Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu and narrated by Emily Woo Zeller, begins as an examination of humanity through the eyes of two artists raised in vastly different, uniquely restrictive worlds. Luoying, a dancer, is enamored by Earth and the freedom she’d found there as an exchange student from Mars and struggles to readjust to the rigidity of Martian society upon her return. Eko, a filmmaker born on Earth, has managed to hitch a ride with the first Terran delegation to Mars and is enamored by the ability of artists to spend their days on their trade, uncaring of the marketability of their art as in a collectivist society, art is something to be shared, not bought.
Upon their arrival to Mars, the two are drawn to pursue different missions; Luoying, to uncover the secrets of her past and how they define her future, and Eko, to fulfill his mentor’s dying wish. Their paths intertwine, and their differing perspectives quickly generate conflict. Their advocacy for the other’s homeworld culture emphasizes the nature of Vagabonds as an intellectual, humanitarian discourse on the socioeconomic systems that bind us, and how we might learn to (want to) break them.
The lengthy, slowly-paced novel could not more obviously draw a stark comparison between communistic and capitalist ideals. The dichotomy between the two ideologies is present throughout the novel as each planet vilifies the other. It is only through the cultural exchange, orchestrated by Mars, that these representatives are able to see the flaws in their own upbringings and begin to reach for more. Vagabonds is a commentary on two extremes. It refuses to take sides by analyzing both, chiefly through their interpretations of a valid marketplace of ideas.
In the time of COVID-19, many people are reconsidering the nature of what our societies value. While we debate the value of a life against the value of a dollar and the complex interplay between those two ideals, our political environment has become increasingly frenzied, buoyed by the recent contention over the effectiveness of our current healthcare system. With tensions between China and much of the “West” at their height, it is easy to see the novel as a reflection of that conflict, with the two being Mars and Earth respectively.
Vagabonds enters the global literary sphere at an auspicious moment. While I don’t believe any novel, however gorgeously its prose could penetrate the thick walls of the United States Capitol, or any other Heads of State, I do believe Vagabonds is one that will be treasured by its readers for years to come.