Hao Jingfang, “Vagabonds” (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu) (read by Emily Woo Zeller) – Here’s the thing with Ursula Le Guin: she didn’t go on for six hundred-odd pages at a pop. I know, I know, Saint Ursula could do no wrong and if she did write about the feelings of scifi people for six hundred pages we’d all eat it up and ask for seconds, but, the point stands. We should not neglect something that differentiates genre fiction from literary fiction, historically: a keen awareness of the reader’s patience. True, many a SFF classic strains that patience, but it usually does so with worldbuilding and action sequences, and a lot less with attempts to plumb the depths of character.
Critics sometimes compare Chinese scifi writer Hao Jingfang with Le Guin, which is where this opening gambit comes from. But even leaving aside the fact that Hao’s freshman effort weighs in at a robust 624 pages, the comparison shows the weak chops of a lot of genre criticism these days. You don’t need to hate “Vagabonds” to see the differences- I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, I’m confident in saying Hao is no Le Guin (which she doesn’t claim to be, as far as I know). “A woman writing scifi that’s not about space battles and has characters with inner lives and social commentary, must be a second coming of Le Guin!” is just dumb even if you think Hao has the chops to merit the comparison on quality grounds.
“Vagabonds” is about a small group of kids raised on a Martian republic in the 23rd century or so, who go visit Earth for a few years, and then come back. Hao depicts Mars as a sort of technocratic utopia; Earth, meanwhile, is its capitalistic, nationalistic self. You don’t see much of the trip, except as flashbacks narrated by the main character, Luo Ying. What you see is their homecoming. Most of them went out when they were thirteen and came back eighteen. And now they’ve got feelings and opinions about the comparative merits of Mars’ system versus that of Earth!
Given that this is a writer from China, it’s pretty impossible to avoid seeing some overlay of comparisons between China and “the west” here. Ken Liu, the translator and a big SFF writer himself, downplays these comparisons in an essay somewhere, but it came off pretty literal-minded. The strict technocracy of Mars — everyone lives in one big (glass! Lot of sand on Mars) city, everyone’s basic material needs are met, everyone joins an “atelier” workshop when they graduate and they’re all coordinated according to master plans established by engineers and scientists — does not strongly resemble China’s current system. But it kind of does seem like the symbolic relationship between the two systems does rather resemble that of contemporary China and contemporary US/Western Europe. Hao represents Mars as serious, planned, aimed towards high values, but also authoritarian (though not notably violent) and conformist. She depicts Earth as free, fun, valuing the individual, but also corrupt and shallow.
Well… the kids have feelings about it. There’s an interesting bit early on where Luo Ying interacts with a film director from Earth. The director is starting to dislike Earth’s shallow consumerism as Luo Ying starts to disdain Mars’ authoritarianism, they pass like ships in the night, both idealizing the systems the others are trying to escape. Time goes by and Luo Ying and her peers grow more and more restless with a life of assigned workshops and such. They act out by doing stuff like “borrowing” planes and flying around Mars’ valleys and so on without permission. They get angst, make plans. Luo Ying finds out terrible things about her parents, who were also dissenters, and her grandparents, who helped engineer the Mars system and possibly her parents demise.
It’s not bad, but it’s also not great. There’s a lot of characters, and most of them are hard to distinguish, especially the rebel Martian kids. Hao does a lot more telling than showing when she wants to get across the heightened emotional states of her characters, and you gotta figure translation isn’t helping. But also, like… no one seriously addresses a serious believablity question. A fragile ecology in a place where the atmosphere and temperature could kill you — Mars has not been terraformed, in this story — easily seems kinda like not the place to complain about “authoritarianism”? Especially when said system isn’t that violently repressive and mostly sticks to managing the technical systems keeping everyone alive? I get that these are kids and kids complain and act up. And they don’t really overturn anything- that would be besides the point, which seems to be, every system has it’s good and bad points but people need to express themselves etc etc. All well and good but it kind of seems impertinent when the wolf (or radical decompression) is at the door, and isn’t an interesting enough idea to really rocket the book past it’s sleepy pace and uninteresting characters… or to Le Guin comparisons, though Hao is young yet. ***