Saturday 19 September 2009

The worst ever ending to a novel? - The Marriage of the Living Dark by David Wingrove

The final chapters of novels often disappoint. After much building of tension, the ending comes along in which the hero has to resolve everything. Often readers are left wondering why they read on for several hundred pages only to find that the indestructible alien catches a cold and dies. This problem is magnified in long-running sagas. 3, 4, 10 volume books have even more to live up to. They have numerous plot strands and many characters arcs, and somehow that all has to be tied up in a satisfying way in the final volume. Do it too quickly and the reader can feel cheated, and yet do it too slowly and it can lose its edge.

I've rarely come across final volumes of long book series that are completely satisfying. The stakes are high for both the reader and the writer, who by the final book is probably heartly sick of their creation. So rather than churn out yet another all-too-convenient conclusion that fails to please anyone I've often wondered what would happen if an author got to the final bit and just thought: 'sod it. I'm sick of this bunch of whining characters. I know what I'll do. I'll kill off the hero, reveal that the sword of power they've been searching for for the last 2,000 pages doesn't work, then have the rest of the cast get bored with trying to kill the bad guy and decide to go on holiday instead. I'll let the bad guy conquer the world then elope with the heroine. And I'll reveal in the last chapter that she's really a re-incarnation of a minor character who died on the first page and anyhow the whole story you've been reading is actually just a book and on the last page everyone bursts out of the fictional world Blazing Saddles style and go running down the street to the local pub...'

Well The Marriage of the Living Dark by David Wingrove doesn't quite do all that. Actually, it's worse, much, much worse. I've always been fascinated to find out what went wrong, because it went wrong big time. The Internet didn't give me any definitive answers, other than the clues that were already there.

The series in question was called Chung Kuo. For me this was one of the greatest and most under-rated sci-fi sagas ever written. It was that rare beast of the epic sci-fi tale that can delight hard-boiled sf fans while being sufficently grounded in harsh reality that it could be enjoyed by those who normally wouldn't read such yarns.

The saga was set 200 odd years into the future. The world has been taken over by the Chinese nation who have formed the totalitarian state of Chung Kuo that makes 1984 look like a hippy commune. Any hint of rebellion is quashed with ruthless efficiency by killing the rebeller's entire family, all their friends and all their families. None of the hundred billion people on the planet-wide city dare raise a finger to oppose the cruel regime. Nobody even thinks rebellion could work as the regime has destroyed all history to make everyone believe they have been in power for thousands of years. But some men believe that at the height of its powers the regime is at its most vulnerable and change can be achieved.

For seven books Chung Kuo detailed that rebellion in intricate and fascinating detail. Hundreds of characters were involved with the viewpoint shifting with deft skill between the huge number of plot strands, all of which linked in clever ways that was a testament to the author's skill in creating fascinating characters and complex and believable plots. How he kept so many balls in the air for so long is a wonder and something few could achieve. Over the course of 5,000 odd pages and probably around 2 million words wars raged, billions died, and personal courage and cruelty were presented in the extreme. The series showed how history develops, how extra-ordinary and ordinary people can change everybody's lifes either for better or for worse. It kept control of the personal dramas while also detailing the larger history of a planet.

It was also realistic. There were no bad guys and good guys as such. Totalitarian leaders would execute millions but be kind to friends. The rebel leaders were ruthless sadists, but they acted for a common good, sometimes by accident as they pursued their own personal vendettas. Everyone and everything was shades of grey, and the series was easily the best available, if you like that sort of thing. Blade Runner meets Shogun the book covers proclaimed, and they were right. And then came the final book, book 8...

I've heard it said that originally the series was to be 7 books but the publisher wanted 8, so perhaps therein lies the hint of an impossible deadline, a rough first draft getting published, maybe even a contractual dispute that led to the fictional equivalent of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. I don't know. What I do know is that book 8, despite having a superb title, is so bad it evokes a strange fascination.

By the end of book 7 the series had reached an epic point, the world was burning, the regime toppling, and the few surviving characters faced impossible dilemmas. It was hard to see how it could all be resolved, but book 8 starts as it means to go on by ignoring everything that happened before. It introduces a brand new set of characters who have nothing to do with the story and stays with them and their tedious lives for ages. Eventually they wander off never to be seen again and the main characters come back, but none of them are interested in the problems they had the last time we saw them and instead they all act in completely different ways than before. No longer are they complex men and women, but now the men act like schoolboys, and the women are more interested in rough rumpy-pumpy. Nobody could care that the world is burning when there's fun and frolics to be had.

