be Han.
But to return to Babel. Whilst, throughout history, the Chinese have been scattered about the Earth, they have always kept one language, always remained distinctly Han. Indeed, while there have been many periods in Chinese history where that great nation has been divided by wars, they were never fought to establish independent nations, but to re-establish the Middle Kingdom. That sense of unity, of one-ness, is strong amongst the Han. Indeed, until early this century, the two greatest periods of unrest in Chinese history, the 'Three Kingdoms' of the Third Century AD., and the 'Five Dynasties' of the Tenth, lasted but 44 years and 53 years respectively. over the same two thousand year period one might look at historical-maps of Europe and count the nation states in their hundreds, if not their thousands. A map of Germany in 1648 perhaps illustrates this best, looking like an ill-fitted jigsaw with its 234 principalities and 51 free cities. we see such fragmentation once again in our own lifetimes, in the break-up of Yugoslavia and the old USSR. Such divisiveness is not merely the curse of Nationalism, it is the curse of Babel. 1:5
But Babel was not just the place of scattering, of disunity and confusion, it was also the 'Gate of God', the place where a once-unified Mankind attempted to build a tower to the Heavens and to do the possible. Science is our modern 'Gate of God', forming a single, international language. And in its attempt to unlock the secrets of the universe, we might see the hand of those early men, on the plague of Sh challenging the 'natural hierarchical order' of things, for there is something quite iconoclastic about the endeavour. Something challenging. That's certainly the view of the reactionary Christian lobby, who would happily throw out all of modern scientific theory - beginning with Darwin - and smash the great tower of 1 that ern men (and women) have built. Of the endeavour itself - of Science and the attexnpt to mlock the secrets of the universe - I wish to address myself , in the guise of talking about Chung Kuo and the problems of researchim it. And I wish to do so through the medium of a short story written by the great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, entitled, 'The Library of Babel'.
In the story, Borges presents us with a metaphor for the mlverse: he depicts it as a library in which an infinite number of books are stored. Borges tells us that -
"each book is made up of four hundred and ten pages;
each page, of forty lines; each line, of scme eighty
rihe alphabet in which these books are printed is made up of 22 letters, a
, a period and a space sign, making a total of twenty five orthographic symbols. These twenty f ive symbols are randomly printed on the pages of every book, thus - because the n of books is infinite - allowing for every single possible combination. A book sed purely of
S, perhaps, or a book in which this very speech is repeated, verbatim, fifty times, each time in a different language. In the library of Babel, anything is possible, but in the main the books are full of nonsense - the linguistic equivalent of white noise. All is scattered and confused, and, after a long search through the shelves of the library, the most one might hope for is the odd word or sentence, the briefest gli-mpse of order. So what kind of metaphor is this? What is Borges trying to say about the universe we it - the universe which others, or so he says in the opening sentence of his story, call The Library?
In essence, Borges is talking here of the physical state of the universe - and of the balance in it between order and apparent diaos. His 'Library of Babel, mirrors the first law of thermodynamics, and the discoveries of the French physicist Nicolas Carnot in the early part of the 19th Century, that energy was not merely conserved but unevenly distrlwted throughout the universe, leading to tiny, concentrated por-kets of energy - and thus of ordered activity - within it, much as, in Borges library, one finds tiny pockets of linguistic meaning - whole books - amidst the endless shelves of raridam nonsense.
so the universe is, but we, as writers, are fortunate to inhabit one of hose tiny, concentrated pockets of ordered activity, and our novels are xercises in structuring, in ordering. Even those novels which purport to =c entropy - that ultimte rumim down of order in the universe - are, aradoxically, the end result of intelligence choice,of structuring on the art of their writers.
ut what are writers? What makes us different from other folk'> Perhaps t's mexely the degree of wide-eyed fervour with which we pursue our ctivity. In that we might, at first glance, seem akin to Borges, official earchers, his inquisitors, forever searching for some tiny trace of
amidst the endless shelves of randoin babble. Like them, we might hoose to "feebly mimic the divine disorder", but not usually. We're sually a lot less humble, a lot more cock-sure than that. We writers uffer from the delusion that we can, ultimately, mke sense of it all. We esearch.
esearch. The very word suggests a high level of ordering. It presupposes he existence of a rigid structure of knowledge that has already been earched out and catalogued. The search that left the origiml Visitors
the scientists and artists of days long past - exhausted, is not for us. e merely leaf thr the shelves of their discoveries. We RE search.
ou see, we're not really explorers. We might write about the cold, terile wastelands of Mars, but we've never actually been there. No, if nything, we're guides to the VR experience of being there, Ariadnes,
hildren, following a thread through the labyrinth, torch held high, a rowd of readers clustered at our back, their eyes fearful, curious...
ut before this metaphor grows laboured, let's back away fr(xn it and ask, n more siwle terms, just what and why and how we research. Or, to be ore specific and far more precise, just what and why and how -T research.
