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the Complete Review
the complete review - science fiction

The City Trilogy

Chang Hsi-Kuo

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Title: The City Trilogy
Author: Chang Hsi-Kuo
Genre: Novel
Written: (1991) (Eng. 2003)
Length: 411 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The City Trilogy - US
The City Trilogy - UK
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Our Assessment:

B : ambitious epic, too much of which is awkwardly presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The City Trilogy describes events on the Huhui planet. It is dominated by the Huhui people but other peoples also play roles: the Leopard, Snake, and Feathered peoples are the other indigenous ones (their particular characteristics just what one would expect, given their names), and there are also the Gaiwanese, who settled on Huhui. When the trilogy opens the Huhui planet has been defeated and occupied by the Shan, and the continuing conflict against them drives much of the action of the novels.
       A preface explains much of the earlier history of the Huhui planet, especially the role of the imposing Bronze Statue, a huge edifice symbolizing great power -- and usually costing those that built it or added to it actual power, since so much energy and so many resources were wasted in the construction (or re-construction) of it. It is finally destroyed by the Shan -- completely vaporized -- but it is not until the end of the trilogy that the Huhui are actually freed of its influence.
       The City Trilogy can easily be read as mirroring Chinese history, with all its oppressive weight. The Shan can be seen as the colonial powers, the Gaiwanese even as the Taiwanese, the cults of the personality misleading many followers -- there's even a Maoist "little red book". The abuse of history, the military stratagems, the amenability of the citizens: all strike a particularly Chinese chord.
       Much of the story is a good one -- these conflicts are dramatic, some of the characters (particularly Miss Qi and Ah-(chu)) engaging -- and the grand struggles between factions, personalities, armies, and cultures quite gripping. Unfortunately, Chang presents an enormous, oversized tapestry -- and much of it is threadbare. Scenes focus on specific characters and events, but these are often quickly lost and forgotten. Episodes unfold at varying speeds, with awkward jumps in time and space. Chang develops an enormous fictional world here, but he only develops (and focusses) on parts of it, and so it never fully convinces.
       Awkward too is the mix of fantasy and science fiction. Most of the novel relies on a mythology that would hardly be out of place in a Chinese novel from several hundred years ago. Much of this doesn't mix well with the under-developed science fiction aspect. There have been interstellar wars, and the Shan are an occupying force from far, far away, and yet most of the battle-scenes are crude ones, with ideals of man-to-man combat and only a limited amount of aerial warfare (and even that is not very technologically advanced). Froghopper crafts still jump about: that's about as inventive as Chang gets.
       There are a few technological advances -- skyvision, for example -- but Chang isn't very interested in these, and so he also doesn't employ them very well. This isn't entirely bad -- the focus on myth is fairly effective -- but it's unclear why then the setting must have some peripheral trappings of great technological advancement (and they appear all the more incongruous on the few occasions when he does bring them up).
       The human (or Huhui) element also isn't nearly as well developed as it should have been. Personal relationships are barely developed, and the characters are, for the most part, stock characters rather than convincing individuals -- often appearing as though lifted from an historical account, rather than a work of fiction. (There are some exceptions -- especially when Chang allows for conversation -- but not enough.) One figure even doubles as a statue -- perhaps an admission by the author of his inability to bring the characters to life.
       Among the redeeming features of the novels are a number of scenes which are nicely presented, with Chang going in greater detail, allowing the scene to unfold at a reasonable pace rather than rushing through it. Also enjoyable is the sly humour found throughout. Clever footnotes (often explaining the Huhui language) and other asides are often very funny. Some of the invention is also impressive -- creatures, traditions, etc. -- but they're too unevenly dispersed.

       The City Trilogy is a very ambitious work, but it only succeeds partially in its ambitions. Too much material is crammed into here, and too much left un- or under-developed. The whole succeeds better than the parts: it's definitely the big picture Chang has in mind, rather than the smaller ones. It is entertaining and clever, but it could have been much more.

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The City Trilogy: Reviews: Chang Shi-Kuo: Other books by Chang Hsi-Kuo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Taiwanese author Chang Hsi-Kuo (also: Chang Shi-Kuo or Zhang Xiguo) was born in 1944 and is the director of the Center for Parallel, Distributed, and Intelligent Systems at the University of Pittsburgh

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