On reading: Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang

Title: Vagabonds

Author: Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu

From the back: The first novel from the Hugo Award-winning author of ‘Folding Beijing’, translated by Ken Liu. 

Can the void between two worlds be bridged? 

AD2201. Just over a century ago, the Martian colonies declared their independence. After a brief conflict, Earth and Mars cut ties, carving separate trajectories into the future, viewing each other with suspicion and even hatred. Five years ago, a group of Martian students were sent to Earth as goodwill ambassadors from the Red Planet. Now the young men and women are coming home, escorting a delegation of prominent Terrans to see if the two worlds can bridge the void that has opened up between them. 

Almost immediately, negotiations break down and old enmities erupt. 

How do you escape the gravity of the past? 

Luoying, one of the returning Martians, is caught amidst the political intrigue and philosophical warfare. Martians and Terrans, old friends and new mentors, statesmen and revolutionaries – everything and everyone challenges her, pushing her to declare her allegiance. Torn between her native land and the world on which she came of age, Luoying must discover the truth amid a web of lies spun by both sides, she must chart a course between history and the future, or face the destruction of everything she’s ever loved. 

The gist: Jingfang’s Vagabonds is a thoughtful, reflective science fiction novel exploring politics and society across time and space. It’s not fast paced, but rather takes its time delving into the different characters, getting to know the worlds they live in and the windows through which they view their lives, their opportunities and communities. Multiple viewpoints from different perspectives highlight the greys in our society, the ways in which nothing is ever so simple as right or wrong, and the ways in which sometimes things are not so different as they might at first appear. The cycle of history has a tendency to repeat itself, the question is how much is learnt. 

By using multiple perspectives, from characters of different worlds, cultures, ages and social standing, Jingfang carefully constructs a story where nothing is presented as the truth, nothing is presented as being better than something else. Instead, the characters are allowed to explore the nuances themselves, and the reader left to draw their own conclusions. 

Vagabonds takes us on a journey into identity and politics, and what it is to be an individual within society. It doesn’t necessarily have the answers, but the questions are important ones, relevant as much to this world as the one that Jingfang creates. Political insights are gained through the stories of high-level politicians, artists explore their own freedoms to create within the constraints of their respective societies, and children grow up in opposing communities and learn to deal with the internal conflicts raised by their experiences.  

This book is not an adventure, but rather an exploration – of what home is, of who we are and who we can be in a society. It’s a journey into what it is to experience freedom, and where the boundaries lie. It’s a trip to understand what it means when your home is not what you thought it was, and as a reader you become as much a vagabond as the characters within it. And by stepping outside of the boundaries, Jingfang’s Vagabonds encourages you to inhabit the areas between the extremes. 

Favourite line: “All the sharp claws of his disposition had been retracted, all his yesterdays put away.”

Read if: You want a thoughtful, reflective science fiction tale, a tale about the past, present and future seen from the eyes of the young and the old. 

Read with: Time to reflect, and a critical mind, open to ideas and possibilities and prepared to explore the areas between the extremes. 

Get it: Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang (available 14th April 2020)

ARC gratefully received from Netgalley and Gallery/Saga Press

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