Book Thoughts: Are we Getting Caught in Our Own Net(Work)s? (Focus: China: Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan)
Reading time: about 7 minutes.
Waste Tide (荒潮) by Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆), a Chinese sci-fi novel, led me into a genre and a world region that I am not very familiar with in literary terms, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had already read a short story by Chen Qiufan and really enjoyed it: The Year of the Rat in the contemporary Chinese sci-fi anthology, Invisible Planets, edited and translated by Ken Liu (who also translated Waste Tide). I thought that story had strong characters and took the reader on an emotional journey while critiquing the role of the state and media in dehumanising individuals in war situations. In Waste Tide, Chen Qiufan again explores social issues and power dynamics and, although I didn’t feel such a strong connection to the characters, I thought he raised some interesting questions. Chen Qiufan, also known as Stanley Chen, is a writer from SE China who has also worked in tech and maintains relationships with both worlds. He has published a number of novels and short stories, several of which have been translated into multiple languages.
Waste Tide takes place almost entirely on Silicon Isle, a fictional island off China’s south east coast, where electronic waste from around the world is sent to be sorted and recycled. The Mandarin name for Silicon Isle, Gui Yu (硅屿), is a quasi-homophone of the name of a real town near Chen Qiufan’s hometown (贵屿) that was once known as the biggest e-waste site in the world and suffered from extreme pollution and environmental damage. The story follows three main characters: Scott, an American recycling company representative with motives that turn out to be more about American politics and economics; Silicon Isle-born emigrant Chen Kaizong whose emigrant saviour complex transforms into a deeper understanding and sympathy with the people he meets; and Mimi, one of the “waste people”, migrant workers from other parts of China who manually sort through toxic electronic waste every day, hoping to save enough money to go back home and set their families up comfortably.
Chen explores a range of themes in this novel, some more familiar to me than others: social inequality, language as a soclal identifier, emigrant experiences, spirituality, traditions and customs, corruption in government and others. Given my limited understanding of the social and historical context, I know that there were elements of this novel that I didn’t fully grasp. This is not a review, therefore, but an exploration of some of the themes that caught my attention, namely globalisation and consumerism and the human impacts of technological developments.
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.
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