kay. So what areas do I research? Well, the answer's straightforward. nything I don't know about, or that I don't know enough about. Which is, o be frank, most of it. Fair enough, you might say, but why bother with esearch in the first place? Just what does it add to a book? After all, t's all made up, isn't it?
y personal answer would be no. Very little of what I write has been nvented. It all existed, in various forms, long before I came along and orrowed it. In that sense I see myself as a synthesist, putting together hat has already been found arxi charted, weav my tale out of the great atalogue of Things Known. In the process I can be inventive, certainly, ut only very rarely can I actually invent. However, to return to the uestion, 'y bother with research?", I'd answer thus: I research to give y work greater depth and authority - to uoke it more convincim and thus ore enjoyable for the reader. I also like to provide what you might term n educational frisson. By which I mean that I like to share with my eaders my awn delight in 1 new thims - of havim new concepts, ew ways of lookim at thims presented to me. All of which, I hope, reates a certain richness in the work.
okay, but what specifically do I research, and how do I go about it? I mean, here we are, lost in the Library of Babel. Which was do we turn? Which c ses should we use?
Perhaps the best way to proceed is to ask the simplest of questions, like, what is Chung Kuo about?
Well, at its crudest level, Chung Kuo is about a future Chinese world state. So let's imagine you're all now seated in my study back in London and start by 1 on the shelves to see what we have under China...
The eye is drawn first to the battered orange spine of Edgar Snow's Red Star over China in the origiml Left Book Club edition, a classic not merely for its portrait of Mao and the C sts between 1934 and 37, but for Snow's minute and telling observations of Chinese life. Beside it, in a glossy peacock blue cover, is R. Keith Schoppals Xiang Lake - Nine Centuries of Chinese Life, a book which, like Frank Chingls Ancestors, provides us with a real sense of the deep rootedness of the Chinese. These two books ise that the Han are a people tied to their land and to the earth their ancestors tilled. Their reverence for their ancestors and for the family unit is ingrained and undiminished, despite forty years of Communist rule in which the traditional concept of the family has been under intense attack.
For another slant of the subjer-t, I might take down Paul Chao's Chinese Kir2ship, which, in its detail, must be the last word on tradition and ritual in Chinese life. However, for a less abstract account, I couldn't 0
do much better than to look at my well-thumbed paperback of William Hinton's Shenfan, his 800-page account of life in Long Bow village in
i Province. Few Western books really get under the skin of the Han, but shenfan is certainly one of them, briMiM alive the peasants and officials of early Maoist China with a vividness that none of the missionary accounts - determined to get across a dogmatic message - could ever achieve.
BelM a peasant in pre-revolutionary Chim was bad enough, yet belm a woman there was much worse, as Maria Jaschok's Concubi-nes and Bondservants r us, its catalogue of man's ity to woman far outdoim anything Marilyn French could dream up. For two fictional views of the sam phenomenon - at either end of the social scale - we might go to Chaing Hsin-hails The Fabulous Concubine or Wang Ying's The Child Bride, both of which are filled with the kind of minute observed detail that a dozen years of purposive research might not unearth. So too with Jung Chang's recent and excellent Wild Swans, which, with its insider's view of the early years of sm in China, provides a necessary counterbalance to the socialist idealism of Snow and Hinton.
In pre-revolutionary Chim, it seems that to be anyth but male, heterosexual, the father of sons, head of the household and a wealthy landmmer to boot, was to be as nothing. Even so, any portrait of traditional chim that sees it rarely as a deathly bastion of male power and suffor-atim ritual is to neglect the great range of its culture and philosophy. For that we need to move further along the shelf and maybe take dmm C. P. Fitzgerald's 1935 study, China, A Short Cultural HistcTy, l,/Il
still by far the finest overview of Chinals history and culture. Beside
it, in a handy paperback version, much annotated, it Fung Yu-lanlls A Short
H.isto.ry o-f Chinese Philosophy, a good guide to the basics of the 'Hundred
Schools, which have dominated Chinese thought throughout the long
centuries. For a closer focus, however, we might turn to D. Howard Smith's
study of Confucius, to Alan Watts' delightful Tao, The Water se Way,
or, plunging into the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life, we might
take down the laverxierloured paperback of Chu Hsils I-earning Th Be A
sage, which presents us with a selection of the Twelfth Century sage's
thoughts and maxims.
There is more, of course, much more, wherever you look on the shelves.
Books on Mencius, Lao Tzu and Chung Tzu, on the Triads and the Chinese
Secret Service, on the Chinese art of Tea and Herbal Medicine, on Feng
Shui, Hand-analysis and the meaning of names, on poetry, calligraphy and
Myth. Ihere are expensive collectors' volumes with glossy full-colour
prints on Porcelain and Lacquer, on Snuff Bottles, Furniture and Costumes.
one whole shelf is taken up with various histories, another with studies
of Chinals Science and Civilization, dominated by the works of Joseph
Needham and his acolytes. Another is taken up with turn-of-the tury
Western accounts of Chim - volumes cranmied with fascinatim minutiae,
like Kwang nmg, or F2ve Years 1-n South Chi-na by the Reverend John Arthur
Turner, The Middle Kingdom by Doctor S. Wells Williams, and Reginald F.
