Waste Tide by Chen Quifan translated by Ken Liu (book review).

Award-winning Chinese Science Fiction author Chen Quifan is the latest to have his work opened up to the anglophone world via Ken Liu’s translation of his novel ‘Waste Tide’. Two of Chen Quifan’s stories appeared in last year’s collection ‘Broken Stars’ and one in the earlier collection ‘Invisible Planets’, both of which were also translated by Ken Liu.

Particularly the two stories in ‘Broken Stars’ shared similar themes to this novel: a near future setting that mixes the societal and physiological consequences of technology with traditions and religious beliefs.

‘Waste Tide’ is set on Silicon Isle, one of the world’s biggest export destinations for waste electronic equipment, where migrant workers toil in unhealthy and dangerous conditions to recover rare earth metals and useful plastics. It’s a scene that many will now be familiar with following the recent revelations about the fate of plastics supposedly recycled from the UK and other European countries which have instead ended up dumped in developing nations. Although the plight of these workers, the corruption of officials and the loopholes in international legislation that allow this to happened form a solid backbone to the novel, it does not come across as preachy but uses this setting to tell an intriguing tale.

Among the tonnes of assorted materials that pass through the hands of the Silicon Isle waste, people are the remnants of illegal, military and experimental technologies. Some of these are destructive or transformative, some have become part of the local folklore and many of them are of interest to the local clan bosses, outside investors and eco-warriors. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell where one group’s interest begins and another ends.

Mimi is the waste girl whose life is stuck in a hopeless rut until she comes to the attention of various powerful people for reasons that she doesn’t initially understand. Brother Wen, the mysterious agitator for waste people’s rights, views her as a younger sister. Boss Luo views her as property. Translator Chen Kaizong, having returned to his childhood homeland, is smitten by her.

His boss, the American Scott Brundle, sees her as a pawn in his manoeuvrings as he attempts to represent the supposedly enlightened interests of TerraGreen Recycling. While manoeuvring his way through corrupt local politics and environmental legislation, he also has another deeper agenda.

It’s a multi-layered and fascinating look at the world of Silicon Isle. This is a place that is partly stuck in time where the inhabitants live on the edge of poverty and yet come into daily contact with augmented reality glasses, advanced prostheses and military hardware. It’s a place where ancient traditions and superstitions struggle to make sense of the consequences of modern technology.

The various characters such as Kaizong, Scott and Brother Wen vacillate between seeming to have the interests of the waste people and particularly Mimi in mind and then revealing darker motives.

Altogether this is an intriguing and intensely well-described novel, bringing to vivid life Silicon Isle and its disparate inhabitants. There are at least two more Chinese SF novels due to be published in English later this year that I’m aware of and I’m continuing to enjoy the broadening horizons that they bring.

Gareth D Jones

June 2019

(pub: Head Of Zeus, 2019. 347 page hardback. Price: £18.99. ISBN: 978-1-78497-793-1)

check out website: www.headofzeus.com

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