BOOKS / Second Thoughts: Western barbarian goes to China: David Wingrove reflects on his eight-volume novel sequence, Chung Kuo (NEL)

PREPARATION: that, I'd decided, was the key, and when I first sold Chung Kuo - an eight-volume novel - to publishers in 1988, I thought I had prepared enough.

I'd begun work on Chung Kuo some five years before, in 1983, and had spent the previous two years working exclusively - and without payment - on researching and writing early drafts of the first four books of the sequence. As a historian of science fiction, I knew just how poorly prepared future histories could be. I was thus determined that with mine I would make good the bodged work of the past.

Part of this process involved a mammoth brainstorming exercise in which every aspect of my future Chinese earth was considered and internally debated. Another was to research all things Chinese, to make this dimension of the work as realistic as I, a yang kuei tzu, or Western barbarian, could make it.

I tried hard. I put in the hours, steeping myself in Chinese culture and living imaginatively in my future world. But the truth is you can never prepare enough, and it's only now, halfway through the sequence, that I realise exactly what I was taking on all those years ago - the huge burden of invention that this involved.

Fiction is invention, of course, a wonderful game of lies which, paradoxically, attempts by that means to get at some universal 'truth', yet future history - my own chosen form of fiction - is a much more complete lie, a fuller illusion, if you like. All of those familiar touchstones that can be relied upon by a contemporary novelist to evoke a sense of time and place are denied a future historian. They have to create it all - settings, customs, character and event. Nothing is 'given'. With Chung Kuo, I was forced to start each new scene from scratch, relying not on what is but on some vision of what might be that existed solely in my head. More than that, these visions had to be consistent - had to fit in with the larger canvas I had created.

Looking back, I ought, perhaps, to have given myself 10, maybe 15 years before attempting something of this scale, yet one can only write such a thing once and the energy, the narrative dynamic of the work, seems to depend on the pressure of production. I invent out of necessity. And what I invent takes on its own life, its own shape because of, and not in spite of, that pressure.

Preparation: that's one element, and an important one, in a venture of this kind. But far more important is audacity, a willingness to carry on even when preparation fails, to create in defiance of that great whiteness - that absolute nothingness - which is 'the future'.