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Waste Tide

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Waste Tide

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Author: Chen Qiufan
Publisher: Tor, 2019
Head of Zeus, 2019
Original Chinese publication, 2013

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Cyberpunk
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Mimi is drowning in the world's trash.

She's a waste worker on Silicon Isle, where electronics -- from cell phones and laptops to bots and bionic limbs ? are sent to be recycled. These amass in towering heaps, polluting every spare inch of land. On this island off the coast of China, the fruits of capitalism and consumer culture come to a toxic end.

Mimi and thousands of migrant waste workers like her are lured to Silicon Isle with the promise of steady work and a better life. They're the lifeblood of the island's economy, but are at the mercy of those in power.

A storm is brewing, between ruthless local gangs, warring for control. Ecoterrorists, set on toppling the status quo. American investors, hungry for profit. And a Chinese-American interpreter, searching for his roots.

As these forces collide, a war erupts -- between the rich and the poor; between tradition and modern ambition; between humanity's past and its future.

Mimi, and others like her, must decide if they will remain pawns in this war or change the rules of the game altogether.



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-year-long 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.

Copyright © 2013 by Chen Qiufan


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