BOOK REVIEW: Waste Tide, by Chen Qiufan

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Publisher: Head of Zeus

Translator: Ken Liu

Genre: Tomorrow Fiction

Pages: 347

Publication Date: 30/04/2019

Verdict: 4/5

In the mid twenty-first century, Silicon Isle is China’s polluted shame – where half the world comes to dump their refuse. But there is more than just waste here. There are people, and there is hope . . .

Head of Zeus publishing, together with Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen, have an impressive run of translated Chinese SF behind them. Cixin Liu’s novels, and Liu’s anthologies are all utterly brilliant, and from that powerhouse of SF now comes Chen Qiufan’s English-language debut Waste Tide. While it’s not quite on the same level as Three-Body Problem, it’s still an interesting read. And I do mean interesting, because while I turned every page eagerly and drowned myself in the world, I’m not entirely sure I enjoyed the book.

I’m a great admirer of Liu’s translations, and so I think it’s Chen’s writing that I don’t gel with quite so well. On a small scale, it’s perfectly readable. The references are ones I get, and the descriptions vivid. But on a larger scale things fall apart. Waste Tide at times feels less like a novel and more a collection of individual scenes. There’s nothing wrong with each one individually, but for most of the novel they fail to cohere in any reasonable way. Everything felt like it was always skipping around, never settling on one strand long enough for me to get properly involved. Even at the novel’s close, I was not entirely sure what had happened for large periods. The ideas within are jostling for space, just as the people of Silicon isle are. But it’s not a long enough book to do all of them justice.

Where Waste Tide shines is in its depiction of Chinese culture. As an outsider, I have to assume it’s authentic. There is, after all, no real reason for it not to be. From spiritual festivals, to business meetings to crime bosses in their lairs, everything is deep and richly imagined. Reading these passages makes you feel as though you are walking the cluttered streets yourself. Every sight, sound and smell is tangible, wonderfully evocative. If nothing else, the book is worth reading for these scenes alone.

But there is more value in the book than just description. There are characters too, as you’d expect. Mimi, the young girl who holds the key to Silicon Isle in her mind. Kaizong, the local foreigner, returned after a long time away. Scott, the American with more to him than anyone could imagine. All are wonderfully unique, and they are only the major players in a larger cast. I’ll admit to getting a few names mixed up, largely due to unfamiliarity with Chinese naming conventions. Thankfully, Liu is on hand to explain, both in the text itself and through his footnotes.

If characters and locations are what you want, then you could look in far worse places than Waste Tide. But if it’s a strong plot you’re after, you may wish to explore elsewhere.

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