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.
Chen looks at several different examples of the flow of power and its dynamics in national and global networks, the result of a globalised market and political interconnectedness. He touches on the way some players in these networks use them to their own advantage and the huge imbalance in distribution of benefits and costs among the parties involved. Looking back on the novel, I realise that there is a level of nuance to this discussion that allows us to see how these power dynamics are not fixed and are in constant flux, depending on the situation and who is involved at any given moment. This puts the focus on the systems that create these dynamics, rather than painting a single individual as "the bad guy”. Chen also moves smoothly from the macro level, such as looking at the movement of electronic waste from the US to SE China or mass economic migration within China, to the specific context of a relatively small town in China with its specific languages, beliefs, streets and way of seeing the world and each other. I found that Silicon Isle's homes and streets and the polluted but still eerily beautiful seascapes appeared in vivid detail before my eyes. Again, this created a more complex view not only of this town but of China as a large country with a diverse population, an image that is not always easy to access through official media representations (whether Chinese or other).
I’ve seen this book described as “near future sci-fi” and I think that becomes particularly evident in the technological developments that are not the reality at the moment, but are similar enough that we can take the mental leap. Chen has also talked about it being science fiction realism, which he says tackles the interactions between technology and people and their sense of self, among other things. I thought this was a very interesting element that was present at several moments through the book in quite a subtle way. In this near future, prosthetic body parts have become an everyday part of people’s lives; they are no longer limited to medical use but have become an accessory to show a person’s status or personality. It's easy to draw parallels with perceptions of cosmetic surgery today; once only acceptable for people who had suffered serious physical injury, cosmetic surgery is now increasingly acceptable for aesthetic purposes alone. In both cases, there is a sense of dissatisfaction with the natural, human body and, more deeply, with the self. In this futuristic world, prosthetics - much like phones today - are constantly being upgraded to stay on trend (leading to more e-waste for Silicon Isle). When such pressures become part of our physical bodies through prosthetics, how much more intimate is the impact of consumerism on the individual’s sense of self and the criteria they use to value themselves?
Further questions are raised when these prosthetics are connected to public networks. While we may not presently have limbs that could potentially be accessed by malicious actors, the growing number of personal assistant devices that people are willingly bringing into their homes demonstrate a desensitisation to privacy and security risks. I was reminded of an advertisement for a virtual house key and lock - the door lock is replaced with a scanner that can be used with a card or phone app. This means something as basic as accessing or even leaving our home could be taken out of our control either through a system fault or intentional control by others. Beyond the physical implications, I wonder how handing over more and more everyday tasks to systems we don’t fully understand affects our sense of agency. When we are not able to manually perform a task and don’t fully understand how the devices work, does this encourage us to take less responsibility for our actions and lives? Does it lead to increased willingness to simply give in and allow governments and corporations to make decisions for us that shouldn't be theirs to make?
I read this book at a time when I was also learning more about the way social media networks gather and use personal data for advertisements and to manipulate individual behaviour. This led me to ask how we, as Muslims, should respond to these questions. I feel that discussions about the dangers of big data and the Internet of Things can often be quite fatalistic. At the same time, there is a certain morbid fascination with the idea of AI (artificial intelligence) and technology even replacing human existence. Perhaps this is partly based on a desire for immortality, to escape the limits of a human body and overpower the natural world, that subtly pervades much of Western thought. I think Islam has a great deal to contribute to these discussions both in terms of setting the tone and finding meaningful solutions. At the most fundamental level, as Muslims we know that however dominant or influential technology becomes in the future, it will never overpower Allah. This world is not infinite and there will come a day when it will certainly end - there is no “post-apocalyptic" era. Ultimately, we will be held accountable for our actions in this life. With this as our starting point, we can then ask questions that need to be asked.
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.
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