Waste Tide (2019) by Chen Quifan (tr. Ken Liu) is a book that I wanted to like thanks to its compassionate exploration of its topical subject. And it’s certainly not a bad book by any stretch. But it also wasn’t a compelling book, and I found myself putting it down way more than is usual for me and being at least a little resistant to picking it up again each time.
The novel is set on the modern hell (a comparison made explicit — perhaps too much so — by a Dante reference) that is Silicon Isle, a giant electronics waste garbage dump/recycle and reclamation center, where the poor resident sorters are horribly, brutally exploited by a hierarchy of perpetrators: hyper-local gangs, a trio of powerful clans who divvy up the spoils and profits from the reclamation, and the developed nations and transnational corporations that take advantage of the system. One of those large corporations has sent an American agent, Scott Brandle, to try to negotiate a contract moving the island toward automation, with the help of his Chinese-American translator Chen Kaizong. In the course of his job, Chen meets and falls for Mimi, a poor sorter who ends up on the run from one of the Clan leaders, Liu Jincheng. Her attempts to escape end up with her transformed by modern biotech in both empowering and terrifying fashion as she becomes an unexpected symbol of rebellion by the “waste people.”
Waste Tide is certainly science fiction, with references to regular prosthetic enhancements — AR contacts, skin “films,” and more —but just as certainly, the description of Silicon Isle in all its Hieronymus Bosch-like elements is based too tragically on real life, as much documentary as speculative fiction. And Quifan does a good job in conveying the island’s inhuman, really “anti-human,” nature. The toxic air, water and soil, the awful smells, the way the air sears the lungs, the “unknown chemicals … form [ing] a viscous film that stuck to skin and clothes and made taking even a single step difficult.” These descriptions become somehow even more heartbreaking when the reader is treated to an image of:
…children play [ing] everywhere, running over the black shores… jumping over the abandoned fields where embers and ashes from burning plastic smoldered, swimming and splashing in dark green ponds where polyester film floated… They seemed to think this was the natural state of the world.
Bad enough to imagine anyone living like this in a novel, but the feeling is made all the worse knowing this is not science fiction, but realism. The end result is that the modern reader with their iPhone and tablet and Kindle is thrown right into the murky, hard-to-tell-them-apart mix of “good” guys and “bad” guys, and is just as implicated in the terrible morality/ethics of this mess.
The pacing is fast throughout Waste Tide, and Quifan shows a good sense of balance between action scenes (chases, fights, riots) and more introspective (one character) or intimate (two-character) scenes. Meanwhile, the novel, as one would expect from a Chinese author, does an excellent job of being steeped in its Chinese setting while avoiding the too-common issue of a Chinese mono-culture as Quifan, for instance, highlights class, geographic, linguistic, and generational difference. This more nuanced presentation of China is one of the more welcome results of the recent influx of translated authors.
The novel has a William Gibson–Paolo Bacigalupi feel to it in term of themes and sci-fi elements, though I don’t think Quifan has the stylistic verve of either (this, of course, could be a translation issue) or their ability to fluidly incorporate necessary information or techspeak. There are several clunky exposition moments and every now and then Quifan throws a bit of jargon at the reader. More problematic for me was that I didn’t find the characters fully formed. They often felt more like plot props to make the thematic points. It was easy to feel for them based on their situation, but it was more of a rational compassion than an emotional one, if that makes sense.
Waste Tide is a thoughtful work of realistic science fiction that uses literature as a tool of social criticism and also gives Americans a glimpse not only into the foreign world of China. As thought-provoking social criticism, it works. But as a story, it was far less successful for me. Your mileage, therefore, will vary based on what you look for in a narrative.