In a recent change of pace in my fiction consumption habits, over the past several months I have been reading translated Chinese science fiction. This ranges from Liu Cixin’s series The Three Body Problem, to a a set of Chinese science fiction anthologies translated by writer and translator Ken Liu.
After a long wait, I recently picked up a new work by Chen Qiufan titled Waste Tide. While originally published in 2013, it was only in 2019 that it was translated into English.
The story begins with two American characters, Scott Brandle, a businessman here in theory to promote a in theory environmentally friendly but profitable deal, and Chen Kaizong, a former local to “Silicon Isle” who currently works as a translator for Scott to translate the unique dialect of the island.
In practice, this economic package is merely yet another example of dependency theory dressed up as economic aid to a struggling region. Dependency theory for reference, is an international development theory that states that poor countries exist to provide resources to rich countries. Examples include how the batteries in Tesla cars contain cobalt mined and sold from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is actually illegal under American law, due to illegal mining practice which is children in the DRC are frequently enslaved to mine the Congo’s precious minerals.
The development deal that Scott is trying to sell would not need to exist if countries such as the United States did not export their electronic waste to less-developed countries, and pollute these countries instead of pollute American soil. The plant further increases this relationship because instead of moving production up the value chain, the development deal would make the waste workers even more dependent on electronic waste, as the new industrial developments require even more electronic waste to be exported to the setting of the novel. This is pointed out by several characters in the novel, and is a claim that Scott runs away from the entire time, even though even he admits the point is accurate.
What is shadowing this deal, and the entire story, are the electronic waste workers, the people who harvest metals and other various valuable resources from scraped electronics that were exported from these countries after being thrown out. “Silicon Isle” contains parallels to Guiyo, a town in China that is infamously known for being one of the largest electronic waste sites on the planet. Much like in the novel, while some groups have gotten rich by harvesting the electronic waste, pollution became a major problem. The damage that electronic wastes does to the environment includes a drastic increase in airborne dioxins, increase in levels of carcinogen in agricultural regions, and a much larger presence of heavy metals contained in road dust.
One of the main characters, Mimi, is a waste worker, and for a good portion of the novel due to her low social status, she was treated more as a machine then as a proper human being. However, in a horrific fashion, she soon in a major twist becomes one of key characters of the book, in a way that derails the social hierarchy of Silicon Isle. It is depressing that compared to other characters in the book, she is treated more as a plot object, then as a character with written up motivations, but the same can be said for many works of American science fiction.
I appreciate that for a work of science fiction that has major environmental themes, it does not suffer from the usual stereotypes of very eco-focused science fiction, to its betterment. Chen Qiufan writes frankly about the fact that for how profitable electronic waste recycling is, it is fundamentally destructive to the environment and who gets the electronic waste is based on geopolitical power hierarchies, which leads to less-developed countries suffer from all the associated cost of electronic waste disposal.
It is very nice that for the past few years that translated Chinese science fiction has become available to American audiences. I am curious to see what Chen Qiufan next, and I hope that even more translated works become available as the years go by.