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Book Review: On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee

A literary dystopian novel in which the Chinese colonize a fallen America.


On Such a Full Sea

Riverhead Books, 2014, 352 pages



From the beloved award-winning author of Native Speaker and The Surrendered, a highly provocative, deeply affecting story of one woman's legendary quest in a shocking, future America.

On Such a Full Sea takes Chang-rae Lee's elegance of prose, his masterly storytelling, and his long-standing interests in identity, culture, work, and love, and lifts them to a new plane. Stepping from the realistic and historical territories of his previous work, Lee brings us into a world created from scratch. Against a vividly imagined future America, Lee tells a stunning, surprising, and riveting story that will change the way listeners think about the world they live in.

In a future, long-declining America, society is strictly stratified by class. Long-abandoned urban neighborhoods have been repurposed as highwalled, self-contained labor colonies. And the members of the labor class - descendants of those brought over en masse many years earlier from environmentally ruined provincial China - find purpose and identity in their work to provide pristine produce and fish to the small, elite, satellite charter villages that ring the labor settlement.

In this world lives Fan, a female fish-tank diver, who leaves her home in the B-Mor settlement (once known as Baltimore), when the man she loves mysteriously disappears. Fan's journey to find him takes her out of the safety of B-Mor, through the anarchic Open Counties, where crime is rampant with scant governmental oversight, and to a faraway charter village, in a quest that will soon become legend to those she left behind.




Chang-Rae Lee's dystopian story of an America in decline, occupied generations ago by "New Chinese" who have displaced the Anglo and African-American residents of the major cities and pushed them out into the surrounding, anarchic "Counties," reads like one of those dystopian novels written by a literary author who's decided to try his hand at dystopian novels. I could compare On Such a Full Sea with Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, or Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, or Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower. All of these books are similar - they depict a world in which economic and environmental collapse has brought down the old governments, and new peoples, new orders, have filled in the gaps. The haves and have-nots are more sharply divided. Outside the enclaves of the privileged is lawlessness and a grinding fight for survival.

On Such a Full Sea is well-written literary fiction that covers all of this ground in an engaging story, but it never convinced me that Chang-Rae Lee is more than a visitor to the genre. There isn't a lot of imagination in his post-collapse story, no technological speculation, very little in the way of reimagined futuristic society, just some issues of identity and class and racial divides that still exist even in a reconfigured landscape, and a heroine who is an impressive, admirable, yet very ordinary young girl who sets off into the Counties looking for her boyfriend, who has disappeared.

Fan, the main character, is a diver for fish in B-Mor (formerly Baltimore). The story is ostensibly told after the fact of the events described, in which Fan has become a kind of legend, an inspiration for the people of B-Mor. The B-Morans, descendants of Chinese workers who came to the East Coast after an undescribed collapse of the United States, are the "working class" of this future. The "Charters" are the privileged wealthy who still live the equivalent of middle class to affluent lifestyles, though as the book progresses and Fan and meets several groups of people from various walks of life, it becomes apparent that even for the Charters, the economy is such that a fall from grace, consignment to the laboring class or even banishment to the Counties, is always a worrisome possibility.

Fan's adventures take her through some harrowing (but much less harrowing than some dystopian writers would depict) adventures in those Counties, which really aren't Mad Max wastelands but more like a Wild West in which some towns have well-regulated law and order, others are ruled by despots, and others have no law at all. Then she goes through a series of stays with Charter families, some of them kindly, some of them creepy, all of them a bit blinkered by the privilege of their own existence.

Then there is an ending, which was, I suppose, a literary ending.

It's a good book in the sense that it was well-constructed, with a lot of prose that waxes more elegiac than usual for sci-fi, and Fan is a likeable, sturdy, determined girl.

Still, I have a bit of a bias against authors who give the impression they are slumming with sci-fi. Cormac McCarthy did it with The Road. Kazuo Ishiguro did it a little with his book, whose science fictional premise was thin and nigh-on unbelievable. Margaret Atwood actually writes SF even if she's taken some flack for eschewing the label. David Mitchell is a literary author who embraces the genre.

Chang-Rae Lee seemed to be telling another story, with dystopian fiction as his medium. It's a good story, but it did not really embrace the elements of the genre, and so to me it lacked the imagination to be truly brilliant. It's a good book for those who like some literary-flavored speculative fiction, but it is not likely to impress veterans of the genre.






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Tags: books, reviews, science fiction
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