Book Review | Waste Tide

Chen Qiufan’s ‘Waste Tide’ describes migrancy, pollution, corruption and class struggle South Africans will recognise.

“Even before the alien invasion or AI takes over the world,” Chinese science fiction writer Chen Qiufan (aka Stanley Chan) told an interviewer, “we will be choked by our own gas, flushed away by the melted iceberg or stop reproducing offspring because of the genetic damages brought by chemicals and radiation. It’s slow suicide. But not as slow as we expected.”

Waste Tide, Chen’s novel inspired by this encroaching dystopia, was first published in China in 2013. Now, in an English translation by Ken Liu, it is available in South Africa. There has been an avalanche of such minatory visions, but Chen’s is both distinctive and important, for two key reasons. 

First, although the novel has intriguing, believable protagonists galore, there is no hero; no noble individual scientist who will save us. Instead impoverished migrant workers take centre stage: the multinational majority whose hopes, dreams and lives are the main casualties of capitalism’s war on the environment. The workers meanwhile wage daily war against the waste itself, so powerfully evoked that it is almost a character in its own right.

Second, Chen’s future world looks rather different from the one viewed through the lens of writers in New York, Los Angeles or London.

The book is set on Silicon Isle, based on Guiyu in Guangdong – close to Chen’s birthplace of Shantou: the recycling centre for the world’s discarded electronics, sorted by untrained, unprotected workers who die young. It was on a visit home that he got the idea. It “could not be simply reduced to black and white, good and bad: every country, every social class, every authority and even every individual played an important part in the becoming of Guiyu,” he says.

And so in the book, the trajectories of American economic hitman Scott Brandle and his translator Kaizong, eco-activists, gang-boss labour brokers and migrant labourers all converge on Mimi, an orphaned waste picker unwittingly infected by a military virus that Brandle’s bosses need him to retrieve.

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Brandle’s company, TerraGreen Recycling, employs “creative outsourcing” to recover the non-renewable rare earths from discarded electronics. Rather than pay the higher wages, insurance, environmental restoration and other costs of doing it at home, they “transfer waste and pollution overseas … help them construct industrial parks … enjoy their endless cheap labour … and [are] given priority access to purchase the valuable rare earths produced at a substantial discount.”

The forces benefitting from this – multinational capitalism, Chinese local officials both venal and naively eager for “development”, and labour brokers – all live off the labour of the migrants. Chen is sensitive to China’s persistent discrimination against minority nationalities and languages; it’s the cue for one of the book’s most powerful concluding ironies. (He says he’s “never intentionally tried to emphasise the political metaphors” in his work, but cheerfully acknowledges that readers do find them.) 

Through the historic lineage of the “families” – the labour-broking gangs – he demonstrates how traditional beliefs and ties weave through modern life. Time and space are fractured as people simultaneously inhabit aspects of past, present and future; deep rural villages, postmodern cities and the liminal spaces between; mind and body; China and America. “Ghosts” and “devils” have real power as both belief systems and as the poisons and addictive mind-worms infecting those who handle the waste. 

A complicated world

In 2009, American SF writer Paolo Bacigalupi published a much-awarded novel, The Wind-Up Girl, with a similar plot. In a chaotic, post-oil near-future Thailand, an American entrepreneur dangles the lure of technological upgrade as he seeks to plunder the country’s biodiversity seed bank, aided by an equally selfish Chinese sidekick. He meets Emiko, a genetically-engineered sex slave. Predictably, he “falls in love” and seeks to become her white saviour – but her horrific abuses drive her to an apocalyptically bloody revenge. Despite fine writing and all the awards, it was hard not to see Bacigalupi flirting with Orientalism in the exotic chaos of Thailand, and in both Emiko’s passivity under lingeringly described sexual abuse and her ultimate transformation into a murderous martial-arts dragon woman.     

There’s no indication that Chen has read Bacigalupi’s book, but Waste Tide reads superbly as an anti-Wind-Up Girl. There are no sidekicks and no passivity. Mimi, the carrier of the weaponised bio-tech MacGuffin – kidnapped, traded, cajoled and assaulted by those who seek it – is constantly struggling to achieve her own agency, even as she transitions to posthuman. The workers who form her community control their own underground structures of communication and resistance, which, when it bursts out, is collective, not individual.

Silicon Isle does not represent exotic chaos – rather, in Chen’s word, it is “complicated”. Multiple forces of class, power, ideology and history (Chinese and world) intersect there. Though there are villains, there are no saviours; rather, the book helps readers understand the forces and see that where there is oppression, there is always fight-back, and the possibility of victory, if we can only seize the power to make different social and technological choices.  

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The book has been called “cyberpunk”, and Chen does not dispute that term. But he notes that it also builds on an ancient Chinese literature of the supernatural and a modern speculative tradition dating back to the early 20th century, as well as embodying some far more contemporary theoretical concerns: “I once mentioned the concept of ‘science fictional realism’ … This was an idea which became more nuanced when I started considering [French sociologist Jean] Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality, which relates to the fact that in contemporary China, technology has become a part of people’s life to the point of replacing reality with technological simulacra, which are simple imitations of that reality. In this sense, I believe reality has surpassed people’s imagination, and science fiction is uniquely able to represent this kind of transformation.”

Chinese and China-themed science fiction and fantasy titles are becoming more prominent on publishers’ lists. Examples include Liu Cixin’s hard-SF Three-Body Problem trilogy and its spinoffs; Ken Liu’s own writings and translations; American Kim Stanley Robinson’s beautifully non-Orientalist Red Moon; and RF Kuang’s riff on modern Chinese history, The Poppy War (whose sequel, The Dragon Republic, has just appeared). Waste Tide – cheekier and edgier than some of these, a characteristic skillfully supported by Liu’s translation – adds another voice. Chen’s mission, he says, is “to capture the strangeness in everyday life”. His book is set in Guangdong, 10 471km from Mpumalanga. But since that province of ours, here in South Africa, has the highest levels of air pollution in the world, it’s not such a different strangeness after all.  

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