Johnston's Lion And Dragon In Northexn China. That last is an account of
Johnston's experiences as District officer and Magistrate in the British-
run territory of Weihaiwei in Northern China, published in 1910. Most
people these days know Johnston only through the rather snobbish and
inaccurate portrayal of him by Peter O'Toole in The Last Dnperor, where he was the young or, Pu Yils tutor, but the mn was - in reality - a sympathetic and accurate observer of the Han.
Which brings us to an important point. Reliability. For amongst all of this information about China, culled from many places and iwny times, how can I be sure just what is honest and reliable, and what distorted and inaccurate? There are several reasons for the distortions and inaccuracies one encounters - religious, political and pseudo-intellectual in the main - and the experienced researcher learns to recognise the pitfalls. Missionary accounts, the abstract theorisings of 19th Century Gennan academics, the apologist effusions of Kuamingtang supporters and the twilit recollections of pats are all usually suspect and should be taken with a whole rice-bowl of salt. As the years pass and you read around the sub3ect nore and more, you develop an instinct for what is sound and what suspect. Where well-documented facts are over-looked, or some patent idiocy utilised to 'explain' some aspect of Chinese life, you can be certain that this is the product of bias, ignorance or malice - and often a combination of the three. It-Is not merely the Stm and Express that distort the truth, text books are prone to take the party line too. So take heed. The shelves of the great library are cluttered with such misleading nonsense. one is advised only to trust facts that one can verify from several independent sources. Well-respected texts like the cainbridge Hi-stary of China and Joseph Needbam's Science And Civ-ilizati-on -rn china are good foundations for such a venture. l3
Even so, there is usually something of value in their accounts; something which can be used to enrich the mix. Willians' The Middle Kingdom, the second edition of which was published in 1904 in two massive volumes, is a case in point. Like Fitzgerald's China, A Short Cultural History, it purports to be an overview of 'Things Chinese', and, to be honest, is cr full of interesting detail! Unlike Fitzgerald's book, however, it's written very mudi fr(xn the high ground of Western moral superiority and overhasises the role both of Buddhism and Christianity in Chinals history. It's an outsider's view, written more froin a need to explain the ,social aberration' of China than understand it. All in all, then, it's a book to be used with extreme care - one of any of its kind.
okay. So havim gathered together one's sources about China; havim read, notated and verified them, as far as is possible, what then? How do we use all of this information gathered fr(xn the shelves of Babel?
Books are rarely deliberate. And if they are, they're generally no good. It's not often that the full and final shape of a work appears in a blinding flash at the outset. Each book, or so I've found, is a journey of discovery. In the specific instance of Chung Kuo, the Chinese setting was, originally, quite arbitrary - a piece of exotic coloration to a long short story I was writim called "A Perfect Art". I worked on the story, as I often do in first draft, without researching any aspect of it, using only what I recollected of China and its history fr(xn my sixth form studies. It was only when the story became a novel that I realised how much work
needed to be done. At that stage I re t it entirely, a process that took the best part of three years to complete. The society and the City that that society had built, had to reflect scmthing intrinsically Han. Its structures and relationships had to reflect what I had read in my researches. So too the form of the work and its themes.
The City, for instance, had to be rigidly hierarchical: had to be, quite literally, a place of levels, reflecting in a very direct mamer the strict social levels of its mainly ese inhabitants. I liked that. It had resonance and a certain metaphoric potential. As for the structure of the work itself, that had to be Taoist, had to reflect in its development the great cycle of Change enacted in the sixty four hexagrans of the I Ching, the Book of Changes.
That said, I wanted to write a science f iction novel, not a work of historical r or fantasy. And science fiction is a distinctly Western fonn. Its pacing and orientation is quite different from that of most Chinese fiction.
Science fiction did I . Well, doesn't that involve... science?
