Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang // Book Review

Here goes another book review for a book I don’t think I’ll do justice. If you’re interested in politics especially those around socialism and capitalism, then you’re going to really like this book. While set on Mars in a futuristic version of reality, the story is much more literary diving into more realistic themes instead of exploring the world beyond. For these reasons, I think this heavy science fiction tome is perfect for any fans of literary fiction and character-driven novels.

Here’s more about the book

A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth in this spellbinding novel from Hugo Award–winning author Hao Jingfang.

In 2096, the war of independence erupts when a colony of people living on Mars rebel against Earth’s rule. The war results in two different and mutually incompatible worlds. In 2196, one hundred years later, Earth and Mars attempt to initiate a dialogue, hoping a reconciliation is on the horizon. Representing Mars, a group of young delegates are sent to Earth to study the history and culture of the rival planet, all while teaching others about life on Mars.

My thoughts

Before I get into my thoughts, I want to make clear that Vagabonds isn’t about space travel between Earth and Mars. There’s the one trip from Earth to Mars as the group of students return to Mars, but that’s about as much space exploration in this story. I was anticipating there to be more space travel, but the terra-formed Mars is enough to satisfy my love for science fiction. The focus of this book is on Luoying. She’s a young dancer who just spent five years on Earth to study dancing and get a feel of what life is like for the other side. While the back of the book notes another perspective (and there are multiple perspectives in this book), I feel like the only one I truly cared about was Luoying. She’s the only consistent character throughout the novel as people are introduced and then leave while you’re reading.

The world that they live in is quite different than the world Earth has become. On Earth, the main focus seems to be capitalism. Every country’s adopted capitalism bringing them the freedom to do whatever you want, but at a price. The steep price is selling and buying and continuing the momentum of making money. It doesn’t sound like the Earth I want to be a part of, but it’s actually the United States that I am a part of.

Then, you have Mars. Mars focuses their time on technology and the arts. Because there’s no real jobs or money out on Mars, everyone lives by the good graces of the Martian government. They get stipends and have to really take care of themselves. While there’s the freedom to pursue art in any form (dancing, music, photography, painting, etc), you also live in a strict society where you have to declare your career and you’re pretty much stuck with it for the rest of your life.

Luoying’s had a taste for both and early on in the book, she struggles with figuring out what’s the best planet to live on. Mars, where she can be a dancer and dance all the time, but never be able to pursue, dream, or even party with her friends. Or Earth, where she can do anything and everything she wants including dance, but also have her dreams be dashed by the all consuming dollar. Her time on Earth changed her because of the lifestyle and the politics. The politics she grew up with seemed more realistic than the politics on Earth. I think she really loved Earth and her experience there and can’t consider going back to the world she came from. It’s highly understandable especially as a young person.

When you think of the story in this sense, then I feel like you have an interesting coming-of-age story where Luoying takes you to understand her past, her parents, and herself. But this story is also about revolution; about how you can change your perspective or see how “the other side lives” and realize that what you might have considered utopia isn’t completely the case. Finally, there’s Mars’ government trying to make a name for themselves, separating themselves from Earth who so desperately wants to keep its claws in Mars. In those instances, I truly loved this story and the powerful message it brings to young people everywhere.

However, this book was pretty long and while it all moved pretty well along (with enough momentum to keep you intrigued), not much happens in the story. In many cases, it felt more like the real life journey of a young person. It was thoroughly character-driven meaning that there weren’t any other outside factors. The world was very much self-contained and the story only moved forward as you watch Luoying and her friends. In this regard, then they did an excellent job. But as a 600-page novel, it moved at a pretty slow burn. I will note that I read this on audio, so it was easier to digest.

What really blew me away was how well each character was written. You knew right off the bat what kind of person Luoying was. There are certain things the author keeps close to the chest for the sake of the story, but you can live and breathe these characters. These characters were so real and even towards the end, there’s a chapter dedicated to each of the supporting characters. It’s a chapter to consider their opinions and what they believe regarding the new Martian politics and the dichotomy between Earth and Mars.

While I wasn’t a fan of having individual chapters for their individual thoughts especially when some of these characters didn’t have that much page time, I thought it was interesting that Hao Jingfang didn’t forget to include these. It’s almost as if she’s reinforcing the idea that people don’t think like each other. The importance of individualism in this book is so prevalent when you consider all the supporting characters alongside Luoying. And there are a lot of characters.

I also felt like the story really held on to its accuracy. The logistics were also really well done. When Luoying dances, she takes into consideration the gravity of both Mars and Earth. On Earth, she has more gravity which requires her to work harder to get the leaps and jumps that she would have normally gotten when she was on Mars. She was even born with a lower bone density to accommodate for the gravity on Mars.

Overall, I really enjoyed the conversations about freedom and the worlds in which Luoying came from. While I really wish there was more cohesion to the story, folks who love stories of political intrigue and that slow burn will truly appreciate it. Those who also think about the delicate balance between freedom and capitalism will definitely like it too.

Thanks to Saga Press for the gifted copy of this book.

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