Waste Tide

By Chen Qiufan
Translated by Ken Liu

Reviewed by Cara Healey
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2019)

Chen Qiufan, The Waste Tide Tr. by Ken Liu. New York: Tor Books, 2019. 352 pp. ISBN-10: 0765389312; ISBN-13: 978-0765389312

Chen Qiufan’s 陈楸帆 novel Waste Tide (荒潮), expertly translated by Ken Liu, is a significant contribution to the growing genre of Chinese science fiction. The genre has earned acclaim both for its imaginative nature and as a lens into contemporary China; Waste Tide succeeds on both fronts. Many of Chinese science fiction’s recent milestones have centered around Liu Cixin 刘慈欣. Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (三体) (also translated by Ken Liu) won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015. Frant Gwo’s 郭帆 2019 film adaptation of Liu Cixin’s The Wandering Earth (流浪地球) earned $700 million at the box office, becoming the second-highest grossing Chinese film of all time, and was recently released on Netflix. Waste Tide follows in the footsteps of these achievements while also demonstrating that that there is more to Chinese science fiction than Liu Cixin.

Upon its initial 2013 publication, Waste Tide won the top prize at the Chinese Nebula Awards. It comes highly recommended by Liu Cixin, who writes in a blurbs that it is “the pinnacle of near-future SF writing.” Chen Qiufan (b. 1981), also known as Stanley Chan, is one of China’s most well respected science fiction authors, particularly among the generation following Liu Cixin (b. 1963). Western fans of the genre might recognize Chen from his numerous short stories published in magazines like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed. Most of these stories were translated by Ken Liu, whose prolific and skilled translations have been a driving force in bringing Chinese science fiction to readers of the English-speaking world. Tor Books, one of the world’s top science fiction and fantasy presses, has similarly led the effort to deliver Chinese science fiction to an international audience; it has already published two anthologies of short fiction and four of Liu Cixin’s novels. Given this collaboration of acclaimed author, master translator, and experienced press, it is unsurprising that Waste Tide marks an impressive debut for Chen.

Waste Tide is both thrilling and thoughtful in its reflection on the environmental and human costs of global capitalism. It is set on Silicon Isle 硅屿, a homophone of Guiyu 贵屿, the real-life capital of electronic waste processing near Chen’s hometown of Shantou, Guangdong. In Silicon Isle, as in the real Guiyu, migrant workers toil in hazardous conditions to sort and recycle the remains of our smartphones, computers, and other electronics. Chen describes the scene in heartbreaking detail:

Children played everywhere, running over the black shores, where fiberglass and the charred remains of circuit boards twinkled; jumping over the abandoned fields, where embers and ashes from burning plastic smoldered; swimming and splashing in dark green ponds, where polyester film floated over the surface. They seemed to think this was the natural state of the world and nothing disturbed their joy. (31)

Chen imagines this near future Silicon Isle through an ensemble cast. There is Luo Jincheng, head of a powerful local family dominating the e-waste processing industry; Scott Brandle, an American businessman with questionable motives; Chen Kaizong, Scott’s interpreter, returning to his hometown for the first time since immigrating to the United States as a young child; and Mimi, a migrant from inland China working as a “waste person.” As a consequence of her exposure to e-waste and assault by local thugs, Mimi develops the ability to project her consciousness into machines. Mimi’s kidnapping and subsequent transformation become the catalyst for a migrant worker uprising, shifting the balance of power on Silicon Isle against the backdrop of a looming typhoon. The novel’s fast-paced plot keeps readers in suspense, and the ending satisfyingly brings together numerous seemingly unrelated threads.

Waste Tide situates itself firmly within the cyberpunk tradition, and Chen is regularly compared to William Gibson (Neuromancer, 1984). Waste Tide’s cyborgs (human-machine hybrids), its detailed, almost baroque, descriptions of technology, and its noir atmosphere, heavy drug use, and focus on late capitalism make this comparison to Gibson warranted. Fredric Jameson described the writing of Gibson and his peers as “the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself” (419).[1] Chen joins an even broader range of contemporary science fiction authors from Paolo Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl, 2009) to Kim Stanley Robinson (New York 2140, 2017) addressing the violence of late capitalism more directly. Like Robinson (who studied under Jameson), Chen illustrates many of Jameson’s reflections on globalization[2] in an accessible, engaging, and at times touching narrative. Reading Waste Tide in light of Jameson’s Marxist criticism is especially interesting considering that Chen, unlike his American counterparts, is writing from within a literary tradition with a history of socialist realism. Waste Tide is delightfully conscious of its lineage: confronted with the “waste people’s” dystopian lives, Chen Kaizong recalls his elderly American college professor “Toby Jameson” lecturing on globalization (45).

This half-joking allusion to Jameson is just one example of how Chen Qiufan’s eclectic interests come across in the narrative. Chen has earned degrees in literature, fine arts, and integrated marketing communication; he has worked for tech giants like Baidu and Google as well as startups in the fields of virtual reality and film. This interdisciplinary background shows in the novel, which seamlessly references biotechnology, computer science, economics, Renaissance art, classic cinema, and Tang dynasty history, sometimes in the same sentence.

