by Hao Jingfang
Translated by Ken Liu
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted March 31, 2020
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I received an e-ARC of Vagabonds from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. It will be published in two weeks, April 14. The author, Hao Jingfang, is the first Chinese woman to win a Hugo, for her 2015 novelette Folding Beijing, available to read online at Uncanny Magazine. It was translated into English by Ken Liu, who also translated this novel. It's her first novel but this isn't its first appearance, just the first time in English. The original title would have been translated as Wandering Maearth. Amazon has a German edition that translates as Wandering Skies. The Maearth is a space ship that continuously travels between Mars and Earth in the mid-22nd Century. The story begins about 40 years following the planetary war in which Mars won its independence. The vagabonds are teenagers born on Mars, but whom lived on Earth for about five years, then they return to Mars on the Maearth, along with a contingent of Earth representatives attending a conference on Mars for economic trade talks.
I have a mixed opinion about it. It's ambitious and intriguing, and I liked it much more by the end than I did several times throughout, since it gets bogged down too often in dialectical rhetoric. When it concentrates on the characters, their ambitions, goals, and emotions, it's entertaining and inspirational. One of the vagabonds is eighteen-year-old Luoying, whose grandfather, Hans Sloan, is Head Consul of the Martian government. She was upset when many Earth people said her grandfather was a dictator. She has difficulty getting a straight answer from other Martians to whom she puts the question, including her older brother Rudy, and that's not the only thing he seems reluctant to discuss. Another is the fate of their parents, killed ten years before in a mining accident on the moon Deimos. Rumors abound that they were on Deimos as a punishment for radical activity, and that Hans Sloan was the one who imposed the verdict on his son and daughter-in-law. There are multiple times she is on the verge of getting information she wants, only for the other person to end the conversation or change the subject. There's a lot of talk among the young Martians, both those who went to Earth and others who stayed on Mars, mainly concerning their education, and their need to pick their "atelier." That's French, usually used to describe an artists' workshop, but on Mars it was for work disciplines, from agriculture, to electronics, engineering, or the arts. Luoying's original interest had been dancing. Due to her experiences on Earth, and her confusion about her family, Luoying cannot make a decision of what her life's work should be. A major concern is the rigidity of Martian culture, that one's selection of an atelier was typically a lifelong commitment.
There are similarities to other politically oriented novels, particularly Le Guin's The Dispossesed, another that contrasted a collectivist society with a capitalistic one. In both books, the more "utopian" society has a much smaller population, and fewer resources to work with, resulting in more restrictions on choice. Also in both books, the main viewpoint character begins to recognize the restrictions in a way they hadn't before, influenced by their exposure to the other society. "Freedom" means different things to the different worlds, and the definition of freedom changes for the individual based on their experiences. I don't know if this is a stand-alone story, or if Hao has plans for sequels. There are mentions of other events that could be explored in other books, particularly an extra-solar expedition to Proxima Centauri, which had just reached the outer edges of our solar system. Also, the terraforming of Mars is just beginning with the capture of the dwarf planet Ceres, brought into orbit around Mars, to be exploited for its water. In the end, Luyoing does decide on her future. She becomes a Martian ambassador to Earth, a permanent resident of the Maearth. I'd like to read more of her story, as well as that of her friend Pierre, designer of space mirrors used to direct the sun's heat onto the Martian surface. This is overlong, not only because of the political monologues, but because there was too much repetition of the theme. I would have preferred more human interaction, less pontificating, but it's still recommended. I look forward to more of Hao's work, hopefully we'll see others available in translation.
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