Just when the reader thinks it can't get any worse, the author delivers what has to be the worst plot twist of all time. Out of the morass of characters we were presented with in book 1, one man survived and grew in stature to become the greatest anti-hero I've ever come across. Howard DeVore typified the whole saga, a man dedicated to destroying the old regime while enjoying himself immensily power-mongering to set himself up as the new leader of a new regime. There were no depths he wouldn't plumb in his quest for power, nobody he wouldn't double-cross, no atrocity he wouldn't commit, and yet despite all his base motivations, he was a force for good and saved millions of lives even as he was gleefully torturing his closest allies.

So it comes as something of a shock to learn that DeVore, one of the most compelling and complex characters I've ever come across in fiction, isn't a man at all, but is in fact a giant immortal pan-dimensional space spider from the planet Zob, who came to earth for the sole reason that he wanted to roger the living daylights out of as many earth women as possible. But then he forgot he was a giant immortal pan-dimensional space spider from the planet Zob - as you do - and so he just hung around for thousands of years messing up all earth history in his quest to get laid with as many different types of women as he could find. It therefore follows that all the wars and atrocities and rebellions everyone committed for the last 2 million words weren't done to change history, in fact every major earth conflict in all history wasn't the result of anything we mere earthlings did, but were in reality only carried out because a giant immortal pan-dimensional space spider from the planet Zob was fascinating by the way women's jiggly bits move.

It should be said that this was a major shock because although this sort of thing happens in sci-fi, Chung Kuo wasn't that sort of sci-fi. It was gritty realistic sf about real people facing tough choices in dangerous times. This revelation was like getting to the end of War and Peace only to find the whole story was set in a Matrix style alternate reality. And speaking of alternate realities, while the reader is getting up off the floor after that revelation the story then surges even more out of control when we learn that not only was DeVore not the man we thought he was, but neither is anyone else.

You see, the entire civilization we've lived and breathed for 7 and a half books doesn't exist. It's really an alternate reality, and it's not the right reality. Our reality is the real one and the Chung Kuo one isn't. So the action then leaves Chung Kuo with all the plot strands and character arcs and main conflicts unresolved and moves to our world where alternate versions of the people from Chung Kuo are alive and happy. These people have completely different characters, are leading completely different lives, and are doing completely different things.

This new set of people bumble along doing nothing much for several hundred pages being totally unaware of all the billions who died in the reality that's no longer important. Just when the reader is losing the will to live, some people from the Chung Kuo reality inter-dimensionally shift to our reality just before that reality winks out of existence. They meet the people in our reality, who aren't all that bothered to see them, but the Chung Kuo people are generally relieved that they don't have to worry any more about all the tricky problems they had back in the other reality with the planet-wide rebellion. Then some aliens in shiny suits arrive in a shiny spaceship and our reality winks out of existence too, although nobody's all that concerned as they're too busy collecting pretty flowers. I kid you not.

The final chapter is even more bizarre and takes place in yet another reality, I think, although at this stage the author appears to have lost track of which reality is supposed to be the real one. In this reality the last-best-hope-for-mankind generational spaceship that left Chung Kuo earlier arrives at its destination. People who died in earlier books are on the ship as well as people from our reality and people from the defunct reality who did actually get on the ship as well as people who missed the ship. Everyone stands around being a bit confused by it all. Giant immortal pan-dimensional space spiders from the planet Zob get a mention as something they might do well to avoid when forging a new life on a new planet. Then everyone wanders off to pick flowers and the book ends.

From memory ten years on those are the lowlights that stick in the mind, but it was so much worse than that, especially after the heights the previous books had scaled. I remember that practically every page had something on it that made my mouth fall open in amazement as yet another major issue got dismissed in a casual manner, or yet another character did something so out-of-character it made me wonder if the typesetter had got everyone mixed up.

Is this a joke being told in dead-pan manner? I kept on wondering. I didn't know then and I still don't know now. Maybe if the whole cast had got together in the last chapter to sing 'Always look on the bright side of life' I might have finally got the joke.

As it is the one thing that does continue to amuse me about this book is that it was so poor the publisher tried to forget about it and printed very few copies. The result is this final book is literary gold-dust. It commands high prices on eBay whenever it makes a rare appearance as people who have been enthralled by the previous 7 books are always desperate to read the conclusion. And then they read it...


Nik Morton said...

Maybe he woke up in the shower... and the ink ran down the plughole?

Scott's million in a year challenge said...

Well it was going to be a series of ten actually, the publishers made him wrap it up early, and it was subsequently a disappointment. Thankfully a new publisher took him on almost twenty years later and its now getting the treatment it deserved, there will be twenty volumes in total....wonderful. I just finished volume 1 son of heaven which is set before the first book of the original and believe me its just as well told as the originals.