Sunday, October 18, 2020

"Waste Tide" by Chen Qiufan

In the first scene of Waste Tide, an environmental activist attempts a dangerous boarding of a giant ocean freighter. It's daring, acrobatically gifted, we understand the motivation—and it fails, disastrously. That kind of sets the tone for the novel, which shows a host of conflicting characters and factions being shown their own hubris by factors beyond their control.

I'd heard Chen Qiufan talk at FutureCon, and happened to run across Waste Tide at a bookstore not long after. A cyberpunk tale set in a Chinese town built around e-waste recycling, the novel follows local and foreign characters as they attempt to contain or exploit an unexpected technological mutation.

This was a fairly absorbing read; I'm not entirely sure how I feel about it. The social elements were the most compelling part of the book for me—the "waste people" organizing, and the elites who profit off of their labor. The plot is somewhat diffuse, misdirecting—the first half or more of the book concern a double-edged deal with an green-washing American company that turns out to be a narrative macguffin—and characters exhibit a kind of ineffective agency. They do things, they make choices, but they're rendered largely irrelevant by larger events: more powerful factions, a massive tsunami, a kind of accidental Singularity.

We're clearly meant to have the most sympathy for the more innocent characters of Kaizong, a translator who is culturally (if not linguistically) foreign to Silicon Isle, and Mimi, a "waste girl" who finds herself at the center of several plots. Even fairly villainous characters—the sadistic Knifeboy, the powerful Boss Luo—are drawn fairly sympathetically. The narrative periodically seems to settle on the American Scott Brandle as its protagonist, before slipping off—Brandle is an odd and very Gibson-esque character, a kind of hollow assembly, built around trauma, vaguely secret-agent-like. As a reader, I found something a little off-putting about the cast: the characters with any real power or agency are not really ones I was pulling for, while Mimi and Kaizong seem perpetually victims of the forces around them. When Mimi develops (pretty sweet) superpowers, it should be a cool development, but it's explicitly undercut: even Mimi recognizes that this isn't her, it's a new and separate character.

Gibson and other cyberpunk authors are clearly a major influence here; there are several explicit references to All Tomorrow's Parties, and the plot has major thematic resonance with Neuromancer. There are a few other explicit references, including, oddly, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper", and one that seems to be simultaneously nodding to Neon Genesis Evangelion and Peter Dickinson's Eva. The way that the novel is grounded in a fleshed-out culture and mostly-realistic tech elevate it far above the usual cyberpunk knock-off, and it builds an interesting world of chipped dogs, "slow archer" hackers who deal with the island's government-restricted bitrate, and a prosthetics-obsessed population that brought Bernard Wolfe's (rightly obscure) Limbo to mind. But, original details and range of inspirations aside, Waste Tide has a hard time escaping the outline of traditional cyberpunk, including a bit of a nihilist stance.

Furthermore, the reality of the lived environment and repurposed tech of Silicon Isle—which is, again, superbly done—doesn't quite click with the extremely out-there nature of the big reveal, a kind of Singularity event that relies on a wholly-unplanned conjunction of military hallucinogens, therapeutic viruses, pollution byproducts, chimpanzee uplift attempts and, last but not least, a digitized version of Hedy Lamarr's brain. It's a bit like the famous junkyard tornado, managing to construct an entire working airplane: too hard to believe. It comes largely out of left field in a novel otherwise committed to a high level of realism, more or less disconnected from anything that any of our characters have been directly working on, and that feeling of disconnection robs the action-packed final quarter of the book of a lot of emotional impact—though it perhaps makes up for that a bit in sheer wonder.

I finished this impressed with the world, but not particularly keen to return to it. No points against the novel for conjuring a more or less extant dystopia—Chen based Silicon Isle on actual e-waste villages in his home region of China—but the helplessness and haplessness that pervades the novel, coupled with its graphic and sometimes sexual violence, left me with a more dystopic feeling than I was prepared for. Tonally, it's a lot like reading a Bacigalupi novel. Still, it's an interesting read, and it excites me for the range of non-English SF that is being translated today.

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