Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Vagabonds, by Hao Jingfang

A slow-moving novel of youthful rebellion on Mars.


Gallery/Saga Press, 2016, 640 pages

A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth in this spellbinding novel from Hugo Award-winning author Hao Jingfang.

This genre-bending novel is set on Earth in the wake of a second civil war...not between two factions in one nation, but two factions in one solar system: Mars and Earth. In an attempt to repair increasing tensions, the colonies of Mars send a group of young people to live on Earth to help reconcile humanity. But the group finds itself with no real home, no friends, and fractured allegiances as they struggle to find a sense of community and identity, trapped between two worlds.

Fans of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Naomi Alderman's The Power will fall in love with this novel about lost innocence, an uncertain future, and never feeling at home, no matter where you are in the universe. Translated by Ken Liu, best-selling author of The Paper Menagerie and translator of Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem, Vagabonds is the first novel from Hao Jingfang, the first Chinese woman to ever win the esteemed Hugo Award.

Vagabonds is a slow, thoughtful novel about youthful rebellion and cultural conflict. But mostly it's just slow.

Chinese science fiction seems to be having a moment, and Vagabonds is the first novel translated into English by female SF author Hao Jingfang. It's a story of youthful rebellion and dispossession, and I use that term deliberately, as there are strong parallels to Ursula Le Guin's classic novel The Dispossessed.

Like The Dispossessed, Vagabonds creates two sharply different societies to contrast them through the interactions of characters from each. Here, Earth and Mars are the two planets separated by a gulf of space and cultures. A century ago, Mars fought a war for independence, and since then, there has been very little exchange between the two planets. Earth is a competitive, hyper-capitalist society obsessed with profit and intellectual property rights. Mars is an authoritarian, collectivist society, proud of their ability to make do with less. Mars is more technologically advanced than Earth, but much poorer.

The main viewpoint character of the book, Louying, is the granddaughter of the Martian consul. She and several fellow Martian youths were sent on a cultural mission to Earth, the goal being to thaw relations between the planets by letting Earth see what people from Mars were really like. As Vagabonds begins, Louying and her friends are returning to Mars after their years away from home. They have bonded, formed indelible memories, and inevitably, though their elders meant for them to teach Earth about Mars, the Martian kids who went to Earth also found that Earth had some things to teach them. They have been changed, and Louying in particular increasingly comes to see herself as a cultural "vagabond," unable to identify completely with either Earth or Mars.

The kids who come back from Earth don't want Mars to become Earth, but of course they've been infected with Earth's ideals of meritocracy and individual freedom. So they go about trying to start a social revolution, advocating for ideas that, in one of the most poignant parts of the novel, they discover the older generation, back when they were the youthful rebels, fought to overturn. Every generation thinks they're the first to see clearly how to fix the world.

Although most of the main characters are young adults, this is not a young adult novel. There is a lot of talking and internal dialog, and not a lot of action. Even as another war between Earth and Mars threatens, most of the "action" is debates among the Martians. Louying is the central figure in the book, but we get inside the head of almost every major character. One of Louying's questions from early in the book is whether her grandfather, whom she has always known as a kind and hardworking man, is in fact a dictator, as Earth says he is. There are secrets in her family history which she tries to uncover, and by digging up the real story of how her parents died, she will continue to see Mars through an outsider's eyes.

Although I appreciated this Chinese take on themes Le Guin explored long ago, I seem to be in the minority in not really loving this book. It was okay, but I found the characters to be mostly mouthpieces and deliverers of dialog. The author spends many paragraphs telling us what they think, how they feel, what their internal reaction is to events playing out around them. Whether it's a difference in literary styles or just the author's style, I found a lot of telling and not a lot of showing, and there was rarely any real sense of tension.

As social science fiction, Vagabonds is an interesting perspective, but I keep referring to The Dispossessed for a reason. Le Guin just did it better.

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