Cover Image: Vagabonds


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This is a heavy novel. It feels like drifting slowly in a placid lake. The themes are important and the ideas are all-encompassing. It seems like it could/should have been two or three separate books but by binding them all the reader gets a sense of the questions the characters are grappling with and the dilemmas humanity faces individually and as a group. It is a very ambitious novel, well crafted and written.
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An interesting, substantial, and well-written science fiction novel. Unlike many popular SF novels at the moment, this is not a story of war, although a past war casts a shadow. VAGABONDS is a thought-provoking story about belonging, identity, and questioning that which you have been brought up to believe.

It is quite long, which might make it seem slow to readers who are more familiar with fast-paced space opera and such. However, VAGABONDS should appeal to readers, for example, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cixin Liu, and other chunky sci-fi reads.

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This book deals with the political implications of space colonization, one of my favorite sci-fi topics.  50 so years ago the Mars Colony declared independence from Earth, leading to a lengthy and damaging war.  As a part of a peace process 20 13 year old Martians were sent to earth to study for 5 years.  Those 5 years are over and the students, along with delegations from both Earth and Mars are returning to the red planet for a World Fair where Martians will display their new technology.  

Mars has become a collectivist society, while Earth is as always a capitalist society.  Both worlds have very conflicting views of how a society should be run.   The story follows Martian teen Luoying, the granddaughter of the de facto leader of Mars and Eko an Earthling film maker documenting Mars and the World Fair.  .

While Ken Liu is a gifted author and translator, I found the text fairly awkward to read.  I had to put the book down part way through because I was not enjoying it very much.  This is not entirely due to the translation.  The book is very internal and slow moving.  I did find the general concept very interesting and will likely return to the book after a break.
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The prose reminds me of The Three Body Problem, which I'm assuming is more of a language pattern than I was expecting... an entire novel of prose that reminds me more of poetry than sci-fi.

Really well done, asks good questions about what makes us "human" and what humanness means in our combined future.
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This was a much more enjoyable read than I was expecting.

We mostly follow Luo, who is a young girl and has recently come back to Mars after living for a few years on Earth. She has a lot of trouble to get back to the way society runs on Mars and starts to question then challenge it.

She has a few friends, including the other kids who went to Earth, who want to start some kind of a revolution.

The society on Mars feels very like communism ; people are given an apartment, all apartments are the same but the ones for families are bigger than the ones for single people, you have to choose what your field is and you cannot change it, the more your field brings to the society, the more funding it gets, etc. It feels idyllic at first, to me at least, but from an outsider's perspective, it seems limiting, and that's what Luo is discovering. There's also another character that we follow at first who is from Earth and is a film maker. He has a very interesting point of view on this society and gives an insight into Earth.

Earth in 2196 has become even more capitalist than it is today ; the whole point of life is to make money but some people are against that and Luo meets some of them while she's there. There's also been a war between Earth and Mars that shook both of them and they're now trying to mend things, hence people from Earth coming to Mars for the first time in ages. Earth wants to take the technology developed on Mars and capitalize on it on their planet, as you can imagine.

As Luo and her friends start their rebellion, a lot of political machinations are happening surrounding the talks with Earth.

This was a novel full of ideas and I loved that, but I'm not sure who to recommend this to. I also thought it interesting that this comes from a Chinese author, as I would say China also struggles with combining ideas of communism and capitalism. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Gallery Books for providing me with an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Thanks to Netgalley, for providing an ARC of this book in return for a fair and honest review.

There are many things to like about this book.  The world building is strong - a whole history of the relationship between Mars and Earth, with a whole lot of science added in.  Science is not my strong suit, so when I read a book like this, I'm willing to assume that the science is reasonable for plot purposes.  There are quite a few philosophical questions as well.

The problem?  It's just not a particularly compelling read.  The characters were flat, as were their relationships.  Part of the problem may be that the book just tries too hard - too many characters, too much history among them, too many" boy likes girl who likes other boy who likes other girl" and so on - I lost track of who was pining over who, and really didn't care.

And just when I'd start to think that the relationships might be getting interesting, we'd lurch off into philosophy and science, and I'd lose the thread again.
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RATING: 6/10

“Even in the most perfect society, there will be children who die unjustly. All human effort can achieve is to reduce, like an arithmetic series, the infinite sufferings of the world”

Thank you Definitely Books and Pansing Distribution for sending me a review copy of Vagabonds. This is indeed an interesting and thought provoking read. I would categorize Vagabonds as a dystopian science fiction with elements of sociology and philosophy. It is about Earth and Mars, whereby Mars was once the colony of Earth. War broke out between these 2 planets and Mars claimed independence. Years later, both planets decided to negotiate and to trade between each other as the planets depend on each other for certain resources and technology. Delegates from both planets will be sent to each other via Maearth (a “bridge” between Earth and Mars) to learn and experience the lifestyle of each planets. In addition, a small group of Mars teenagers will be chosen and sent to Earth for a “study visit” every year. The purpose of doing so is to provide Earth with hostages so that Earth is willing to negotiate and trade with Mars. However, when these students returned to Mars, they are mentally torn and conflicted as the culture and civilization as adopted in Mars and Earth are very distinct. This eventually led to a revolution being planned among these students against the rigid system adopted by Mars.