Well, my experience is that, as a non-scientist, it's not so easy to research the sciences. Specialist texts are of little use when you don't have the keys - linguistic or mathematical - to unlock them. You tend to fall back upon science pcpularisers, and upon that most reliable of all sources for ern scientific spemlation, The New Scientist. is
Fortunately, we live in an age in which the science populariser has become a minor genre of its own, and a best-selling one to boot, which means that you don't have to search out specialist bookshops to find copies of works by the likes of Richard Dawkins, John Gribbin, Richard P. Feyrman, Roger Penrose or Stephen Jay Gould, they're usually there in your local bookshop. Nor, usually, do you need much more than a keen and flexible to understand such books - though Penrosels, I admit, d a much greater mathematical understanding than the others. Beyond such works are a whole array of other, less popular but no less interesting books, narrow the focus. A list of their sub3ect matters will suffice here: The New Era of Nanotechnology, The Theorems of Mathematics, The Creative , The World of the , Physics as Language, The Body in Tim, The Mathematics of Symmetry, Chaos Theory, The Nature and Uses of Light, The Structure of the Universe, Philosophy and the New Physics, the Bio- Revolution. Fine. But what can we learn from these works? And how can we use what we've learned to create good, thoughtful science fiction? To the first question - what can we learn? - my personal answer is not specific but general. What I learned fr(xn readim across the disciplines is that the future is likely to be more varied and more unlikely than we can currently imagine: that whatever we take to be 'normal' now will, fifty years hence, be considered as old-hat as flint tools and wearing skins. That is, unless things change in other ways, such that Chang - i.e., scientific progress - is no longer the norm. Now, as to the second question - how can we make good SF of it? - I'd argue that it's very difficult to do, though easier - much, much easier - in short stories than at novel length. The
future looks likely to be ifformtion-dense, tecbnology-rich. Future Shock looks likely to give way to Future Blitzkrieg and to what Bruce Sterling depicted in the final part of his novel, Schismtrix, where Change has become a wind, blowing through all things and transforming them constantly. In the face of this, charting any kind of 'realistic' future at all is daunting, let alone a large, detailed canvas.
Now, I've been told many things about my books these last few years, by critics who are obviously far better ormed in these matters than I. I've been told, for instance, that "the futuristic trappings are few and unremarkable", that "there aren't many SF trappings, and not much extrapolation either", that 't of the SF el ts... are the ccn=n currency of modern SF" and, recently, that the work is "an amalgam of Gilbert and Sullivan Chinesery, Mafia thriller, 'Sci-fi' B Movie and high- carrp US soap opera". Well, it's fascinating to learn these things; to have my misapprehensions of my work so gently and tenderly corrected, but forgive me if, for a moment, I dissent. Now I know that an author isn't supposed to do this. An author, traditionally, is supposed to squat there, like a rabbit in the glare of a juggernaut's headl, and let the bugger hit him. But I'm afraid I'm not so docile.
of all these ts, that about the "ccmwn currency" of modern science fiction ideas is perhaps fairest, and I'll come to it. But let me first deal with the whole question of the science in a science fiction novel: of of what extrapolative forces ought to be at work, and how such material should - to be successful - be rporated into the text.
Back in January 1983, Tsaac Asimov's Magazine published an article by the late Terry Carr, entitled, "Greater Realities, or How To Write Science Fiction Without Knowing Much About Science".
In his piece, Carr says that most SF writers are great collectors of reference books - of source material - and that most of us maintain what he calls "a layman's interest in science and research". From my experience that's true, even among the more overtly 'literary' of our number. But Carr goes on to argue that "Science fiction isn't really about science - it's about the aesthetics of science... the fascination of logic." And, he adds, "It's this logic, this playiM-by-the-rules, that makes an imaginative story fascinating.11 It's also, I'd argue, what makes the form radically different from any other genre.
Science fiction can, of course, be written many different ways. In its shorter form you often f that one simle transfo idea is used as the start point for the tale, the internal 'logic' of that idea dictatim the form, the very nature of the story. A great deal of fifties science fiction is like that - the work of writers like Dick, Sheckley, Tenn and Pohl abounds with instances. In essence it's a cartoon form, playful game with ideas which, at its best, comes close to fable. on a larger scale, however, it's much harder to get away with that. If you're us a larger canvas you need to deal with Change not in two d ions but in three. One single act of extrapolation isn't enough. In its most extreme case, ev g has to be re-thought.
In Ihe Middle KiMd(xn, the f irst book in the Chung Kuo sequence, I had to introduce my future world to the readership; to present a coherent and hopefully consistent vision of a world two hundred years fr(xn now. A world in which Tnajor changes had taken place; changes as radical and all- transforming as any that happened between, say, 1792 and the present day.
Well, to get an idea of what I mean, let's just stop a moment and look back at the world of the 1790s. The 1790s were the Age of Revolution, with vibrant new Republics in ica, France and the Netherlands the established order. In f iercely monarchist Britain another revolution - the Industrial Revolution - was gathering steam: a powerhouse of ideas and inventions that would transform the world in the followim century. 'Ihe Crttomn Empire was in decline. George W on was an aged warrior and statesman, Napoleon Bonaparte a young corporal. The United States of America was a fledgling nation of some eight hundred thousand square miles and a population of four million. The great westward expansion, which had started a decade before, had progressed only as far as the Temessee River, a fifth of the way across that vast continent, halted by Indian Wars. In Australia the first of the convict ships were settim down their loads of English and Irish dissidents and criminals,while in France 'The Terror' claimed 35,000 lives in the same year  that Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, were guillotined.
