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edge staff writer


The space between worlds – ‘Vagabonds’

April 22, 2020
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Speculative fiction has always been the literature of big ideas.

Granted, these ideas have often swathed in genre trappings that render them more palatable to less-suspecting readers. And there’s no denying that for decades, speculative fiction was relegated to the disreputable realm of luridly-covered cheap paperbacks and niche publications. Nowadays, of course, even the more “serious” readers and writers out there acknowledge the possibilities that come with genre exploration, allowing for a more “literary” understanding of the work.

But never forget: the ideas have always been there, right from the beginning.

Those big ideas are plentiful in “Vagabonds” (Gallery, $27.99), the first novel from Hugo Award-winning writer Hao Jingfang to be translated into English, courtesy of acclaimed author and translator Ken Liu. It’s a story of young people trapped between two worlds, sent to spend their formative years amidst another culture, only to discover that their home no longer fits them.

It’s a sharp and incisive commentary on how cultural differences can skew worldviews and hinder communication. It’s also an exciting, engaging narrative, driven by detailed plotting, strong characters and some first-rate world-building. As with all great speculative fiction, the quality of the ideas and the execution are well-matched.

A hundred years ago, Mars declared war against Earth, a revolutionary act in which they demanded independence. It took many years and considerable bloodshed, but it was a war ultimately won by the Martians. Many more years passed before the two sides would consider returning to the table, though factions in both camps recognized the potential value.

Five years ago, a group of 20 Martian students – all around 13 years of age – were sent to Earth as part of a cultural exchange program, intended to help grow the budding reconnection between the two planets. These teenagers – the best and the brightest – were to spend their time learning about their hosts and teaching about themselves.

And now, they have returned.

Luoying is one of the Mercury Group, a dancer who also happens to be the granddaughter of the most powerful man on Mars. She has returned after her five-year absence to a place that no longer feels quite like her home. That’s not to say that she has embraced the hedonism of Earth’s status-obsessed and overly-commercialized society; however, she’s no longer fully invested in the more rigidly hierarchal and communally-focused ways of Mars either.

Her return drops her into the middle of the strained negotiations between the two planets; she and her Mercury cohort are left struggling to find where they fit in. The strictly defined path of Martian society no longer appeals to them after the freedoms of Earth, but the free-wheeling chaos of Earth seems far from sufficient as a substitute. Revolutionary notions begin to bubble up, traitorous thoughts about how perhaps neither way is optimal – so why not another path?

Of course, as with any high-level political discourse, there are those who have their own ideas about what should happen … and who should be in charge when they do. In the end, the fates of two worlds hang on the actions of a scant handful of people, some of whom – namely Luoying and her friends – are in many ways still just kids.

“Vagabonds” has a LOT to say. The societal differences between Earth and Mars are reflections, albeit exaggerated ones, of those seen between certain cultures in our own world. Of particular note are the opposing views of creativity – specifically, if creation is strictly an individualized commercial endeavor or if it should be harnessed (and hence restrained) in the name of the greater good. The notion of an intellectual property-driven economy is extrapolated out as well, laying out possible benefits and consequences. These are the big ideas.

But ideas alone aren’t enough. They need to be delivered … and boy oh boy, does Hao Jingfang deliver.

What we have here is a sophisticated interplanetary epic, driven by intrigue. The richness of detail with which this future world is constructed captivates; the realization of Mars – physically, intellectually, socially, ideologically – is particularly impactful. Descriptions of revolutionary politics commingle with well-reasoned technological projections and just the right lack of societal self-awareness – the Martians live in literal glass houses, so take from that what you will. The Terran side of things is rendered a bit more sketchily, but still more than sufficiently to make the dichotomy work effectively.

Luoying is a charming and conflicted hero, a protagonist whose own disconnect allows her to serve as an effective audience surrogate. Trapped between the two worlds, hers is more of an outsider perspective, a perfect window for the reader. The other characters that populate the story – revolutionaries and reformers, anxious administrators and frothing warmongers, creative quasi-bohemians and grinningly unapologetic capitalists – all offer something of legitimate interest; there are no throwaways or half-efforts amongst the dramatis personae.

(This is where we note that translator Ken Liu is one of the best in the business, playing an outsized role in helping English-speaking audiences access the brilliant work that is coming out of China’s speculative fiction scene. Hao Jingfang has written an incredible book; Ken Liu has allowed me to read it.)

“Vagabonds” is challenging, idea-driven work. It is thoughtfully conceived and beautifully written, a remarkable opus. Hao Jingfang has folded complex themes into a propulsive narrative; this book features all the hallmarks of the best, boldest speculative fiction. It will leave you intellectually and emotionally wrung out – and you’ll be grateful for it.

Last modified on Wednesday, 22 April 2020 10:39

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