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Book Review

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Waste Tide (Hardback)


Author: Chen Qiufan
Translator: Ken Liu
Publisher: Head of Zeus
347 pages
RRP: £18.99
ISBN: 978 1 78497 793 1
Publication Date: 30 April 2019

There has been a recent increase in the amount of Chinese science fiction being made available to western audiences. One of the reasons we previously saw so little is that as a genre it fell out of favour for part of their history, but now it seems that China boasts a thriving and invigorated scene.

The latest book to pass across the desk is Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide (2019. 347 pages). The book has been translated into English by Ken Liu, who seems to have cornered the market in science fiction translations.

The book is set in the near distant future and set on Silicon Isle, in south east China. Here the inhabitants break down some of the world’s most toxic waste components, suffering the inevitable ill heath which comes with exposure.

The world is coming to the realisation that unfettered capitalist consumerism has had a negative effect on the planet, I read somewhere recently that we are not far off the time when there will be more weight of plastic in the seas than fish, this habit of dumping first world trash on third world countries has been going on for decades.

The story follows Mimi, a waste girl, scratching a living breaking down electronic components. Like the rest of the waste people they are migrant labour who have come to Silicon Isle with the idea of making enough money to return home and fulfil their dreams. This rarely happens as the migrant labour is not only subject to crushing poverty and illness, but they are tied in virtual servitude to one of the big controlling families.

Scott Brandle arrives on the island as a representative of a company which is promising to put in new technologies which will not only be more efficient but will guarantee that the safer process will return the Isle's clean water as well as removing toxins from the land. Accompanying him is Chen Kaizong, originally from the island, his parents had successfully moved to America. This left Chen keeling like an outsider and returning home, changed as he has been, he remains a stranger in a strange land.

Events collide when Chen rescues Mimi from a group of men who are chasing her, placing her under the protection of his extended family. Mimi, sought by the powerful rival, Lou Jincheng becomes a pawn in a wider game being played by the major families and foreign powers, but quietly and in the dark another force is moving whose effect will change both Mimi and Silicon Isle for ever.

As with his previous translations Liu has taken only minor liberties with the original text to make it more friendly to an English-speaking audience. In truth, there are numerous western cultural references to keep you in a respectable comfort zone.

The use of overlapping narratives keeps you guessing in what is, otherwise, a dark tale of class oppression and environmental breakdown. At first, the narrative appears relatively linear, but Qiufan does not give up all of the book's secrets immediately and there are some real surprises along the way.


Charles Packer

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