Revolution - social and technological - was in the air, yet for the comwn man it was a distinctly primitive era, little advanced in its material
aspects from the Middle Ages. rihe great age of scientific discovery - and, more rtant, the physical harnessing of science - lay ahead. d jenner's develot of safe vaccinations for smallpox came only in 1796, william murdock's invention of gas-lighting in 1800, the same year that Gaivani invented the electric battery. Stearn locomotives were not to be invented until 1804, nor made a working proposition until 1825. Morphine was not available until 1805, iodinelmtil 1811. It was not until 1844 that Morse perfected his telegraph, and a further 35 years before Edison gave the world electric lightim. In any ways, then, it was a bigger, darker world than ours - a world of poor ccmunications and mass ignorance, of physical sufferim and social in3ustice. A world in which vast parts of the globe were as yet uncharted.
We, in the late twentieth century, live in a world transformed. In the last sixty years alone we have seen the development or discovery of the electron microscope, artificial radioactivity, radio telescopes, penicillin, DDT, helicopters, television, jet planes, nuclear reactors, lysergic acid, teflon, nuclear fission bombs, artificial kidneys, bacterial and virus genetics, holography, transistors, cybernetics, quantum electrodyriamics, cortisone, tissue transplantation, turing map-s, =Wters, conductivity, fluoridation, tranquillizers, the double helix and the genetic code, heart-lung machines, spray cans, robots, oral contraceptives, contact lenses, masers, space rockets and satellites, pacemkers, lasers, integrated circuits, microwaves, semi- conductors, heart transplants and artificial hearts, cloning, gene synthesis, fibre optics, supersonic transportation, space stations, pocket calculators, terized axial topographic scanning, laser discs, genetic /2-0
engineering, microchips, test-tube babies, home uters, nanotechnology and virtual reality.
In small ways and in large, these developments have transformed not merely the quality but the very nature of our lives. C ed to our ancestors of two hundred years back, we in the West live like kings. Nay, better than the kings of yore in many respects. So change is. So it affects us. And in looking two hundred years ahead, the conscientious writer must bear in mind the lessons of history, taking into account both the rapidity and the extent of change in our modern world. But history teaches us also that our social institutions are fragile and generally short-lived, and that whilst scientific progress currently proceeds unchecked, it is far from certain that those structures which underpin that great venture - the complex and costly infrastructure of a modern technological society - will persist. Ecologicallamity, war, or economic collapse remain as potent threats to scientific progress. Moreover, the fate of Babel, whether true or myth, reminds us that some jealous god (or Son of Heaven, let us say) might chose to knock down the great tower and scatter those Sons of Men who dared build it in defiance of the natural order.
It is that last scenario - or, to be more accurate, a coitbination of economic collapse and jealous tyrant - that I chose to underpin my own tale of the future, positing a world which, havim suffered the catastrophic effects of rapid change, has turned its back on progress. Such a scenario could, I admit, be something of a cheat - the easy option, if you like - for a lazy writer. After all, the circwmtances conspire to allow the writer not to extrapolate from the present, but to re-hash
something old and tired: a world, say, where the old religions have come back and where all of our technological gains have been lost. Moreover, it might be argued with some conviction that it's actually very hard to see with any degree of accuracy just where current trends - social, political and technological - are taking us. The opportunities for copping out are manifold. But...
Well, to put it bluntly, personally I chose not to cop out. In fact, I put a lot of extrapolative thought into Chung Kuo in the five years I spent creat it. Because it was goim to be a crowded world story, I got hold of and studied the United Nations' 108-page Concise Repart On The World lation situation in 1983 and came to my own, quite different conclusions about where the population trends might take us: conclusions which were borne out by later reports - such as that in The Tndepandent of 21 May 1990, with its headline, "Population growth has alarmingly overshot UN projections". An understandable event, considering that most of the so- called rational assumptions about human behaviour made in their Concise paft were little more than the utopian daydreams of half-arsed bureaucrats. Even so, some of the detailed reasoning in that report - about enviro tal degradation and shortages of food, fuels and mineral resources - set me off in other directions. If the population in 2200 was going to be 35 billion, as I estimated, then how were they going to be fed, how sheltered?
Which brims me to the City.
The City was always there, froin the openim pages of the original short story, though not in its current form. Back then it was little more than a hand-me-down from any number of SF stories. In fact, it's one of the few elements in the mix where I can clearly identify its antecedents. rihe first, and perhaps most obvious, was Asimov's Trantor. I always wondered what it would be like to actually live there, long before Asimov took a crack at depicting just that in Prelude To Fcxmdation. The second was a little known story from the New Worlds 6 anthology, published back in 1973: Barrington Bayley's excellent "An Overload", with its vision of a giant City, with Supraburgh at the top, the abandoned Central Authority in the centre, and UnderMegapolis beneath it all, reachim down into the Earth's crust.
Okay. But how would such a super-City work in practice? How would it be structured? How would it be lit and heated? How supplied with food and water? How policed? How governed? How would the dead be disposed of? How would they get rid of all that dead skin that accumulates everywhere? And what about all the other waste substances?
