Review: Waste Tide

Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide is an odd book that doesn’t quite seem to have found its marketing niche. It’s an involved, almost thriller-y novel that’s set in the fictional Silicon Isle, an island off the coast of southeast China that’s become almost apocalyptically polluted as a result of being used as a dump for the world’s electronic waste. I’d class it with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth (which also has an explicitly environmental focus) as an ostensibly SFnal text that is actually very light on SF elements – both works are more interested in how people with power respond to unprecedented environmental devastation.

In Waste Tide, then, a number of Silicon Isle families have grown rich off recycling the rest of the world’s e-waste, relying on the low-paid and dangerous labour of blow-ins from other parts of China hoping for a share of the wealth. Meanwhile, other islanders mourn their island’s lost beauty; and a representative of American recycling company TerraGreen tries to strike a deal with the heads of the wealthiest families to clean up Silicon Isle’s operations (and in doing so earn TerraGreen an obscene amount of money).

In the midst of all this is Mimi, a “waste girl”: in the highly stratified hierarchy of Silicon Isle, she’s among the lowest of the low, sorting waste for a pittance (having, I think, been trafficked from her village on the mainland). It’s an apt epithet: Mimi is the embodiment of the way the global recycling industry – global industries of all kinds, really – treat its lowest-paid workers, as literally disposable resources.

That’s true, anyway, until she puts on a discarded helmet containing a sharp object that scratches her head, infecting her with something that makes her incredibly valuable to the American authorities. But even now she is disposable, a victim of Cold War experiments, valuable as an object of study and not as a person.

It’s significant, then, that the novel’s denouement sees the waste people banding together to protect Mimi, for no other reason than because she’s one of them. If humanity is to reverse environmental degradation and fight the effects of climate change, Chen seems to be saying, then it has to start with corporations and businesspeople seeing people and the environments they live in not as resources to be used but as having immense value in their own right.

Why “odd”, though? Well, the novel takes a hard left about halfway through, veering from realist near-future SF into something that feels much more…fantastical than earlier chapters have warranted. Later on, there’s another detour into Cold War conspiracy theory/spy story. I don’t feel like either of these changes of tone are handled particularly well, with the result that the novel isn’t quite…coherent? There’s a lot going on, and no one interpretive schema to fit it all into.

Still, it’s an entry in an important subgenre that’s still in its infancy: the literature of climate change, work that strives to comprehend the enormity of what we’ve done and are doing to our planet, our only home. If only for that, it’s worth a read if you’re at all interested in SF.

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