Chen Qiufan

“Waste is changing our society and living”

A chat with the Chinese novelist, who argues that science fiction is the most powerful cognitive framework to perceive reality nowadays.

Set in a futuristic fictional, over-polluted region called Silicon Isle, based on the real world's Guiyu, the Guangdong city where electronics are sent to be recycled from all over the world, Waste Tide is the debut novel by sci-fi writer Chen Qiufan, who has been defined as “the William Gibson of China”. The book is a dystopic eco-thriller which springs directly from our present and talks about politics, technology and religion with a compelling story about mysterious virus infection and an empathetic hero, a “waste girl” called Mimi. But more than her, waste is the actual protagonist: of the novel specifically, and of our times in general, says Chen Qiufan. “Waste is profoundly shaping and changing our society and living. Outputs cannot be predicted by the inputs”, the Chinese novelist explains. “Our daily mundane world always treats the waste, garbage as the hidden structure together with its whole ecosystem beyond our sights. To maintain the glorious outfit of contemporary life. But unfortunately, someone takes advantage of it while others suffer from it”. The book, which has now been released in the U.S. with translation by Ken Liu (Tor Books, 2019), was first published in China in 2013. His story started two years before, when the author, now 37, visited his hometown Shantou and met a childhood friend, Luo, who mentioned a small town about 60 km away from where they lived: Guiyu.

How did this encounter inspire the novel?
Apparently, the American company he worked for had been trying to convince the regional government to establish eco-friendly zones and recycle the e-waste, but some local authorities had been standing in their way. “It’s difficult,” he said, a little too mysteriously, “the situation over there is… complicated.” I knew the word complicated often meant a lot. Something about his speech caught the attention of the sensitive writer’s radar in my brain. Intuitively, I realized there must be a deeper story to uncover.

The place: is Silicon Isle imaginary, or where did you take inspiration from?
It’s like a mixture of imagination and reality. From the real location Guiyu, Gui means “precious” and Yu means “isle”, so the name of the town literally translates into “precious isle”; Gui, written as a different character with the same pronunciation, also means “silicon”, making Guiyu sound like “silicon isle”. Guiyu turned out to be one of the largest e-waste recycling centres in the world, and local workers, without any protection or prior training, manually processed tons of e-waste on a daily basis. In one of the most widespread photos of Guiyu, a boy seeming no older than five sits on top of a pile of discarded circuit boards, computer parts and colourful wires, yet the relaxed look on his face could almost make people mistake the mountain of trash for Treasure Cove at Disneyland.    

How much of the real Guiyu can we find in Waste Tide?
Most of the description of local life is real. I visited Guiyu myself and tried to talk to the waste workers, but they were extremely cautious in front of me, perhaps fearing that I was a news reporter or an environmental activist who could jeopardize their work. I knew in the past that reporters had snuck in and written articles on Guiyu, articles which ended up pressuring the government into closing off many of the recycling centres. As a result, the workers’ income was significantly impacted. Although the money they receive was nothing compared to the salary of a white collar worker in the city, they needed it to survive. Unfortunately, I could not stay for any longer. My eyes, skin, respiratory system and lungs were all protesting against the heavily polluted air, so I left, utterly defeated. I put all my real feelings and experience in the novel. A few days later I returned to Beijing. My office there was spacious, bright and neat, equipped with an air-purifying machine, a completely different world from the massive trash yard that I had witnessed. Yet sitting there, I could not get that tiny Southern town out of my head. I had to write about it.

With your short fiction you won important prizes and published on the best magazines in the world. Why a novel?
In the beginning, the idea emerged as a short story, a brief glimpse into the ecological disaster that was Guiyu; but the more I researched, anthropology field study, papers, news reports, the more I realized that only a full-length novel could capture all I wanted to say. The story that later became Waste Tide could not be simply reduced to black and white, good and bad: every country, every social class, every authority and even every individual played an important part in the becoming of Guiyu. All of us were equally responsible for the grave consequence of mass consumerism happening across the globe.

There’s been lots of talking about plastic pollution recently.
I think it came to a tipping point that people began to realize how severe the problem is. The pollution is there for decades maybe for centuries, the process of accumulation accelerate as the technologies develop. Humans didn’t get smart enough to solve the problem before the waste turned to themselves. Technology might be the cure but fundamentally it’s all about the lifestyle, the philosophy and the value we believe in.

How is the situation in a fast growing economy as China's?
The issue was uprising during the last 4 decades along with the high speed of economic growth. We try to live as Americans, but we have 1.4 billion people. The air, water and soil, even the food was found polluted or even toxic. The government tries very hard not to repeat the old path of the western world like London or Los Angeles back in years. But it always takes longer to recover than to pollute the environment.

Do you think that the fight against climate change and pollution could be our ultimate fight on this planet as humans?
It turns out to be so true. Even before the alien invasion or Artificial Intelligence takes over the world. We will be choked by our own gas, flushed away by the melted iceberg, or stop reproducing offspring because of the genetic damages brought by chemical and radiation. It’s slow suicide. But not as slow as we expected.