Research into super-plastics and fibre-optics, water-engineering, re- cycling, biological pest ntrol and sewage-disposal followed. And a growim consciousness that, were the to exist, it would need to be supex-light. Not only that, but, to be strong enough, it would need a hexagonal hive-like structure with all of its plumbing fitted into the hollowed-out supportim colunms. So it became. But practical considerations were not the only ones I had to bear in . My City was not simply an exercise in architectural planning, it was meant to be a
symbol, a giant metaphor for what has happened to Mankind in the two hed years between now and then. The future I was depict was supposed to represent a kind of ice-age for Mankind - emotionally and creatively - the City a vast high-tech glacier covering the globe, obliterate the world that we know. That lmge suggested the name for the super-plastic of which the City was to be built. Ice.
rihe kind of super-plastic I envisaged didn't exist. I knew that GE Plastics, in America, were making plastic houses already, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and I read that modern architects were increasingly look t more and more lightweight buildim materials. That said, even the most revolutionary of current materials were - on investigation - incredibly cumbersome ed to what I wanted. I had to look elsewhere for the rationale behind my super-plastic, and found it in Joseph N Is scip-nce and civilization in China. When, in Chapter 14 of The Middle KingdoTn, Kim, my young scientist, first sees one of the spider-like machines that create the chairs and tables used in the City, he understands the principles at once:
11 ... the machines h .... not to stop their operators
forgetting they were switched on; the vibration of the
machine had a function. It set up starting waves - like
the tone of a bell, or a plucked string, but perfect,
unadulterated. The uncongealed ice rode those waves, fo
a skin, like the surface of a soap bubble, but a million
t stronger because it was formed of thousands of tiny
corrugations - the menisci fon-ned by those stand waves.
Kim saw the beauty of it at once. Saw how East and West
had come together here. The Han had known about stand waves
since the fifth century BC: had understood and utilised the
laws of resonance. He had seen an example of one of their
'spouting bawls' which, when its handles were rubbed, had
formed a perfect standing wave - a ing, perfect hollow
cone of water that rose a full half d2li above the bowl's rim.
The machine, however its cybernetics, its progr , even
its basic engineering - was a product of Western Science."
That mixture of East and West - of ancient and ern - is not usually quite so explicit in the novel, yet it is there, throughout. The great City itself is such a mixture. on the one hand there is its vast and comprehensive cations system - a system that can trace a face by a retimi print and investigate a computer search in a matter of seconds, all to allow the simulated face of a beautiful woman in a wall advert ipake a personalized sales pitch to a passing stranger. Then again, because it is a Tabour intensive society, the sweepers and guards, sedan carriers and hawkers, bartenders and prostitutes, footsoldiers and servants of Chung Kuo are all human. only the very rich can afford genetic synthetics and those are usually curiosities, kept more for their status value than for practical use - like the ox-men and goat-men of The Middle Kingdom. Moreover, what technology there is is kept strictly within limits.
The Fdict of Technological Control, the legal instrument by which the seven prevent change in the first three books of the sequence, was the result of a great deal of thought on my part. I had to decide where to draw the line, and settled, eventually, on a rule of thumb which evaluated whether a thing was useful to the System or a potential dainger. If the latter, it was strictly proscribed. If the former, then it's in there, somewhere in the mix. Let me give you a few instances:
Amongst the permitted technologies are those which provide food, allow security surveillance and provide necessary entertainment for the citizens of Chuing Kuo. rlhus we see the huge jou tung wu or "meat animalsllm and gl super-hybrid crops much taller than a man; we hear of the orbital farrns and see the numerous soya derivatives that have replaced raost naturally grmm foods. We see HeadStims - wraparound headsets which are sense-stimulation, direct-input machines, and, on the creative side, the ArtMoul-d imdines which, at the touch of a switch, allow an artist to work in three ions by physically If 1 -out' the sides and back of a two-dimensional painted image.
And then there are the tiny, parasitic lants prostitutes have that keep their hosts clean by living off Aids, Herpes and venereal diseases of all
, and that it a tiny sac in the womb. There are the speech- responsive, preprogr holograms of dead ancestors that can give advice when called upon. And there are the cations implants that most security officers possess, as well as the complex, semi-autonomous prosthetics of the age. There are GenSyn re-designs of extinct animls and artificial wombs that can nurture a growing child froin foetus on. All these are ==nplaces in the early books: the outward signs of a society that has not so much suppressed technology altogether as tightly,harnessed it in order to prevent e.
