The Marriage of the Living Dark
by David Wingrove
published by Doubleday
455 pages, 1999
Marriage of Disappointments
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
Two years after its original UK release, the final installment in the sprawling eight-volume epic Chung Kuo has finally been published in North America. For years I've been saying that Chung Kuo is one of the most overlooked accomplishments in modern science fiction: each 500-or-so page volume packed with fresh plot, new ideas, and fascinating characters. David Wingrove never padded his thick volumes with repetition or rehashed flashbacks: there was too much to tell. Chung Kuo, planned from the first as an eight-volume work covering a 60-year period of a future history of Chinese domination, was dense and exciting. Equal parts military action, political thriller, speculative SF, soap opera, exploration of Chinese culture, romance, coming-of-age, cloak-and-dagger suspense, and family saga, it was an unlikely melting pot that just kept erupting with wholly coherent surprises. For seven volumes, Wingrove's creation kept its initial promise to be one of the most grandiose successes of world-building fiction.
And then someone kidnapped the author and wrote a fake concluding volume, possibly one of the worst novels ever published, as part of what could only be some intricate revenge plot. In addition, the party or parties responsible for the abduction, possessing incriminating photographs of the editors and publishers at the various companies contracted to publish Chung Kuo's conclusion, used this evidence to blackmail these editors and publishers into greenlighting the publication of this fake David Wingrove novel. Meanwhile, a mind-controlled clone of David Wingrove has taken over Wingrove's life and unabashedly claims authorship of the sorry excuse for a novel that concludes the Chung Kuo epic.
This scenario seems more likely than what appears to be true: David Wingrove gleefully and wholeheartedly committing commercial and artistic suicide.
After a prologue in which caricatures of two previously complex male characters decide to join forces while the women around them act like bubbleheaded, nagging sex toys, the book opens with three long, boring chapters that introduce a new main character and contain virtually nothing that has any bearing on the rest of the book or series. Despite the momentum created by the previous seven volumes, I had to struggle to get through the first 80 pages. Afterwards, I learned to perversely enjoy the great lengths and efforts taken by the author (Wingrove's impostor?) to meticulously destroy the integrity and accomplishments of this series.
One of Chung Kuo's strengths had been its depiction of ambiguity. Despicable characters would act with honor, while sympathetic ones would be responsible for monstrous deeds. The narrative shifted viewpoints constantly and presented contradictory perspectives in equally convincing ways. The protagonists were often not heroes, and heroism was often found in unlikely places. Amongst all of this ambiguity, the story did present some genuinely good people and some truly vile characters: they were part of the spectrum. The vilest of the vile was Howard DeVore, and even he, at the very beginning of the tale, was presented in an ambiguous light, his cruelty seeming to be a by-product of his determination to liberate humanity from its self-inflicted oppression.
In The Marriage of the Living Dark the good guys shine like 1000-megawatt lightsabers and the bad guys behave like sadomasochistic Darth Vaders. In almost every scene, with the subtlety of an exploding Death Star, the author makes it very clear for whom the reader is supposed to cheer and who must be despised. No room for moral complexity here.
The first seven volumes of Chung Kuo demonstrated the ease with which humanity embraces oppressive systems, bureaucracies and traditions that constantly validate the already wealthy and powerful, while forever stripping away everyone else's dignity. The author showed quite explicitly how, time and again, humanity is responsible for its own sorry condition, how it forever lets its pettiness and shortsightedness deaden its potential to create a compassionate world. In The Marriage of the Living Dark, it is revealed that Howard DeVore is actually not a human being at all but an ancient gigantic multidimensional alien space spider responsible for most of humanity's ills and that without his interference humanity would long ago have achieved utopia. Humanity is not responsible for any atrocity and cruelty. It's all the big spider's fault. DeVore had been waiting all this time for the perfect opportunity to destroy all life on Earth, preferably while raping as many humans as possible (it seems like ancient gigantic multidimensional alien space spiders have a taste for human sex). Oh... and he'd forgotten that he was an ancient gigantic multidimensional alien space spider, until another such creature (who'd been masquerading as an old Chinese sage) reminded him. An easy detail to forget (it's never explained how or why he forgot).
The final hundred and fifty pages leading up to the epilogue establish that the reality depicted so far in the saga (for seven-and-two-thirds big volumes) is in fact only a shadow of the "real" universe. The action promptly shifts to the "real" universe and we learn that everything that has happened up until now in the whole series has no bearing on the final events, that the whole series and the whole web of intricate subplots and drama have all been red herrings, except for the fact that a handful of characters temporarily cross dimensions into "reality." In this "reality," we meet alternate ("real") versions of characters who have appeared in the saga. We know this because of their names or faces: their ages and personalities don't match up at all with the "unreal" Chung Kuo versions. In the end, "reality" (but not credibility) is saved, and it is stated that only the "real" universe survives, no longer weakened by alternate realities (but if this is the case, why is so much fuss made over DeVore's potential destruction of the Chung Kuo Earth and yet not of his similar ravages in other dimensions?). By this point, however, the author seems to have forgotten which reality he'd established as "real," as the Chung Kuo characters -- some mysteriously back from the dead -- now find themselves in the only surviving reality: buildings vanish around them and they are all happy now that they are surrounded by flowers and that the birds are singing and that only they and their friends have survived into this new Eden.
The epilogue takes place ten years later and contradicts the nigh-incomprehensible conclusion. The colony spaceship (from the Chung Kuo universe; there was no such ship in "reality") has finally reached its destination. The colonists have established utopia on faraway Eridani. Characters who weren't on the ship are somehow present. Machines are evil. So are ancient gigantic multidimensional alien space spiders. People are good. Everything is beautiful. Everyone is happy.
Except the readers who have read eight books only to be presented with a cliché-ridden, unsubtle, nonsensical, confusing, contradictory ending that betrays every previous book in the series and that heavy-handedly preaches that if only humanity could free itself from the malevolent clutches of ancient gigantic multidimensional alien space spiders, it could be finally be happy and wholesome.
I wish I were making all of this up.
I could go on... and on.... I could fill up a book as big as The Marriage of the Living Dark enumerating all of this book's faults and problems, detailing its countless examples of bad writing, bad plotting, bad characterization, explaining the many ways in which it betrayed itself and its readership. But it doesn't deserve that much attention.
Will the real David Wingrove please stand up and write the real conclusion to Chung Kuo? | October 1999
Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop.