Chen Qiufan is an award-winning science fiction writer and the VP of Branding & Communications at Noitom, a motion capture and VR startup. He's previously worked at Google China and currently lives in Shanghai.
|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|Product dimensions:||6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Chen Qiufan is an award-winning science fiction writer. He grew up near Guiyu, China, home to the world’s largest e-waste recycling center, an area the UN called an “environmental calamity.” His experiences there inspired Waste Tide. He currently lives in Shanghai and Beijing and works as the founder of Thema Mundi Studio.
Ken Liu (translator) is the author of The Grace of Kings and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.
Read an Excerpt
The fine, handcrafted wooden model of the junk at the center of the glass display case glistened with the reddish-brown varnish intended to give it an antique air. There was no holographic scene around it; instead, the background was a hand-drawn map of Silicon Isle — really a peninsula connected to the mainland by an isthmus, but everyone talked about it like a true island — and the sea around it. It was easy to tell that the mapmaker strained too hard to show the natural beauty of the local scenery, and the excessive application of colorful paint appeared unnatural.
"... this is the symbol of Silicon Isle, representing good harvest, prosperity, and harmony ..."
Scott Brandle was fascinated by the model ship and only half paid attention to the guide's patter. The color and texture of the model, especially the puffed sails seemingly full of wind, reminded him of the steamed lobsters served at the reception last night. He was no vegetarian, and he wasn't a zealous supporter of the World Wide Fund for Nature either, but the fact that the plate held a third claw and that the lobster's carapace had apparently been carefully patched had made him suspicious. The thought that the "wild lobster" with an extra limb might have been raised in the sea farms nearby had taken away his appetite, leaving him to stare as the Chinese officials gorged themselves.
"Mr. Scott, what would you like to study tomorrow?" Director Lin Yiyu, already drunk, asked him in the local topolect.
Chen Kaizong (a.k.a. Caesar Chen), Brandle's assistant, did not correct Lin's confusion of his boss's given name and surname, but translated what he said literally.
"I want to understand Silicon Isle better." Although Scott had been drinking some baijiu — the strong distilled spirit unavoidable at Chinese social functions — he remained fairly sober. He omitted "the real" from his request.
"Good, good." Director Lin, his face red from baijiu, turned and said something to the other officials. Everyone laughed uproariously. Kaizong did not translate right away. After a while, he said to Scott, "Director Lin says that he will be sure to satisfy your wish."
They'd already spent more than two hours in the overly air-conditioned Museum of Silicon Isle History, and the visit didn't seem to be nearing its end. Without a pause in his torrent of heavily accented English, the museum guide had taken them through all the brightly lit exhibit halls. Using ancient poetry, government correspondence, restored photographs, re-created tools and artifacts, faux documentaries, and dioramas made with plastic mannequins, the guide had presented Silicon Isle's thousand-yearlong history dating back to the ninth century.
However, the museum's exhibits fell short of the designers' ideals. The intent might have been to showcase how Silicon Isle had progressed from fishing and farming into the modern industrial age and thence into the information age, but all Scott saw were rooms full of boring artifacts accompanied by droning propaganda. The hypnotic effect was about on par with his memory of his drill sergeant's speeches during basic training.
But the interpreter, Chen Kaizong, was fascinated by the presentation, as though he were completely unfamiliar with Silicon Isle. Scott noticed that since the moment Kaizong set foot on this patch of land, the earlier indifference that had seemed too precocious in the young man had been replaced by a pride and curiosity that felt more natural for a young man of twenty-one.
"... wonderful ... unbelievable ..." Periodically, the expressionless Scott dispensed a word of praise like a robot.
Director Lin nodded appreciatively. The smile on his face resembled those found on the plastic mannequins, and his striped shirt was tucked into his dress pants. Unlike the other officials, he still had a thin waist. What he lost in presence, he gained in the impression of efficiency. Standing next to Scott, who was almost six foot three, Lin Yiyu resembled a walking stick.
And yet, this man could make Scott suffer without being able to say a thing, like a mute man forced to swallow bitter herbs.
He says one thing and thinks another, Scott thought. Only now did he finally understand what Director Lin had meant last night. Before he came to China, he had purchased a copy of The Ignoramus's Guide to China, which offered this pearl of wisdom: "The Chinese rarely say what they mean." He had added the annotation: "And how is this different from Americans?"
Perhaps the officials present at the reception banquet last night had been told to be there — none of the real decision makers had shown up. Measured by the amount of baijiu consumed, those officials had accomplished (or even exceeded) their assigned tasks of creating a jolly atmosphere at the reception. Based on Director Lin's lack of genuine cooperation, Scott was certain that his research trip for TerraGreen Recycling Co., Ltd., would not go smoothly.
The key personnel from the three main clans of Silicon Isle were never going to show up. The best that Scott could hope for was to take a tour of some carefully prepared model street and Potemkin village factory, eat some tasty, refined dim sum, and carry a pile of souvenirs onto the plane back to San Francisco.
But wasn't that why TerraGreen Recycling had sent Scott Brandle instead of someone else? A smile softened Scott's angular features. From Ghana to the Philippines — other than that accident in Ahmedabad — he had never failed. Silicon Isle would be no exception.
"Tell him that we're going to Xialong Village this afternoon," Scott leaned down and whispered to Kaizong. "Make him."
Then he pursed his lips and put on a careless smile as he glanced around. Kaizong understood that his boss meant business and began a rapid exchange with Director Lin.
The museum was too bright, too clean, just like the whitewashed and rewritten history it tried to present, just like the version of Silicon Isle that the natives tried to show outsiders. It was infused with a false, shallow technological optimism. In this building, there was no Basel Convention, no dioxins and furans, no acid fog, no water whose lead content exceeded the safe threshold by 2,400 times, no soil whose chromium concentration exceeded the EPA limit by 1,338 times, and of course nothing about the men and women who had to drink this water and sleep on this soil.
All history is contemporary history, he recalled Chen Kaizong saying when he had interviewed him.
Scott shook his head. The voices of Director Lin and Kaizong, straining to maintain a façade of friendliness but unable to come to agreement, grew louder. If they were speaking Mandarin, perhaps he could converse with Lin using the help of translation software, but they were using the ancient Silicon Isle topolect, with eight tones and exceedingly complex tone sandhi rules. He had no choice but to rely on the special talent of his assistant, whose linguistic heritage was the main reason that the history major fresh out of Boston University had been hired.
"Tell him: if he has objections"— Scott's eyes fell on a group portrait, and he tried valiantly to pick out anyone who had appeared in the documents he had reviewed before the trip; here in this restricted-bitrate zone, he was deprived of access to remote databases, and the Chinese faces all looked the same to him — "we'll have Minister Guo speak to him directly."
Minister Guo Qidao belonged to the Provincial Department of Ecology and Environment and was slated to become the next Deputy Minister for the National Ministry of Ecology and Environment. He had most likely been the one to draw up the short list of companies to bid for the project.
A fox can sometimes invoke the name of a tiger to get things done. Another trick from The Ignoramus's Guide to China.
The argument ceased. Director Lin, who had assumed a posture of defeat, appeared even thinner and smaller. He rubbed his hands together. Compared to the threat of Minister Guo, he seemed to worry more about not being able to accomplish his assigned task. But Scott had left him no way out. Lin strained to put on a smile, cleared his throat, and then walked toward the exit.
"Mission accomplished. But we're going to eat first." Kaizong's wide, entitled smile was just what you'd expect from someone who had graduated from an expensive school on the East Coast.
Let's hope that we don't encounter any more dangerous dishes like the "wild lobsters," Scott thought to himself as he passed by the model of the junk. He was glad to leave this museum, freezing cold and full of falsehoods. The model junk seemed to him the perfect metaphor: a play on words was perhaps the sole remaining thread connecting the museum and this island of junk.
He put on the protective face mask from 3M, passed through the mist of condensation near the exit, and entered into the humid, bright tropical sunlight.
* * *
Instead of baijiu, the restaurant served beer, but the change didn't put Scott at ease. This establishment seemed to respect health and hygiene even less than the one from last night. The private suite they were in was called "the Pine Room," and the ancient air conditioner buzzed like a wasp nest that had been poked. Still, it was unable to eliminate the stench in the air. There was a large wet spot on the wall, looking like the terra incognita on some antique map. The table and chairs were relatively clean, or maybe it was just because the proprietor chose dark colors that didn't show stains.
The food was brought out quickly. Excited, Kaizong introduced each dish to Scott, explaining the ingredients and methods of preparation. Kaizong was a bit surprised that he, who had left Silicon Isle as a child of seven, could still recall those tastes and flavors. Crossing the Pacific seemed to have also carried him back across a gulf of more than a dozen years.
Scott had no appetite, especially after he learned how duck liver, pig lung, cow tongue, goose intestines, and other organ meats had been prepared. He chose plain rice porridge and soup — choices that appeared to offer the least risk of accumulated heavy metals. He restrained the impulse to pull out the field testing kit. As a result of the network-access regulations, it was impossible to connect to remote encrypted databases from here, and thus impossible to determine the composition of food, air, water, soil, and the associated risks. And of course augmented-reality technology had no use here.
Director Lin seemed to detect his anxiety. He pointed to the electric rickshaws hauling water through the streets outside: "This restaurant belongs to the Luo clan. Even the water is hauled in from Huang Village, nine kilometers away."
The Luo clan controlled 80 percent of Silicon Isle's high-end restaurants and entertainment venues. The clan's economic power was based on the largest collection of e-waste-dismantling workshops on the island, including those at Xialong Village, which they intended to visit this afternoon. The power of the Luo clan was such that they had their first pick of all waste containers passing through Kwai Tsing, and whatever was left was divided up between the other two big clans. A real-life example of the Matthew effect, the triumvirate of Luo, Chen, and Lin clans had in effect been reduced to reign by the Luo clan alone. It was even powerful enough to influence government policy.
Scott turned over Director Lin's words in his head, trying to guess at the hidden meaning. Another bit of Chinese folk wisdom came unbidden to his mind: Once you've eaten someone's food, it's hard to raise your voice at him. Once you've accepted someone's gift, it's hard to lift your hand against him.
He was growing more and more annoyed at these Chinese tricks, as though he had to constantly decrypt everything that was said while the encryption key shifted unpredictably with the flow and context. He decided to remain silent.
"Come, come, let's drink!" This was the best way to break an awkward silence at a meal. Director Lin lifted his foamy beer.
A few rounds later, Director Lin's face was once again bright red. After the last time, Scott was more cautious. Although the Chinese also had a proverb that translated to in vino veritas, it didn't seem to apply to Director Lin.
"Mr. Scott, please allow me to be frank." Director Lin clapped Scott's shoulder, his alcohol-laden breath in Scott's face. "I'm not trying to hinder your investigation and research. I have my own difficulties. But please listen to a bit of advice: this project isn't going to work out, and it's best you leave here as quickly as possible."
Kaizong finished translating and looked at Scott, a trace of annoyance in his expression.
"I totally understand. We serve different masters. Why don't you also listen to a bit of advice from me? This project is going to be a win-win for everyone. There are no downsides. Anything can be discussed. If it succeeds, it will be a model project for Southeast China. This is an important step for China's national recycling strategy. Your contribution will not be forgotten."
"Ha!" Director Lin's laughter had no mirth in it. He drained his glass. "Interesting. Americans will dump all their trash on another's doorstep and then, a few moments later, show up and say they're here to help you clean up and that it's all for your own good. Mr. Scott, what kind of national strategy would you call that?"
The sharp retort from Lin stunned Scott. Apparently this man was more than the cowardly bureaucrat he had imagined. He carefully considered his response, struggling to inject sincerity into his words.
"The world is changing. Recycling is an emerging industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Maybe it's even the way to control the fate of global manufacturing. Silicon Isle has a first-mover's advantage here. Shifting gears is much easier for you than for developed countries, and you can act without the political and legal burdens they face. What you need is technology and modern management practices to increase efficiency and reduce pollution. Right now, both Southeast Asia and West Africa are hotspots where a lot of money and companies are going in, trying to secure themselves a seat at the table. But I can guarantee that the terms offered by TerraGreen Recycling are the best. We also never neglect to give back to those who help us ..."
Scott emphasized "give back." Images of those officials from the Philippines hinting for bribes flashed across his mind.
Director Lin did not think this American would be so direct, completely devoid of the typical empty buzzwords and insincere politeness he had come to expect. He hesitated, lifting his empty glass and setting it back down, and made a decision. "I'm glad that you're so straight with me. Then I'll put all my cards on the table, too. The issue here isn't money, but trust. The natives don't even trust the Chinese from outside the island, let alone Americans."
"But Americans aren't all the same. Just like all Chinese aren't the same. I can tell you're not like the rest." Scott now used the trick that, he knew from experience, worked everywhere on the planet.
Director Lin stared at Scott, his jaundiced eyes filled with swollen blood vessels. He looked drunk but wasn't. After a while, he harrumphed and said, "You're wrong, Scott. All Chinese are the same. I'm no exception."
Scott was surprised. This was the first time that Director Lin had called him "Scott" instead of "Mr. Scott." But he was even more surprised by Lin's next question.
"Do you have children? What's your hometown like?"
In Scott's limited — but not inconsiderable — experience of socializing with Chinese men, he had found that most would converse about international politics and global trends. Some would talk about business, and a few would bring up religion or hobbies. But never once had he encountered anyone who brought up his own family or asked about Scott's. They were like natural-born diplomats: holding forth about the world and concerned with the fate of all peoples, but always omitting their own private lives as fathers, sons, husbands, or brothers from conversations with him.
"I have two daughters. One is seven, the other thirteen." Scott took out his wallet and showed the creased photograph to Director Lin. "This picture is old; I never got around to changing it. I grew up in a small town in Texas. It's a bit of a ghost town now, but back when times were good it was very pretty. Have you seen the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films? It's a bit like that, but not so scary." Scott laughed, and Kaizong joined him.
Director Lin shook his head and returned the pictures to Scott. "When they're older they'll break many hearts. I have only a son, thirteen, in middle school."
A pause. Scott nodded, encouraging Lin to continue. Truth be told, he didn't know where the conversation was going.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Waste Tide"
Copyright © 2013 Chen Qiufan.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Translator's Note on Language(s) and Names,
Part One: Silent Vortex,
Part Two: Iridescent Wave,
Part Three: Furious Storm,
About the Author and Translator,