I went to the dump for the first time last year. We parked in front of a trash mountain that was only getting larger; a wheel loader ineffectively mashing the spreading lake of trash back on top of itself. I saw whole appliances, furniture and black bags of clothes and food, and then remembered that this was just the way station to the landfill. This wasn’t even all of it.
Researchers think the amount of solid waste humans generate will approach 11 million tons a day globally by the end of the century. And in a strange way, we’ve come to define ourselves by the waste we produce. The publication Atlas Obscura best charts our adoption of the words garbage or trash as a human descriptor; not just to define a bad person, but an amusingly obnoxious one, or a rabid fandom, or a mood.
Now, writers are getting inspiration from our castoffs. Since my last column on tentacles did not get me escorted from The Washington Post building, I’ve bundled together a list of books that explore waste as an impending ecological disaster — and also a spiritual one.
Oh, and Happy (almost) Earth Day.
Out this month: “Waste Tide,” by Chen Qiufan (translated by Ken Liu)
“Waste Tide,” originally published in China in 2013, is an ambitious exploration of a global throwaway culture. The novel takes place on Silicon Isle, a Chinese island devastated by the world’s electronic waste and controlled by three family clans who made themselves rich by hiring low-wage “waste people” to scrap the technological remains that wash ashore.
The novel follows Chen Kaizong as he returns to his birthplace and meets Mimi, one of the waste people, who has run afoul of a family clan. Mimi has been infected by a virus from the e-waste, and soon she drags Kaizong and the whole island into a class war that threatens humanity. The various themes, philosophical musings and scientific discourse make for a confusing but thrilling trip. Despite having been published six years ago, the novel is filled with fresh ideas about what happens when everything — tradition, culture, even human beings — is disposable.
It’s not just for kids: “Ship Breaker” by Paolo Bacigalupi
In “Ship Breaker,” published in 2010, the teenage protagonists are scrappers in a world ruined by climate change. The seas have risen and regular “city killer” storms wreck what communities remain. Nailer works for his father’s salvage crew, and he crawls through old ships and oil tankers looking for copper scrap and other discarded valuables.
After a major storm, he and a friend stumble on a wrecked high-class ship and discover a young woman who promises rich rewards if they help her. Realizing that the girl is in danger, Nailer teams up with a bioengineered man-animal hybrid to help the teen get back to her family in New Orleans.
“Ship Breaker” dropped after Bacigalupi’s Hugo win for his critically acclaimed “Windup Girl.” He’s been candid about getting into young adult fiction for financial reasons, but thematically “Ship Breaker” is in line with his other work, just with younger protagonists and, frankly, less sexual violence. Bacigalupi frames Nailer and the ships he scavenges as ecological left-behinds — battered by wind and water until they’re as devastated as the land they live on.
“Planetfall,” by Emma Newman
Newman’s 2015 novel begins 20 years after Ren follows the woman she loves, Suh-Mi, on a religious pilgrimage to colonize a new planet. They join 1,000 other colonists who settle into a high-tech utopia at the base of a structure called God’s City, where colony founder Suh-Mi now resides unseen.
Now, Ren is one of the most important people in the colony, charged with working the 3-D printer the colony uses to recycle, repair and create all the tools and equipment they need. But a young man — too young to be one of the original colonists — appears, and he looks eerily like Suh Mi. His arrival threatens to expose Ren’s long-held secrets — some personal, and some that threaten the foundation of the colony.
Ren is an unreliable narrator, and Newman uses the 3-D printing cycle of creation, use and disrepair to explore Ren’s emotional state and values. As Ren gathers the trash and broken things of the colony, her desire to fix things is corrupted by time. The result is a haunting, claustrophobic look at faith, science and the building of a society.
Newman’s latest book in the loosely connected Planetfall series — keep in mind that the books stand alone — is “Atlas Alone,” out this month.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of solid waste researchers think humans will generate globally by the end of the century. It is 11 million tons a day. This version has been updated.