Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang. Translated by Ken Liu
Head of Zeus, hb, £18.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
Earth and Mars are in a midst of a political war of ideals. After Mars’s independence a century earlier, the two planetary have moved towards very different social structures. However, there is a burgeoning awareness that they need each other and, in an attempt to bridge the gap between the societies, a cohort of specially selected Martian students travel to Earth to enhance their studies as well as act as ambassadors for their planet. Vagabonds picks up when the students return home, disillusioned of their native planet while also being filled with nostalgia for a time before their enlightenment on Earth. They were sent with the aim to change Earth’s perspectives on Mars, but can they change the rigid, almost communist society of their beloved Mars?
Vagabonds is an interesting book. It explores the age-old conflict of the self verses society in a new way. On Mars, everything is for the community because the settler spirit they needed to survive on this harsh new planet has become the backbone of their society. There are no secrets, everyone works for the good of everyone else, there is no consumerism, no wealthy corporations. There is space for beauty and the arts, but there is little space for individual rights. This is at odds with Earth’s where a person is free to do what they want but suggests their focus in doing so is to acquire wealth.
It also covers rather poignantly the stresses of being in power, the need to take the unpopular road for the longer benefits, of adhering to the law even if it means going against family, and the path in which revolution can become mainstream. These are all examined in detail, sympathetically and with beautiful prose, because this is a beautifully written book, but I felt the style came at the price of character investment. I didn’t really grow attached to the characters, so turning the page was a choice rather than a need to see what happens next.
And it very long. At 600 pages, this is a weighty book, and because it is a literary dystopian sci-fi, there is a lot of self-reflection which means we are a good chunk of the way through before anything really happens. The main character, Luoying, returns home and starts questioning things she took for granted as she has been exposed to different viewpoints while on earth. While revelations are made over the course of the book, they are few and far between with lots of description about the futuristic, hive-like technology of Mars where everyone’s information is shared with everyone else. There are a few twists towards the end of the book, but the distance between the character and the reader meant, at least for me, they didn’t have the impact they were intended to have.
Overall, there were some elements that fell short for me such as the literary style which affected how I viewed the characters, and the slow pace. However, for those readers who prefer that style, then this is a very sophisticated and thought-provoking story about the explosive and the subtle ways to change a society.