Ihe proscribed technologies we see are - almost without exception in the first phase of the sequence - violent and nasty. The cutting edge of technology has turned against the rulers of Chung Kuo, the Seven. There are hoop-like bombs, containing illicit ice eating substances which are triggered by harmonic resonance. There are the 'copy' humans that come in from Mars to try to assassinate the youing Prince. There's the soft-wiring in the head of the Minor Family Prince, Pei Chao Yaing, that makes him perceive things wroingly, and there are genetically engineered poisons and new strains of old diseases. Even the apparently harmless - the great generation starship built by the Dispersionists - is, because of its potency as a political symbol, effectively a weapon against the Seven who rule Chung Kuo. Yet such a situation cannot, and does not, persist. Change must come, and does, in Books Four and Five, when the Edict is relaxed. But what effect does Change - technological revolution - have on such a rigidly-structured society when it ?
From Book Five onward I begin to give answers. In other words, I have not ducked the issue, merely delayed it.
But even if much of the detail, much of the thinking behind Chung Kuo is science fictional, the question remains: haw mudi of this is nplace and how much of it genuine extrapolation? After all, it's easy - surel. - to knock together something out of standard ISF trappings" and call it a work of scientific extrapolation?
Well, to be frank with you, no, it isn't. It's the t difficult thing of all if you want to get it right. It's genuinely hard these days to be truly --original--. Science fiction has a long and varied history and the general rule seems to be that if it could be thought of it already has. Now, if it were merely a question of originality then few SF writers would bother to put pen to paper, or their st little fimers to the keyboard. No. These days, it's much more a question of your approach to and interpretation of existent material. Most science fiction writers have read a whole stack of science fiction and are generally conscious of how many ways there are to bell the cat. Most lled new ideas are merely variants on the old - even William Gibson's. In this regard I have a degree of thy with Joanna Russ's view that the basic subject matter of science fiction - its "genre materials" as she terms it - "wear out". But that's not the same as say that we can't use and adapt what already exists and f new ways of puttim it all together.
That process of finding out just what already exists and riming new changes on it, is part of the general research a science fiction writer has to undergo - I'd claim - as a prerequisite to writing the form. In my own case fifteen years of reading SF and twelve of writing criticism gave me a fair idea of the tropes - the rhetorical devices - science fiction has developed over the years. Knowing them, I could look for new angles, new departures, fresh ways of doing things.
But to return to Chung Kuo. Just think of it a bit. There are no aliens in Chung Kuo, no psy-powers, no time-travel, no faster-than-light spaceships , no supermen. The work isn't "exotic" in that way. In fact, I chose, at the very outset, to make all of its elements as credible - as possible - as I could, limiting, by that the scope of the work.
Such self-imposed limitations are, I'd argue, good for the writer, yet the absence of those "exotic" elements is one reason why, perhaps, the work seems to some readers to lack the "flavour" of science fiction. Okay. But I'd suggest that the real reason why it seems more 'Epic' than science fictional is that the world of Chuing Kuo is something that's very much taken for granted in the story. It's a lived-in enviroment which, like our own world, needn't constantly draw attention to itself.
There's always, in modern SF, a line to be walked between the need for some kind of 'realism' and the desire to provide a science fictional frisson - that shock of the new and the strange. Consequently, there's always the danger of explaining too much, of having your characters go about telling each other how various tecno-thingies work rather than getting on with their lives. It's something that bad SF is always prone to do. As Carr stated in his article: "Such explanations can undermine the feeling of reality."
I'd argue the case more stroingly than that. What we're doing here, as SF writers, isn't designing blueprints for new and better worlds, we're creating fictions, entertairmients - thought experiments that must be coherent enough and subtle enough to affect our readers both intellectually and emotionally. Cleverriess alone - that propensity some science fiction has to lecture the 'dullard' reader at great length - is not simply inadequate, it's a fatal flaw. The point is not to create the reality itself, but the illusion of that reality. We mustn't - like the current crop of SF movies - let the special effects take over. z)
Nor, historically, am I alone in this view. Fiction - all f iction, and not merely science fiction - must fulfil its contractual obligations between writer and reader. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Chapter 14 of his Biographia Literaria, published back in 1871, the year before Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, spoke of the need to:
"transfer from our nature a human interest and
a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these
shadows of imagination that willing suspension of
disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic
In this light, we might see Research as that which enables the writer to provide that "seirblance of truth" to the "shadows of imagination".
More recently, the Nobel prize-winning British author, William Golding, came up with some which seems to me even closer to the mark. In his speech "Belief And Creativity", Golding, talking of writers in general, adds a gloss to Coleridge:
"we rely" he says "on the readiness of people to perform
an operation every bit as mysterious as the writim. It
is our nature to receive writing. This has been called
the willing suspension of disbelief, but to my mind that
implies a too conscious decision and effort. A child has
to make the effort when he learns, but the adult who has
learnt has not. I would prefer to use a phrase of my own
and hold up my hands in outright astonishment at what I
will call the reader's instinctive complicity. It is his,
it is our ability unconsciously to accept the scraps, the
hastily gathered observations, the leaps and gambols of
language and thereby share some level of reality. It is
as if we were to take the stutter of the morse code and
not merely hear it as a language but turn it, instant by
instant into a world."
it is, indeed, a kind of mystery. A wonder. And research - the gathering together by the writer of all the scraps and observations from the great Library of Babel - is an important part of creatim those worlds. When we research we look to shore up our illusions, to make it easier for the reader to 'let go,' and venture out into the worlds we have created. But let me uoke one f inal point before rounding off this talk. Research, at least as I've discussed it here this evenim, might seein slightly self- conscious, a much too rigidly directed process, yet this kind of directed research - this sear for facts' - is only half the equation. ience has taught me that you should move into other areas at the same time, randomly if possible, if only to see what is generated. Indeed, I'd go further. I'd claim that this is a necessity if one wishes to avoid the work becoming narrow.
