But stop; let’s go back.
More than just a question of character complexity, the writing in Vagabonds itself, here translated by Ken Liu, resists clear definitions. The book’s tone could be described as “dreamlike” — Hao excels at narratives that exist at a remove, as if the reader is witnessing events happen at distance. This pace makes it unclear at times as to which characters are important and which events are significant and hold latent meaning — Luoying, the book’s primary character, is as close as the book comes to a protagonist, but even her role ebbs and flows in importance, and she disappears almost entirely for the novel’s final section. Individuals fade in and out of the narrative; decisions that obsess characters for several chapters disappear without ever being mentioned again. The effect is profoundly disorienting and surreal, as if the world is emerging temporarily and then fading back into the mists of history.
It’s through this exquisite insistence on transience that Hao masterfully demonstrates both the dreamy ungraspability of the passage of time and the inability of any individual to fully narrativize their own life, to pinpoint any specific moment as the moment of import and thus reify it. Political machinations, interplanetary travel, fashion and engineering, the biomechanics of dance, love and loss, war both cold and hot: all these fade into view and then out again with equal weight. The effect is disorienting and complex, liminality weaponized as a way to keep the reader perpetually aware of the ultimate transience of discrete moments within the greater momentum of history.
But stop, let’s go back again.
The momentum of history, gently problematized by Hao, could not exist as it does in Vagabonds without equal recognition of the fact that it is a product of its particular situatedness in the real world outside of the book. Publicity for Vagabonds advertises it as for “fans of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Naomi Alderman’s The Power” — two wildly different books that also grapple with bare life in a changing world. If such marketing is based on audience reception alone, then Simon & Schuster wasn’t wrong: I was excited about this release, not only because of Hao’s singularly nuanced and compelling voice, but because Never Let Me Go and The Power are among my favorite books. But teasing out the strands of why a novel like Vagabonds resonates given its vastly different stories is a more complex undertaking, similar not in tone or structure or characterization but in the murkiness undergirding the sense of being adrift in a world that is at once both familiar and new.
Never Let Me Go is an understated bildungsroman set in a near-future England where clones are raised for their parts, and the narrative focuses on the quotidian sorrow of living with the knowledge of one’s own place in such a system. Conversely, in The Power, women develop the ability to control biologically generated electricity, inducing the collapse of one world system and the rise of another. The tone and scale of these two novels couldn’t be more different — both from each other and from Vagabonds — but they share a preoccupation with the ambiguities of being between two end points of a changing world and the ways in which individuals get lost in the in-between spaces.
This, too, is a defining feature of Vagabonds — the ambiguity of existence after one of history’s end points but before the next, and the characters’ struggles to understand their place in a world over which they have very little control. From a marketing standpoint, all the three novels juxtapose the prospect of violent, destructive change with an already-unbearable status quo. Dystopia for some and utopia for others, these worlds are already in a state of flux in which those who are being harmed stand to gain much and those on top stand to lose everything. If we’re to take the relationship between these three texts at face value, then we must find those connections in the recognition that there’s no character complexity without textual complexity, and no textual complexity without the very complexity of the novel itself as a marketed cultural artifact.
Stop. Go back.
The difficulty of marketing such a book is due in part to the fact that Vagabonds would have been impossible to write even 15 years ago, because it represents a worldview that didn’t exist before the contemporary boom in Chinese science fiction consumption in the West. This new readership, introduced to Chinese SF by Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy, has created a market for SF from China at the same time as it has struggled to identify what makes “SF from China” any different from American or British science fiction. Since then, at least four translated anthologies of Chinese SF have been published (three more than the preceding decades, with another slated for publication), with Western readers increasingly consuming SF originally written in Chinese and for an ostensibly Chinese audience. This newfound popularity has changed the focus of the work itself, and indeed, Chinese authors are increasingly grappling with the realities of writing for a non-Chinese audience. Hao Jingfang herself, in fact, was the first Chinese woman (and only second Chinese author) to win a Hugo (for her novelette, Folding Beijing), and Vagabonds — her first full-length novel to be translated into English — is uniquely aware of its readership both in and outside China.
In fact, it’s hard to read Vagabonds as anything other than a science fictional treatment of contemporary idealized Sino-American relations, written by someone clearly aware of both internal and external stereotypes about China and Chinese culture. Mars is easily interpretable as a stand-in for China — but it’s a China seen through the eyes of Westerners. Martian citizens routinely discuss the stereotypes of Mars that they encountered on Earth: it’s ruled by an authoritarian dictator who forbids all dissent; citizens are locked into their stations in life; people are mechanical, faceless masses without the benefits of individuality or creative expression; society is stagnant and barbaric; Mars seeks to expand, consume, and control Earth’s resources. Once they return to their homes, even Martian characters question whether such beliefs can be true and whether or not they have been indoctrinated to view their home planet favorably. Different characters come to different conclusions, but one thing that remains consistent is the novel’s insistence on complexity and contradiction at the expense of clarity. Mars is not the ideal paradise they believed it to be as children, but neither is it the autocratic prison imagined by Earth’s citizens.
Such recognition of contemporary Chinese SF’s ability to speak to an international audience, and to position Chinese literature in a global literary order, has been noted elsewhere, with SF author Xia Jia noting in the essay “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” that
[i]n reading Western science fiction, Chinese readers discover the fears and hopes of Man, the modern Prometheus, for his destiny, which is also his own creation. Perhaps Western readers can also read Chinese science fiction and experience an alternative Chinese modernity and be inspired to imagine an alternative future.
In Vagabonds, Hao Jingfang gives us two alternative modernities, neither of which are entirely China or fully the West: Mars reflects Western stereotypes of China just as Earth reflects Chinese stereotypes of Western economic and cultural systems. It’s a canny estrangement, and one that can only come from an author fully aware of the milieu in which she’s writing.
Who, then, is a conclusion like this for? Before the global literary establishment began to consume Chinese SF in the quantities it now does, such an astute, self-evaluative assessment would have had no home, either in domestic or international literature. Simply put, Chinese authors wrote for a Chinese audience, and (with a very small number of exceptions) international readers didn’t much care about how Chinese authors reflected their own society to Chinese readers. All that has now changed. Hao’s awareness of her audience is a profoundly contemporary phenomenon. She’s aware of the stereotypes international readers hold of China and Chinese culture, and her work grapples with that in a discerning and inventive new way, one in which Mars looks back at the world looking in and reflects outsiders’ stereotypes directly back to them to examine.
Back back back, then; each level of analysis requires looping back on itself to better understand the mechanics that initially produced it. There can be no questing, uncertain characters without looking at the intentionally ambiguous text itself; no analysis of the text’s misty tone is possible without considering the marketing system that published it; no such market analysis is possible without recognizing the shifting landscape of the established global literary order in the first place. Reading and understanding Vagabonds is like starting at the core of an onion and finding yourself still inside after peeling away layer after layer. To do so — and to believe that doing so will provide hard answers — is, as one of Hao’s characters puts it, to make a mess of a world that relies on nuance and complexity. Vagabonds refuses easy answers, inviting the reader to return to the beginning, to steadfastly refusing to provide a map to any kind of origin. Messy or not, it’s up to the reader to find their own answers.
Virginia L. Conn is a comparative literature PhD candidate at Rutgers University.