Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Waste Tide, by Chen Qiufan

A Chinese cyberpunk novel about exploitation, the environment, family and cultural ties, and a possessed mecha.

Waste Tide

Tor Books, 2013, 352 pages

Mimi is a "waste girl". A member of the lowest caste on Silicon Isle, located off China’s southeastern coast, and home to the world’s largest electronic waste recycling center. There, thousands of miles from home, Mimi struggles to earn a living for her family and dreams of a better life.

Luo Jincheng is the head of one of three clans who run the island, a role passed down from his father and grandfather before him. As the government enforces tighter restrictions, Luo in turn tightens the reins on the waste workers in his employ. Ruthlessness is his means of survival.

Scott Brandle has come to Silicon Isle representing TerraGreen Recycling, an American corporation that stands to earn ungodly sums if they can reach a deal to modernize the island’s recycling process.

Chen Kaizong, a Chinese American, travels to Silicon Isle as Scott’s interpreter. There, Kaizong is hoping to find his heritage, but finds only more questions. The home he longs for may not exist.

As these forces collide, a dark futuristic virus is unleashed on the island. Against the backdrop of a gritty near-future Chinese landscape, in a world of body modifications and virtual reality, a war erupts - between the rich and the poor; between ancient traditions and modern ambition; between humanity’s past and its future.

Waste Tide, originally written in Chinese and translated by Ken Liu, is set in a near-future China, on a fictional "Silicon Isle" off the coast of the mainland, where three gang-like clans vie for control of the island's oppressed residents, the "waste people."

Mimi, a "waste girl" who like so many came to Silicon Isle promised a good job, only to discover that the work is dirty, dangerous, and low-paying, runs afoul of a rival clan. She is rescued by a Chinese American named Kaizong who's on Silicon Isle as a corporate translator. They have a cute nascent romance; Mimi, cynical and wary, calls him "fake Chinese." Kaizong is searching for his roots while working for TerraGreen Recycling, an American company that's come to Silicon Isle to negotiate a deal to "modernize the island's recycling process" — i.e., use it as a waste dump with robots taking over the jobs currently done by the island's impoverished waste people.

Then Mimi is abducted, and in the process of being disposed of by thugs, she is infected by a virus that gives her strange new abilities.

This is basically a classic cyberpunk novel: a dark future in which cybernetics are cheap and life is cheaper, corporations are evil and governments are useless and corrupt, and marginalized people work for pennies while the rich live glitzy tech-chromed lives.

Ken Liu took great pains in translating nuances of Chinese names and dialects and cultural cues. Almost all the characters are Chinese, except for the blond American TerraGen executive, who was actually given more depth than I expected. Frankly I was expecting him to be a villainous imperialist pig-dog there to exploit the Chinese workers and represent Western colonialism; well, he kind of was, but he was also a human being and his ethics were really no worse than the Chinese.

The themes of class warfare, environmental destruction, corporate skullduggery, and technological marvels that mostly produce cheap junk for the entertainment of the masses are all seen through a Chinese lens, and Waste Tide is good, gritty modern cyberpunk. The translation is mostly smooth (Ken Liu also translated Cixin Liu's Three Body Problem), but there were certain passages that definitely felt "translated." (I don't know if things like the lengthy, minute physical descriptions and detailed tellings of exactly what each character is thinking and feeling, as well as what seems at times like an overabundance of similes, are typical of Chinese fiction, or just characteristic of this author's style.)

The story isn't amazingly original or mindblowing, but if you like cyberpunk and international SF, this was pretty good.

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