Vagabonds explored A LOT of ides: the conflict between capitalism and socialism, democracy and communism, individualism and collectivism. It also discussed on what is the true meaning of freedom and how to create a perfect Utopian society without injustice. However, such ideas were delivered in a very dull manner. For example, certain ideas were delivered via a “Q&A session” between Luoying and Dr. Reini. This is really flat and the author falls into the trap of info-dumping. If these ideas could be enlightened in a very subtle manner throughout the book, that would be great. The world building is also very well done but as the book goes on, it fell flat as well due to info-dumping. At times, I am wondering whether this book is too long (its 600 pages btw) as certain parts may be shortened since the point has been made earlier on.

Vagabonds is a 6/10 star read to me. But for the ending of the book (i.e. the politicking and the great debate), I might rate this a little lower. For those who enjoy a philosophical discussion on certain ideas with a sci-fi setting, do pick up Vagabonds as it will certainly give you some food for thought.
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The premise of this science fiction sounded so promising. As a group of kids from Mars struggle with the collective way of life after living on Earth where the way of life is individualistic. I found it way too long and I could easily get distracted while reading it.
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It's difficult to define this book. If I had to write one sentence, it would be: a group of young adults, born in the socialist economy of Mars and educated in the capitalist economy of Earth, struggle to find where they fit and to define what freedom means to them. Or: reading Vagabonds is like following guides as they work through philosophical thought experiments while considering the economic and political implications for their Martian society.

Neither of these fully explains Vagabonds, which I HIGHLY recommend. It's the type of book I could reread over and over and get something new every time.

Vagabonds most closely follows Luoying, the "princess of Mars," who's spent five years on Earth training as a dancer, partying, protesting, and falling in love. Now, back on Mars, she needs to choose her life path and wants to discover why her parents died in exile.

The novel jumps between characters, and I liked a number of them, but Luoying was interesting as the primary conduit. She's indecisive and easily caught up in other people's passion. She has an interesting backstory, a long-standing love, and a responsibility as someone with influence. Because she observes, we observe, and because she doesn't always decide, we have space to consider and decide for ourselves. This book has heartbreaking moments of tragedy and beauty. It has potential futures and paths heaped on top of each other, and yet it finds its own way.
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For fans of Hao's famous novelette "Folding Beijing," this novel is a wonderful opportunity for immersion in her powers of social imagination. The premise is simple and brilliant, and for readers in the US, Vagabonds is an opportunity to explore political economy through a cast of distinct characters set in motion by one of the most amazing minds writing SF today in China. Vagabonds attests to the power of fiction, and science fiction in particular, as a supplement to Hao's professional think tank work on challenges present and future. The span of this novel is a source of its force, so long as readers embrace the nuance and detail Hao layers into it.
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Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang (translated by Ken Liu) is set on Mars and explores the contrasting values of Earth and Mars through a group of teenagers known as the Mercury Group. These teenagers were born on Mars and then sent to Earth as delegates for five years, and when they return home with delegates from Earth, they become caught between the two worlds. 

The writing is lyrical and captivating and not quite what I expected in a science fiction novel, but I enjoyed it as a pleasant surprise. This story has an epic feel to it in that it's covering a lot of ground, and it can seem a bit slow in parts.
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A thoughtful meditation on the cyclicality of human folly over the arc of history. But like, in a fun, good way!

Chinese SF in English translation is having a bit of a moment, thanks to the talent of Chinese SF writers and the hard work of translators like Ken Liu. Vagabonds, by Hao Jinfang, tells the story of a future in which the people (all human) of Mars and Earth have settled into an uneasy peace after many years of war and separation. A group of young Martian delegates were sent to Earth to spend five years there, as ambassadors of Mars and also to soak in the culture of Earth. Now those young delegates, dancer Luoying among them, have returned to Mars to find that the society they left behind isn’t quite as utopian as they remembered.

I kept thinking that we were going to find out something dramatic about Martian history, or Earth history, or both—but although Luoying does find out some things that one could describe as dramatic, the arc of the book is more about the impossibility of attaining perfection. The collective, strictly controlled society on Mars is in many ways a reaction against Earth’s capitalist, individualistic excesses – but Luoying finds that while the drawbacks to Earth ways of life are as real as they ever were, Mars society offers its own limitations.

