Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, trans. by Ken Liu (Saga Press 2020)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
Slow burn stories rarely find their place in modern storytelling. It is even rarer when a slow burn has so much thought and detail in its world-building that it warrants dissection of the most minute details. The novel Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang achieves this feat by taking its time revealing Jingfang’s extensive research of physics, economics, and social systems.
Jingfang is a Chinese science fiction author and current researcher in the field of macroeconomics in Beijing. She makes her expertise known in her clever structure of Vagabonds’ setting and plot. Helping bring her work to the attention of English speakers is translator and author Ken Liu, who previously worked with Jingfang on her Hugo award winning debut novelette, Folding Beijing. The two work together flawlessly in the novel’s translated form to craft a futuristic world with many of the same problems facing present-day readers. It speaks to those who feel a general sense of ennui and confusion as part of a younger generation, while giving a voice to those who have ever felt a sense of duality or repetition of their personal histories.
Taking place at the dawn of the twenty-third century, Vagabonds drops readers in the middle of a space voyage from Earth to Mars in which a team of cultural exchange students return to their Martian home after five years away. These students, called the Mercury Group, are not aliens of the little-green-man variety, but descendants of colonizers from Earth who have broken away from their Terran origins to pursue a different kind of life. The group is primarily focused on the protagonist Luoying, a skilled dancer and granddaughter of the Martian consul. The term “protagonist” should be used loosely here, as the story has a rather large ensemble cast of characters and tends to switch perspectives to fill out the astronomical playground that might not be too far off in our own future. However, it is Luoying that gives the most equal and objective view of the Martian population and of Earth. She is also the launching pad for the story’s philosophical undertones as she actively pursues understanding of Mars’ past to gauge its future through the political unrest that defines the novel’s climax.
Luoying’s journey of historical inquiry acts as the lynchpin from the first few pages as an ambassador crewwoman sums up the Cold War-esque conflict: “Sometimes the fight over the treasure is more important than the treasure itself” (11). The war over resources and trade between discordant and capitalistic Earth and socialist utopia Mars saturates the first part of the novel as the planets strive for economic cooperation and peace. Luoying, along with the rest of the Mercury Group, find themselves singled out because they are the only people who have fully experienced life on both planets. Their adjustment to life back on Mars is met with amusement and harsh criticism by those of both Earth and Martian origin. The Mercury Group’s critics reflect on the nostalgia one planet holds for the colonized people while also chipping away at the surface of the perceived “utopianism” of the progressive newcomer to the solar system’s habitat.
Contrasting Luoying’s ambivalence and desire to reach an equilibrium are Terran filmmaker Eko and Luoying’s brother Rudy. Eko, disillusioned with life on Earth, follows in his mentor’s footsteps to visit Mars and seek understanding about how a group-centric culture fosters freedom of expression. He believes absolutely that opening up relations between the two planets could do nothing but good for Earth, and uses the medium of art to demonstrate the benefits of expression without monetization and the harmony that can be achieved by looking at society as a single unit instead of a class system. These grand notions and favoritism toward the image Mars projects puts Eko at odds with his other Terran diplomats. Simultaneously, his actions cause his Martian hosts to place suspicion on his enthusiasm for learning about Mars; they would sooner believe any Terran would rather harbor subversive intent than genuine fascination with their way of life. Conversely Rudy, who once held Luoying and Eko’s blind trust in his heart, finds himself apart from the slowly corrupting system of Martian government. Rudy slowly gravitates toward the inclination that Mars needs to be self-sufficient, and only demonstrations of force toward the Terrans will garner them any favorable diplomacy and respect. It’s no coincidence that the interactions between Rudy and Eko allow Luoying to assume the role of mediator, a role she is tied to throughout the remaining conflicts in the novel.
The second part of the novel applies what the Mercury Group and the Martian government have learned about Earth and its war with the Terrans to radically change the political and social landscape of the colony. The fragile trust that the Martians have attained places grandiose dreams of expanding outside the single metropolitan city to more life-sustaining settlements by relying on propaganda about Earth’s greediness to support the warmongering motivations to obtain the resources needed to begin the expansion. Likewise, the Mercury Groups’ more zealous members make plans for rebellion against the perceived restrictions the Martian government has placed on its people. We also see these themes in the characters’ social interactions, highlighting the fact that the perceived isolation each narrator feels is just that, a feeling. In reality, intertwined lives and unspoken words are what seem to disconnect the characters from each other, and the labels that denote the social divide are what make them different in the eyes of their peers. Martians distrust Terrans simply because they are Terrans and vice versa. The only real difference between the two is the planet they were born on. Luoying comes to this realization when the revolution of her student group falls on the Martian government’s deaf ears. Although their cause has helped broaden the horizons of the planet’s civilian population, their real movement has been manipulated behind closed doors by more than one outside source to fulfill different agendas.
Nevertheless, in the third part of the novel all the players get a chapter devoted to their innermost thoughts, ambitions, and hopes, despite their collision course for historic recurrence which only Luoying can see. Liu beautifully translates what Jingfang’s ability to encourage readers to see the multifaceted parts of a history, a society, and a person. Everything has its own usefulness and its own flaws; real core problems will often repeat themselves, whether its about peace, war, justice, or reform. In the end, as the idealistic character Anka notes, “The problem of human nature can only be changed though human nature, but there is no such solution. However, an individual’s problems can be solved by helping another individual” (566). Jingfang’s sentiment here is that whether people often talk of their own problems or an entire society’s problems, there is rarely a completely rational or selfless motive in their proposed solution.
Vagabonds, although a juggernaut with a turtle’s pace, uses the slow progression of plot, characterization, and world-building to its advantage. This book is not for the faint of heart, or those seeking quick satisfaction. Its goal is to savor and digest its contents instead of giving way to hare-like self-indulgence. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the painstaking details that guide these complex economic and sociological layers, while interesting in their own right, will likely be more appealing to readers who look for a social science vibe in their fiction. But Jingfang makes the slow-burn work, making herself a vagabond in her own right by not conforming to the overly flashy futurism or space operatic tropes associated with science fiction. Like Luoying, she sees the benefits and aesthetic values of being a bridge between two sub-genres of SF. Liu rounds out the trio of bridging vagabonds as his finesse in translating Chinese and English texts balance the privilege to handle the space between two cultures. At its heart, Vagabonds gives the reader permission to be curious, to see people or places from every angle, and to drift as long as it takes until you find the place you belong.
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