How Recycling Ruined the World: a review of Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide

'It delivers not only a challenging ecological message, but also a gripping cyberpunk thriller.' Chen Qiufan’s first novel Waste Tide paints a bleak portrait of waste build-up in China, highlighting its harrowing effects on both the environment and the people who live in it. Martha Swift reviews, finding a fast-paced, violent read, pointedly critical of the ecological destruction wrought by the waste processing industry.


Sometime in the middle of the twenty-first century, an isolated peninsula off the Chinese mainland is mired in the ecological destruction wrought by e-waste recycling. The water is foetid, the air is toxic, and the ‘waste people’, migrant workers ‘hired’ by the area’s ruling clans to process the world’s electronic trash, are slowly sickened by heavy metals and plastic fumes. In Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide, waste is overwhelming.


Part of a new generation of science fiction writers in China, known for their posthuman visions and dystopian images of economic development, Chen has won numerous awards for his short stories. Waste Tide is his first novel. Published in Chinese by Changjiang Literature Art Publishing House in 2013, it was not until April last year that an English-language edition arrived from acclaimed translator Ken Liu and publishers Tor Books (US) and Head of Zeus (UK). Its translation comes in the midst of a global boom in Chinese science fiction, now lauded by Chen as ‘the greatest realism at the present time’, uniquely capable of grappling with the social, technological and ecological consequences of China’s accelerated development.[1] In comparison to affluent, global North perspectives on waste as physically and ideologically distant from ourselves, cities and societies, Waste Tide stares directly at waste as an unavoidable substance of contemporary reality. Its arrival in English prompts an overdue reconsideration of entrenched expectations of waste, recycling, and ecocritical fiction amongst its Anglophone audience.


Its arrival in English prompts an overdue reconsideration of entrenched expectations of waste, recycling, and ecocritical fiction amongst its Anglophone audience

On the dust jacket of the UK copy, David Mitchell calls the novel an ‘eco-techno-thriller’. The hyphenated category seems invented just for this book, where digital underworlds collide with polluted landscapes, exploited workers with biomedical conspiracies, contagious e-waste with the human body. The primary plot follows Mimi, a waste worker indentured to the dominant Luo clan, as she is infected and then transformed by a waste-born virus; in her altered state, she wreaks vengeance on the systems and structures that control Silicon Isle, the polluted peninsula on which most of the action takes place. Meanwhile, a shadowy corporation pursues her and the lucrative scientific discovery she embodies, its manoeuvres masquerading as an environmentally friendly, but ultimately deceitful, development deal for the region. Along the way, rising class consciousness amongst the waste people and scenes of specific, gruesome brutality are interspersed with meandering reflections on the nature of home and history, occasionally heavy-handed reminders of human interiority. It is an expansive, frenetic and violent novel, held together by the high-octane, high stimulation experiences expected of the internet and implied by the VR headsets and cybernated body-mod devices that proliferate in the plot.


Through the intersection of these narratives, Waste Tide offers a dark vision of a future driven by profit and dependant on instant gratification, where bitrate is status and the ‘rich switch body parts as easily as people used to switch phones.’ But it does so from the site of society’s unwanted discards, the rubbish dump. Employing both cyberpunk and classical Chinese literary tropes, Waste Tide deals with the aftermath of our socially and environmentally exploitative recycling system in which the refuse of first-world nations is shipped to ‘invisible’ locations like, until recently, China’s southeast coast. In fact, Silicon Isle or ‘Guiyu’ (硅嶼) is a homophone for the real Guiyu (貴嶼), previously the largest e-waste recycling centre in the world and a site only a few miles from Chen’s hometown. A 2013 UN report called the real Guiyu an ‘environmental calamity,’ and Waste Tide takes the disaster to new but, sadly, not unpredicted extremes. Previously a seaside paradise, the landscape we see is ‘shrouded in a leaden miasma, an amalgamation of the white mist generated by boiling aqua regia in the acid baths and the black smoke from the unceasing burning of PVC, insulation, and circuit boards’. The water is undrinkable, and dismantled plastic components are ‘scattered everywhere like piles of manure’. At times, in an unsettling example of the novel’s unusual realism, the difference between Chen’s science fiction setting and reported conditions in Guiyu is almost indiscernible. More chilling still is the attitude of the local population: ‘That’s the price that must be paid for economic development’.