This serendipitous approach is often much more rewarding than the more conscious searching for facts, that takes up so much time. Much of what I've been talking about - the Chinese and Science research - is essentially about getting it right. But there's an element of the research
process - especially the more rand(xn part of it - that feeds directly into the creative process itself, spawning new growth, new ideas, a broadening of horizons.
To this end, I try to read at least one book every few months which is well outside of my general area of research - biographies, for instance, are particularly useful, reminding you that lives and 'character' are rarely linear in develot, but are often the result of chance and outward event. In a similar vein, I keep a newspaper cutting file - on just about anything and everything that's different and catches my attention: a file which, after eight years, covers just about every aspect of human behaviour, good and evil.
Films, too, are part of the great landscape of research. Watching countless Chinese movies gave me a far better understandim of how the Chinese behave towards each other than all the text-book accounts I'd read. Similarly, Kurosawals epics - film like Ran, Kagenusha, Seven Samurai and Throne Of Blood - whilst Japanese in origin, gave me a vivid glimpse of the Eastern martial and military mind-set.
And there's no doubting, either, the influence of genre films - films like Blade , Videodrome, The tor, Robocop and Thtal 1, for not only do they create the cityscapes, the tech gimmickry and glossy visuals by which ern science fiction is known to the masses - a whole palette of vivid images which we ought, as professionals, to be acquainted with - they also provide us with the opportunity to re-invent these richly
potent symbols for a whole new generation turned on to science fiction by
the big screen.
Okay. So research takes mny forms. But research is also costly and it takes time.while you're researching, you're generally not writing, and unless you've a private income or plenty of free time, researching a book properly can be something of a problem. Textbooks are expensive, and the more specialised the area the greater the cost. Not only that, but it's often very difficult to find what you're looking for. You can lose a lot of valuable time searching the shelves of Babel before you find the exact text you want. That's why, perhaps, so many writers are content to limit the search and work within narrow constraints. It may also explain why so few science fiction writers try to create whole worlds or choose to write in the epic form. You see, a true world culture would be rich and diverse, not narrow and specialised, and you ought to get some sense of that from the work. But to do that - to t that k of diversity and richness - entails a lot of work and a great deal of initial expense. That's why we don't see it all that often. That's why a lot of writers are content to re-hash this world, with a few minor variations. such writing is claimed by some to be more challenging, but it's not harder to be 'literary' in this way, it's actually much, much easier.
But before I get drawn into a totally different argument, let me conclude. MY own work of fiction is, in its slest form, that of a modern Babel. it is the story of a sor-lety set upon buil a great City whose top will reach to Heaven. In that respect, it's the old, old tale of Hubris clobbered by Nemesis, and the fall of the Cities of the Plains - a work firmly in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
On another level, however, Chung Kuo is a simple Taoist tale of balance and the loss of balance, both within the individuals of my tale and within the society in which those individuals have their being. Where these two levels come together lies the dynamic of the tale - the great debate over which direction should take in the future: a debate which en ses each and every aspect of our lives.
At the beginning of Chung Kuo, as the epigram to the "Yin/Yang" Prologue of The MidcLZe Kingdom, I chose to use three lines of the T-ien We-n, the "Heavenly Questions", written by the poet Chlu Yuan in the second century BC:
Who built the ten-storeyed tower of jade?
Who foresaw it all in the beginning,
when the first signs appeared?"
Those lines, like the myth of Babel itself, have a curiously modern feel to them. In that ten-storeyed tower of jade - jade the symbol of purity and perfection - we might glimpse the idea of Babel, of a 'Gate of God', of Science, perfect and gleaming, a great tower built into the Heavens. Yet the lines have a strangely r to them, too. 'The first signs of what? we might ask. Of Nemesis? Of depleted natural resources and over- crowded cities? of dead oceans and a burning sky? Of a great white mountain of sun-bleached bones, filling the great plains?
It is my contention that the first signs are already here, that the myth of Babel is more pertinent now than it ever was, and that we must address ourselves to the question of direction. We are lost in the great Library of Babel, armed with more facts, more books, more information than we've ever possessed, and yet without a clear moral direction - a way out of the great labyrinth of words. Is Science the answer, or must we look to other, older solutions? In Chung Kuo I have tried - via the medium of a popular entertainment - not to provide an answer, but to ask the question.