In the years when I struggled with translated fiction, I often felt like the translations were clunky. (Looking back, I don’t know if they were clunky, or if I was just being a butthead. Some combination?) Vagabonds is in some ways a slow read – it’s a very thinky SF novel! – but the writing is just gorgeous, and Ken Liu seems to have done a really beautiful job of translating it. I highlighted a million things as I was reading, just pieces of real wisdom about what humans are like. So yeah: A good and thoughtful book, and one that makes me feel thankful to this author and this translator for getting it into my hands.

Note: I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This has not affected my review.
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I feel bad that I did not like this book at all. It took me a month to get through it. It was very slow and it just didn’t capture my attention. The book seemed more like a coming of age novel for one character. Very disappointed.
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Real Rating: 4.25* of five

My Review</b>: It will come as no surprise to any regular reader, or in fact anyone I've interacted with in the past decade-plus, that end-stage capitalism such as has gifted us with the badly botched, lethally disorganized COVID-19 plague response is not high on my list of Good Things in the old-fashioned Martha Stewart sense. Quite a lot of people (over fifteen) in the assisted-living facility where I live are dead thanks to this money-grubbing ethos. So yes, I began this read fully expecting to approve of the Utopian Martian colony and its collectivist politics.

Well, it's comforting (I suppose) that I consistently never learn....

Hugo-winner Hao (<a href="">Best Novelette, 2016</a>) builds two competing Utopias. Neither sees the beam in its own eye but focuses on the mote in its symbiotic sibling's; so much easier to sell the distortion and misperception necessary to see any human-made system as anything other than dystopian. Earth's hypercapitalism has continued to devour the planet; its existence is always precarious, always threatening to collapse. Mars's collectivism is dependent on inputs from the fragile, worn-out Earth; its people are not natural innovators, never striving to Do More because, well, why? You don't get more, and there is limited support for striving.

A side note to shout out my dead father, whose aper&ccedil;u about economics I quote frequently: No system will thrive that either ignores or exalts greed.

Read the rest of my review on my blog.
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Speculative fiction has always been the literature of big ideas.

Granted, these ideas have often swathed in genre trappings that render them more palatable to less-suspecting readers. And there’s no denying that for decades, speculative fiction was relegated to the disreputable realm of luridly-covered cheap paperbacks and niche publications. Nowadays, of course, even the more “serious” readers and writers out there acknowledge the possibilities that come with genre exploration, allowing for a more “literary” understanding of the work.

But never forget: the ideas have always been there, right from the beginning.

Those big ideas are plentiful in “Vagabonds,” the first novel from Hugo Award-winning writer Hao Jingfang to be translated into English, courtesy of acclaimed author and translator Ken Liu. It’s a story of young people trapped between two worlds, sent to spend their formative years amidst another culture, only to discover that their home no longer fits them.

It’s a sharp and incisive commentary on how cultural differences can skew worldviews and hinder communication. It’s also an exciting, engaging narrative, driven by detailed plotting, strong characters and some first-rate world-building. As with all great speculative fiction, the quality of the ideas and the execution are well-matched.

A hundred years ago, Mars declared war against Earth, a revolutionary act in which they demanded independence. It took many years and considerable bloodshed, but it was a war ultimately won by the Martians. Many more years passed before the two sides would consider returning to the table, though factions in both camps recognized the potential value.

Five years ago, a group of 20 Martian students – all around 13 years of age – were sent to Earth as part of a cultural exchange program, intended to help grow the budding reconnection between the two planets. These teenagers – the best and the brightest – were to spend their time learning about their hosts and teaching about themselves.

And now, they have returned.

Luoying is one of the Mercury Group, a dancer who also happens to be the granddaughter of the most powerful man on Mars. She has returned after her five-year absence to a place that no longer feels quite like her home. That’s not to say that she has embraced the hedonism of Earth’s status-obsessed and overly-commercialized society; however, she’s no longer fully invested in the more rigidly hierarchal and communally-focused ways of Mars either.

Her return drops her into the middle of the strained negotiations between the two planets; she and her Mercury cohort are left struggling to find where they fit in. The strictly defined path of Martian society no longer appeals to them after the freedoms of Earth, but the free-wheeling chaos of Earth seems far from sufficient as a substitute. Revolutionary notions begin to bubble up, traitorous thoughts about how perhaps neither way is optimal – so why not another path?

Of course, as with any high-level political discourse, there are those who have their own ideas about what should happen … and who should be in charge when they do. In the end, the fates of two worlds hang on the actions of a scant handful of people, some of whom – namely Luoying and her friends – are in many ways still just kids.