In contemporary China, technology became part of the life of the individual to the point of integrating with the human, sometimes replacing them and filling it with simulacra; at some point Chinese reality surpassed imagination, and I believe science fiction is uniquely able to mirror this kind of hyperreality

In your book, people grow among the e-waste and use it for disparate uses: as an ornament or even prosthetics. Do you think we’re oversaturated by technology?
For sure. China has already replaced America as the largest producer of e-waste simply because we are so after the consumerist ideology. Everyone purchases newer, faster, fancier electronic devices. But do we really need all those things? All the trash that China fails to recycle will be transferred to a new trash yard, perhaps somewhere in Southeast Asia, Africa or South America. If we continue to fall into the trap of consumerism and blindly indulge in newer, faster, more expensive industrial products, one day we may face trash that is untransferrable, unavoidable, and unrecyclable. By then, we would all become waste people.

On the other side, spirituality is a theme which is always present in your texts. Do we need spirituality in the cyber-age?
Nowadays I think that science has become some sort of new religion: we believe in science and technology blindly because most of us don’t understand the whole process behind it. Technology is just a black box, but we don’t have proofs of his functioning… we don’t know how it works. To this extent, technology is something very similar to voodoo and magic back in the old days, just as A.C. Clark said. I think there’s a lot of irrationality in the process of accepting science and technology, that’s why it becomes some sort of superstition. On the other hand, to a certain level, I think that science and the principles of the universe, together with religion and magic, are all connected – actually, they may all be run by the same algorithm, but we didn’t get there yet. I think it’s a very interesting idea, a very eastern way to understand science fiction, by connecting, for example, Buddhism with technology.

Silicon Isle's society is dominated by lineage associations.
In the area I was born and lived in has a very strong tradition of clans as a way of mobilizing and organizing people who were bundled by blood and family names. So it is partially true that people still believe in the value of family. But it also shows the conflict of the transforming from a rural China to a modern China, individuals have to de-coherent from the structural of clans and families and fit in the new position. It’s always challenging and sometimes painful.

What is science fiction for you?
To me, science fiction is the most powerful cognitive framework to perceive reality nowadays. In China, the relationship between science fiction and mainstream fiction has often been complicated. Although Chinese SF has been promoted in the late Qing period by intellectuals like Liang Qichao and Lu Xun, which is also the father of Modern Chinese literature, in Chinese science fiction long history this genre has often been criticized or considered by mainstream literature “not literary enough” - in this sense Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem is an example. That’s why I once mentioned the concept “science fictional realism”, in order to stress the literary qualities of this literature which is able to represent the highly technological reality of Chinese daily life. A concept which got new nuances when I started considering Baudrillard’s idea of “Hyperreality”, which relates to the fact that in contemporary China, technology became part of the life of the individual to the point of integrating with the human, sometimes replacing them and filling it with simulacra; at some point Chinese reality surpassed imagination, and I believe science fiction is uniquely able to mirror this kind of “hyperreality”.

Chinese science fiction is rising. Do you think it’s related to the economic, social and tech boom of the country?
The pace of Chinese society has seen an incredible acceleration in the past 20 years, and although now it seems to have slowed down, the momentum was enormous. We will see a swelling tide of changes in all fields: technology, economy, culture, social structure and ethics. People appear to be anxious about these changes, which are not easy to grasp. Now it is said to be the golden age of Chinese Sci-Fi. The answer is yes and no.

On one hand, we have Hugo Awards winners and huge capital seeking good sci-fi for film adaptations. Apparently, we can reach a broader market and be more influential not only in China but internationally. The government also considers science fiction to be a valuable cultural export. I think the broader background is the rise of China as a whole, in politics, the economy, and culture; it is playing an increasingly important role. When its overall political and economic strength reaches a certain level, a nation will usually seek out cultural exportation. In the past, China’s cultural trade deficit was rather obvious; we had very few cultural exports. It also has to do with chance and luck. Ken Liu played a key role. We were very fortunate to have a translator like him who has native proficiency in both English and Chinese, and who is not only familiar with but also interested in science fiction. On the other hand, we don’t have as solid a writer base compared to America or Europe. Our readers have narrow tastes and mindsets in science-fiction. Our film industry is not ready for science-fiction movie production even we have The Wandering Earth. The money might boost the industry, but that might eventually damage the passion. As we are relatively young, there’s still a long way to go.

You are working for the 2019 Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture in Shenzhen, the tech capital of the world, a city with a population estimated at 12 million, which 40 years ago barely existed.
I was born and raised in the cities. Most of my life was spent in cities. So cities are basically where I would prefer to set my stories and characters. But meanwhile, China is so different. We condensed the process of urbanization within 4 decades. Everything was like collage and montage together in space and time. Actually, I feel I experienced this kind of “spatial fracturing” and “temporal desynchronization” since my early childhood. I was born in a small city of Guandong province, where ancient beliefs and the latest technological devices were both parts of our daily life. At that time, and now, even more, the pre-modern, modern and post-modern way of life seemed to co-exist in our everyday life, and I think this sort of fragmentation is kind of represented in Waste Tide, where I put together different spatial and temporal elements. In fact, for his familiarity with past present and future, science fiction may particularly able to mirror this kind of different and co-existent times and spaces, produced by a rapid technological and economic change. To this extent, I agree with the fact that science fiction is mirroring a postmodern present.

“Civilization did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defence”. What do you think about this quote by Don DeLillo?
I think from his beautiful poetic proses we can learn his strong statement that we need to take responsibilities on what we consumed and disposed of. The consequence is out there. We have to suffer the increase of entropy brought by garbage, the chaos created by waste. There is no way we can survive without them, in a broader view, we co-exist with garbage on the same planet.

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