Vagabonds, by Hao Jingfang, is the latest Chinese science fiction novel that Ken Liu has skillfully translated from its native tongue for readers’ enjoyment. While I really hope this trend continues and begins to branch out to every culture possible, I find myself struggling to grasp and enjoy Chinese Science Fiction every time I foray into it. When I dug into the Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, I was fairly sure the issue was with me and my rudimentary understanding of Chinese culture. However, when it came to Vagabonds I had a much harder time pinning down what wasn’t clicking.
On its surface, Vagabonds has an interesting premise that would capture the heart of any fan of golden age sci-fi. Earth is a capitalist paradise, while Mars is a Socialist utopia, and they do not get along. After many years of war, a ceasefire is announced and a selection of students from both worlds are allowed to travel between the planets and put on a miniature world’s fair to display the brilliance and achievements of their home planets. We follow the POV of two individuals, one from Earth and one from Mars, who find themselves changed by their time on their respective new planets. Each of these POVs returns home to find themselves different from their peers and incompatible with their old homes. The story is about these protagonists trying to reconcile what they learned while away from home and prevent future conflict across the stars.
Initially, I was really enjoying Vagabonds. The premise is cool, the culture shock is captivating, the world-building is engaging, and the theoretical ideas surrounding capitalism and socialism by Jingfang feel like fresh takes that I was keen to hear more of. But, my joy and engagement did not last. As the book continues to chug along, and the perspective shifts from a split POV to focusing primarily on a single character, my interest began to wane. Vagabonds feels like it suffers way too much from long and uninteresting self-reflecting eulogies from its cast, and ideas that are just not deep enough to support its gigantic page count.
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the names of any of the POVs and cast, and that is because I cannot remember any of them. The characters are all unmemorable and fairly dull, which makes the fact that the book explores their feelings about every gust of wind and falling leaf drag on the reader like swimming with lead weights. The more that the book shifted from its core arguments of capitalism vs. socialism to the exploration of how its boring cast felt about events – the less I liked it. There are still some great ideas in the story, but they are absolutely not worth the amount of time it took me to dig them out of the rest of the filler.
Vagabonds is a book with a powerful premise that lacks in execution. Its enormous page count is unwarranted, and its characters carry the story about as well as sieves carry water. If you are a huge fan of golden age science-fiction and if you don’t mind a clunky narrative with an unwieldy page count, you might really enjoy it. But, if you find yourself having to choose between Vagabonds or a different enticing read – I would likely recommend that you go with the later.
Rating: Vagabonds – 5.0/10