“Vagabonds” has a LOT to say. The societal differences between Earth and Mars are reflections, albeit exaggerated ones, of those seen between certain cultures in our own world. Of particular note are the opposing views of creativity – specifically, if creation is strictly an individualized commercial endeavor or if it should be harnessed (and hence restrained) in the name of the greater good. The notion of an intellectual property-driven economy is extrapolated out as well, laying out possible benefits and consequences. These are the big ideas.

But ideas alone aren’t enough. They need to be delivered … and boy oh boy, does Hao Jingfang deliver.

What we have here is a sophisticated interplanetary epic, driven by intrigue. The richness of detail with which this future world is constructed captivates; the realization of Mars – physically, intellectually, socially, ideologically – is particularly impactful. Descriptions of revolutionary politics commingle with well-reasoned technological projections and just the right lack of societal self-awareness – the Martians live in literal glass houses, so take from that what you will. The Terran side of things is rendered a bit more sketchily, but still more than sufficiently to make the dichotomy work effectively.

Luoying is a charming and conflicted hero, a protagonist whose own disconnect allows her to serve as an effective audience surrogate. Trapped between the two worlds, hers is more of an outsider perspective, a perfect window for the reader. The other characters that populate the story – revolutionaries and reformers, anxious administrators and frothing warmongers, creative quasi-bohemians and grinningly unapologetic capitalists – all offer something of legitimate interest; there are no throwaways or half-efforts amongst the dramatis personae.

(This is where we note that translator Ken Liu is one of the best in the business, playing an outsized role in helping English-speaking audiences access the brilliant work that is coming out of China’s speculative fiction scene. Hao Jingfang has written an incredible book; Ken Liu has allowed me to read it.)

“Vagabonds” is challenging, idea-driven work. It is thoughtfully conceived and beautifully written, a remarkable opus. Hao Jingfang has folded complex themes into a propulsive narrative; this book features all the hallmarks of the best, boldest speculative fiction. It will leave you intellectually and emotionally wrung out – and you’ll be grateful for it.
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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
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This read like a saga. Long but intriguing and kept my attention throughout. The story was enjoyable and I found this to be a nice distracting read during quarantine. 

The translation was likely a chore here as the book is full of of intricate dialogue and descriptive writing. Ken Liu did an amazing job.
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i received an e-arc of this title, thank you to netgalley!
what a wonder of a novel. the worldbuilding is spectacular. the science is very real- often, i dislike science fiction because it seems too speculative and hand-wavey with regard to the technology introduced as part of the landscape, but hao does an excellent job of explaining the very real scientific principals behind each futuristic element of the society without becoming too bogged down in the technicalities that could distract or confuse a reader. 
i loved the way that vagabonds doubled as an allegory of sorts. the meaning behind the dueling systems of earth and mars, along with the ship that tries to straddle both worlds in name and function, was subtle yet strong. the ending was devastating but ultimately suitable. i found the characters to be excellent in their humanity, in the way they were so grey, so conflicted, and so real. i look forward to reading whatever hao jingfang can create next.
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Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher with providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review. What is freedom? For the Terran people it is the right to earn money from their ideas and inventions. On Mars, it is the ability to pursue those things without having to worry about earning a living. For a group of young people from Mars who have spent their adolescence in internships on Earth, the question is important enough for them to consider revolution. The book follows these young adults, who have returned to Mars and are embarking on their new lives and careers while contemplating the things they learned from a planet whose ideals are so different from their home planet’s. This book is pretty deep. It’s not a quick or lighthearted read, but it is thoroughly enjoyable.
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Welcome to the dream world that is Vagabonds!

The translation creates a prose poem that lasts through hundreds of pages. In the beginning, the Earth colonized Mars. Next, came the civil wars breaking the two worlds into separate societies. Finally, came peace activities including delegations from each world visiting the other.

This is the story of the return of the fifty-member Mars delegation to its home planet five years after leaving it. In particular, the story of one girl, Luoying, who has trouble readjusting to Mars political climate after experiencing the radically different politics of Earth. It is also the story of Eko Lu, a documentarian with the fifty-member delegation from Earth to Mars. He decides to document Luoying, who is the only granddaughter of the Mars’ dictator.

It is obvious from the beginning that Mars is China and Earth is the West. Mars is a communist dictatorship with strict rules for blending in. Earth is capitalist and full of sometimes conflicting nation-states. Both have their pros and cons. But the cons can only be seen from faraway. So only once Luoying and Eko left their own worlds could they see the full truth.

While there is definitely some world-building here, the main focus is philosophical. What’s amazing is this book was written by a Chinese woman who works for the Chinese government. It does not present the Chinese-like Mars community as always right and the Western-like Earth as always wrong. It is much more nuanced that a pure white hat-black hat viewpoint.

If you want to read a more languid and philosophical type of science fiction, please read Vagabonds. You won’t be disappointed. 4 stars!

Thanks to Saga Press, Gallery Books and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.
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