(2013 / 2019) Chen Quifan (translated by Ken Liu), Head of Zeus,
£18.99, hrdbk, 349pp, ISBN 978-1-784-97793-1
Published in China in 2013 and then in the West in English in 2019, though undoubtedly science fiction, this book tries to wedge itself into several sub-genre categories at once, not always successfully. It is eco-thriller, techno-thriller, AI study, cyberpunk, crime drama (Yakuza Mafia families play a key role), a superhero adventure, a study of class conflict and the huge divide between obscenely rich and terribly poor, a love story and the whole is hugely influenced by Manga & Anime. There are a few fantasy elements too, with ancestral ghosts playing a not insignificant part.
Silicon Isle is a polluted hellhole dumping ground for the waste-products, obsolete tech and broken machineries of the twenty-first century. Much of the population is employed to sift the vast international dumping ground for any items or parts that can be salvaged, repaired or recycled. It is dangerous work as the waste is highly polluted, radioactive and some machines still have moving parts such as robot arms that can crush skulls, and trap the unwary. The politics and landscape are captured in brilliant world-building descriptions.
The technology of the very near future gets frightening, with must haves including artificial limbs and organs. These are not used through medical necessity but simply because they are considered high fashion.
Control of Silicon Isle is divided between three family-clans, and after she is affected by contact with a mysterious high-tech helmet, all three groups take an interest in a young waste-scavenger, Mimi, who has also attracted the attention of an American-Chinese interpreter who clearly loves her, but circumstances will prevent him being able to protect her too much.
Several real companies and corporations are mentioned in the book by name. The prologue deals with a Greenpeace protest that ends in tragedy. There is also an unexpectedly ingenious role for 1940’s actress and inventor Heddy Lamarr.
Some of the gangsters are terrifying, particularly Knifeboy, who doesn’t just use knives but also a machine that attaches him to his torture victims, transforming their pain to jolts of electronic pleasure for himself.
Luo Jincheng is the most powerful of the crime-lords ruling over Silicon Island, descended from several generations and trapped by a tradition of violence. With American agent, Scott Brandle offering billions of dollars to upgrade the Island’s productivity, Luo knows he must be more brutal than ever as the islanders threaten to rebel against the changes envisaged.
Chen Kaizong arrives as Brandle’s interpreter, but as a former islander himself, he knows the people there hold on dearly to their religious traditions with elaborate ceremonies for the dead.>
As a powerful computer virus begins to activate and bring about dramatic changes in Mimi, and a fierce monsoon is due to hit the island, Brandle and Luo Jincheng realize that Mimi is the key to their material salvation, Chen Kaizong wants to save her, and Mimi develops her own powers and agenda.
There is a great deal to commend here, with some high concept ideas and some very cinematic looking drama, but the switch from character to character (often in a non-linear style) fragments the narrative flow and for much of the time the characters do not get to interact with one another directly, but the book’s awareness of the sheer mess we are making of the World through pollution and too rapid changes in technology is pitched all too perfectly.
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