One of Waste Tide’s most significant achievements, particularly compared to some of its cyberpunk predecessors, is its refusal to paint the entire developing world (or even all of China) with one brush. Chen creates a Silicon Isle grounded in hyperspecific, localized details, from loving descriptions of cuisine to obscure rituals that require explanatory footnotes, even for the presumed Chinese audience of the original. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the presence of Scott, the foreigner, that most effectively challenges an oversimplified understanding of a homogenous “Chinese” culture. Scott come across as a parody of Sino-US relations: he remains convinced until the very end that a cursory reading of The Art of War and The Ignoramus’s Guide to China, along with his experience cutting deals across the Global South, is enough to make him a genius negotiator. For an American audience, the interactions between Scott and his Chinese counterparts are an amusing, pointed critique of the tendency to view “developing” economies as interchangeable foils to American dominance.

Chen’s focus on localized detail is clearest in his attention to the politics of language, highlighting the shifting power dynamics among Silicon Isle’s Teochew topolect, Mandarin (the common language among the migrant workers), and English, along with smatterings of Cantonese, Japanese, and Italian. The characters’ linguistic choices and abilities are often as significant as what they say. Ken Liu remarks in the Translator’s Note that this deliberate linguistic diversity is difficult to capture in translation (5), but he does a superb job. Liu’s translation is fluid and natural throughout, and his added explanations of linguistic significance do not detract from the plot or the flow of the prose.

Besides issues of genre and identity, Waste Tide raises additional questions familiar to science fiction readers: What does it mean to be human? What would it look like if we considered perspectives outside of our own anthropocentric worldview? These explorations are most salient as Mimi merges with various machines: a giant robotic exoskeleton, a network of security cameras, and a low orbit server farm. With her new “all-encompassing, panoramic” perspective, a “vortex without end” (287), Mimi is able to see the underbelly of society that usually remains hidden, the alienation and desperation of everyday life.[3] Mimi’s hybrid perspective is complemented by other examples of human-machine hybridity (from cosmetic modifications to bionic prosthetics) and meditations on how the influx of e-waste has transformed local flora and fauna.

Chen has imagined a rich world equal parts majestic and disturbing. His successful blend of hyperspecific, localized detail and global themes[4] make it easy to see why he describes his writing as science fictional realism, which he views as particularly well suited to this moment. As Chen notes, “at some point Chinese reality surpassed imagination, and I believe science fiction is uniquely able to mirror this kind of ‘hyperreality.’”[5] Chen’s description echoes science fiction studies scholar Seo-young Chu’s understanding of science fiction as a genre of “high intensity realism.”[6] In addition to science fiction’s mimetic possibilities, Chen is also conscious of the ways science fiction might be especially useful as a mode of social critique in the face of censorship, remarking, “If you wrote these things in the mainstream, they couldn’t be published.”[7] Although this dynamic of science fiction as subversive key to contemporary China can sometimes be overstated,[8] Waste Tide’s social commentary is unequivocal.

For all its strengths, Waste Tide is plot-driven rather than character-driven. Characters sometimes feel more like archetypes rather than fully fleshed out individuals. For example, there are times when Mimi, the only main female character, feels like a typical May-Fourth-era heroine,[9] suffering for the sake of male characters’ development and the novel’s larger societal message, rather than a three-dimensional person in her own right.

Waste Tide will entertain readers while also prompting them to think. It brings to light some of the most challenging and relevant issues of our time: How do we live in a world faced with environmental degradation of our own making? How do we reconcile the convenience of our consumerist culture with the knowledge that it comes at the expense of our planet and of other humans, who remain nameless, faceless, and far away. Waste Tide explores these issues from multiple points of view, resisting easy answers.

Chen’s novel will appeal to a wide audience. Science fiction fans will enjoy Chen’s thoughtful take on cyberpunk. Fans of Liu Cixin will be impressed by Chen’s broad-ranging knowledge and his technical but readable scientific explanations, as well as his nuanced portrayal of people from vastly different backgrounds forced to confront a complex problem. Scholars of Chinese literature will appreciate the references to Tang literati and the reinterpretation of May Fourth tropes, not to mention the way that Waste Tide expands our understanding of Chinese realism. Environmentalists will appreciate the novel’s visceral and affective take on humanity’s responsibilities to the planet. If Waste Tide is any indication of Chinese science fiction’s future, readers have a lot to look forward to.

Cara Healey
Wabash College


[1] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

[2] For an in depth discussion of how Waste Tide imagines globalization see Mengtian Sun, “Imagining Globalization in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide,” Science Fiction Studies 46, no. 2 (2019).

[3] For further analysis on how Waste Tide and Chinese science fiction in general reveals the invisible see Mingwei Song, “Representations of the Invisible: Chinese Science Fiction of the Twenty-First Century,” in Carlos Rojas and Andrea Bachner, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 546-565.

[4] For a discussion of how Chinese science fiction strikes a balance between specific and universal see Angie Chau, “From Nobel to Hugo: Reading Chinese Science Fiction as World Literature,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, 30, no. 1 (2018): 110-135.

[5] Alessandro Scarano, “Chen Qiufan: Waste Is Changing our Society and Living,Domus (May 17, 2019).

[6] Seo-Young Chu, Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[7] Alec Ash, “Healthy Words,” London Review of Books (Aug. 20, 2014).

[8] Ken Liu argues against reading Chinese science fiction authors exclusively through this lens. See Ken Liu, Invisible Planets (New York: Tor, 2016), 15-16.

[9] I discuss this dynamic and how Waste Tide reimagines May-Fourth-style critical realism in Cara Healey, “Estranging Realism in Chinese Science Fiction: Hybridity and Environmentalism in Chen Qiufan’s The Waste Tide,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, 29, no. 2 (2017): 1-33.