One of the many brilliant scenes in Edward Burtynski’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes is a visit to an e-waste recycling site in eastern China. A village piled high with old computer mother boards, television sets, and various electronics, the locals spend their days with small hammers and pliers, manually separating the tiny bits of precious metals into small containers to be re-sold. The groundwater polluted to no end due to the mass presence of exotic metals, heaven on Earth these villages are not. Going a few years into the future and converting this scene into a novel is Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide (2019). Too bad Jackie Chan was likewise invited along.
Silicon Isle is one of the major e-waste recycling site in China. The island more traditional than other major areas like Beijing or Shanghai, it is divided and controlled by local clans. Pollution a major issue, an American firm specializing in recycling decides to offer it services to the clans, represented by Scott Brindle. His translator, Chen Kaizong, is a young man who is returning to his home after many years away, and is experiencing a cultural crisis—where and what is home? Along with a migrant worker named Mimi caught up in the clan wars, these three characters find and fight their way through a rising tide (har har) of deceptions, conspiracies, and social and environmental injustices.
Waste Tide is a very traditional science fiction novel in the John W. Campbell mold with a leaning toward modern social justic; it interweaves bits and pieces of action/drama while trying to address a science and social class problems, no literary tricks or games. It’s a story that could have been published fifty+ years ago, and save for a few minor details, would fit right in. For this, it feels most akin to the work of Paolo Bacigalupi, particularly the good vs. evil story dichotomy, occasional bits of cheap drama, and the well-developed sense of place and technology. The Water Knife and Waste Tide hold a lot in common.
There is a wide swathe of science fiction novels whose writers appear to have had the following approach: “I know I want to address a serious socio-political-environmental issue—for people to be more aware of it, to think about it, and perhaps even become active in the area. But how to motivate this serious issue with plot? People won’t buy such a serious tome without something interesting to keep the pages turning. I know, I’ll interweave the stylized action and drama that many people like seeing on the big screen or television—violence, romance, etc., etc.—with the issue. Ok, that’s the plan, let’s go!” Chen Qiufan followed this roadmap, and the result is the same as so many of his peers: uncommitted fiction. The cheapness of the Jackie Chan action sequences and maidens in distress undermines the seriousness of the environmental and class issues being discussed, just as much as discussion of said serious issues makes the stylized action and drama feel out of place. There is a disconnection that never resolves itself, resulting in edutainment/infotainment, aka mediocre fiction that only partially accomplishes either of its missions. (See John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, etc., etc., for examples of books which integrate “heavy issues” with plot.)