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Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan4 stars
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There is a refrain from certain corners of science fiction fandom that science fiction has gotten “too political,” a phrase that is usually a good indicator that you’re dealing with a reader who has never understood the genre. Science fiction has always held up a mirror to our times, and whether an individual story chooses to address and extrapolate upon the world as it is, or avoid it entirely for the sake of reassuring escapism, both are political choices on the writers’ part. With some exceptions, it seems like a lot of science fiction produced in the West as we approach the 2020s wants to offer optimism: stories that give readers a future where the universe still holds the promise of adventure, and we all have somewhere we belong. And even the crises that threaten the earth in the near term are no match for humanity’s resolve and willingness to adapt.

Waste Tide (released in the West in 2019) is not that kind of novel. But it’s not a ruthlessly grimdark dystopia either. It examines the present-day geopolitical landscape directly, and then builds a taut and gripping near-future tech-thriller out of it that examines class struggle and the economic exploitation of the desperately poor. In its portrayal of a culture borne of literal trash, and the way in which its plot centers on a physically-enhanced heroine who is swept up in events through no desire of her own, the book bears a strong resemblance to Paolo Bacigalupi’s Hugo-and-Nebula winner The Windup Girl. But while both books are often grisly and brutal, Waste Tide is less oppressive and much more accessible than The Windup Girl. It’s easy to visualize it as a sleek big-budget Hong Kong movie. It’s also more true-to-life in its inspiration, and better tuned to the current pulse of world events.

Chen Qiufan has based his story on his own experiences living near Guiyu, a town on the coast of the South China Sea that was for many years the world’s largest electronics waste dump. E-waste recycling has created an environmental nightmare there. And even though the government has taken steps to improve the area, it’s still very poor, the levels of heavy metal contamination in the soil are off the charts, and 80% of the local children have been found with “dangerous levels” of lead in their blood.

In Waste Tide, Silicon Isle is the location of a massive e-waste dump run by three clans, who, along with local politicians, grow rich off the labor of workers who have been lured there with promises of steady employment and opportunity for advancement, only to see themselves scorned and marginalized as “waste people.” It’s an ugly fact of life that the people who do the filthiest and most thankless work, without which society itself would corrode like a backed-up toilet, are the people society hates the most. On Silicon Isle, while the rich treat themselves to all manner of body modifications, the workers are kept docile through addictive augmented reality (“digital mushrooms”), and some, like Brother Wen, have a side hustle refurbishing whatever discarded prosthetics they can.

The story begins when an American businessman, Scott Brandle, arrives in the company of translator Chen Kaizong, who has himself lived and studied in the U.S. since childhood. Brandle ostensibly represents a firm called TerraGreen Recycling, with a proposal to automate much of the waste recycling process, drastically boosting profits. In fact, that’s all a cover. Brandle is really after something else, a lost item of tech sought by mysterious clients in America. Kaizong, meanwhile, is hoping to reconnect to his family and his roots, but finds the culture harder to assimilate than he expected.

The catalyst is Mimi, a young “waste girl” who has the bad luck to encounter the lost item Brandle is after first. Brother Wen has found a strange looking helmet among his salvage, and when it’s placed on Mimi’s head, part of it cuts into her skin and infects her with a viral agent that mixes with the heavy metal contaminants in her blood. It then passes the blood-brain barrier and begins a process of transformation. The same helmet also cuts the young son of Liu Jincheng, one of the three clan leaders. But because his system is not so full of toxins as Mimi, the boy simply slides into a coma. Liu sends his thugs, led by the psychotic Knifeboy, after Mimi, and she finds brief asylum in the territory controlled by rival clan leader Lin Yiyu. Mimi and Kaizong meet here, and while he’s busy developing a crush, Mimi is eventually caught and viciously worked over by Knifeboy. And it’s this traumatic event that triggers Mimi’s ultimate transformation into something new. Meanwhile, the waste workers, led by Brother Wen, have been keeping a close eye on what’s transpiring with Mimi, and are thinking maybe it’s time for a real revolution.

The plot has the layers of complexity — with secrets hiding secrets hiding even more secrets — of the very best thrillers, and Chen Qiufan doles out revelations in a way that makes even the most potentially confusing details clear, while keeping us on the hook for more. And the book really is a tribute to the formidable translation skills of Ken Liu, who has almost singlehandedly brought the emerging field of Chinese SF to Western audiences. Here, he’s taken a narrative in which, for example, the mind-boggling variety of spoken regional Chinese (which we are told are properly called topolects, not dialects) is key to establishing cultural background and economic class, and made it perfectly easy for Western readers to grasp. Liu also has an impressive skill for retaining the individual voice of each author he translates. Waste Tide does not read like any of the Three-Body novels. Reading a book like this, or recent anthologies like Broken Stars, just leaves you hungry for more. It’s the kind of science fiction that, even where it employs familiar tropes and themes, still feels like it's taking you someplace new.