The difference between Chen’s science fiction setting and reported conditions in Guiyu (貴嶼) is almost indiscernible

The violence of this permissive statement, and of the recycling industry altogether, is literalised upon the female body of the novel’s protagonist, Mimi, as she is hunted, abducted, tortured, raped and almost killed – twice. Through this stark allegory for the exploitation of the natural environment by local interests and transnational corporations, Chen not only levels a scathing critique of ecological mismanagement in China, but also suggests a misplaced faith in recycling amongst would-be ethical consumers. That is, recycling in Waste Tide assuages neither ecological concerns or the effects of voracious consumption, but rather operates at the expense of the natural environment and the lives within it. Chen’s warning is bolstered by other, critical perspectives; in the words of waste theorist Gay Hawkins, recycling is ‘big business’ invested in the forceful subordination of humans, landscapes and waste itself to ‘the relentless drive to commodify’.[2] In this light, recycling in Waste Tide is the consequence of a privileged, anthropocentric perspective that demands distance from waste in the global North but permits pollution to pile up elsewhere, out of sight; on anonymous islands, in unnamed bodies.


Chen not only levels a scathing critique of ecological mismanagement in China, but also suggests a misplaced faith in recycling amongst would-be ethical consumers

Where recycling is the problem, in Waste Tide, waste itself is the solution. Against the destruction wrought by the waste processing industry, Chen imagines alternative ecological futures built in collaboration with our detritus and discards. For one, Mimi’s transformation and the suggestive presence of other waste-human cyborgs throughout the novel dissolve the distinctions between the natural and the artificial and destabilise our distancing, anthropocentric views of human-waste relations. Perhaps most prescient is the novel’s ambiguous ending in the Pacific Trash Vortex. Here, amongst islands literally made from rubbish, Chen asks his readers to imagine new modes of living with and amongst waste: collaborative rather than commodifying.


Chen has said of his book: ‘I hope it tries to make everyone think about themselves and their living condition, and how they should change their own ways… I hope Western readers will start to think carefully about their throw-away behaviour.’[3] However, Waste Tide criticises neither the individual’s careless production of rubbish, nor, in Chen’s words, ‘a Chinese or American way of living’, so much as the complex, state-sanctioned systems that allow developed nations to send their garbage offshore and see it return as reprocessed commodities, often at the cost of environmental disaster ‘elsewhere’. Certainly, the book urges its readers to look hard at the trade-off between economic development and ecological damage and to subsequently reconsider the presentation of recycling and re-commodification as ethical acts.


Waste Tide criticises... the complex, state-sanctioned systems that allow developed nations to send their garbage offshore and see it return as reprocessed commodities, often at the cost of environmental disaster ‘elsewhere’

Waste Tide’s waste-human figures are science fictional, but its demand for a change in our destructive waste relations is not. As in many other fictions of its kind, its message is urgent, but the strength of this novel lies in both the barely veiled reality of its warning and the unusual complexity of its perspective, which manages to be simultaneously hopeful and condemnatory. Although the co-existence of genre conventions, including detailed technical explanations and rapid plot development, with Chen’s preference for existential characterization can make for some awkward transitions, Waste Tide packs an enervating range of emotions and ideas into its 350 pages. It delivers not only a challenging ecological message, but also a gripping cyberpunk thriller.


[1] Chen Qiufan quoted in Alessandro Scarano, ‘Waste Is Changing Our Society and Living’, domus, 17 May 2019, https://www.domusweb.it/en/opinion/2019/05/17/chen-qiufan-waste-is-changing-our-society-and-living.html.
[2] Gay Hawkins, The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006), 94.
[3] Chen Qiufan quoted in Anjie Zheng, ‘The Future in the Trash: China’s William Gibson on the Power of Sci-Fi’, Fast Company, 16 May 2019, https://www.fastcompany.com/90349062/sci-fi-author-chen-qiufan-on-waste-tech-and-china-future.

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