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On Such a Full Sea: A Novel by Chang-rae Lee
Review by Ernest Lilley
Riverhead Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 1594486107
Date: 07 January 2014 List Price $27.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Wikipedia Entry / Show Official Info /

Literary light Chang-rae Lee has created a not-so-distant future, and sent Fan, a young Chinese girl, who is essentially a colonist in what was the failed city of Baltimore, out of the ordered but faltering city into the ruins of America, peopled by a mix of hardscrabble holdouts and walled suburbs of the very wealthy. Though Fan's goal is to find her boyfriend who disappeared from B-mor, her mission for the author is to provide a probe into his dystopic projection of contemporary society. Told by a narrator still in B-mor who recounts the viral impact of the quest on the city, the tale flips back and forth between the two settings.

Fan and Reg are young people living in a not too distant future where the global network of commerce and governments have collapsed from financial overextension, leaving enclaves of civilization dotting the landscape and rotting infrastructure between them.  The story starts out in B-mor, the future Baltimore, which had been largely abandoned by its population but for a few squatters and hangers on, and was taken over wholesale some generations back by a transplanted Chinese city, one which had been an industrial center until its products were no longer needed.

Now B-mor is again prosperous, in the way a coal town might be prosperous, with its entire population working on its one harvest, tank grown fish. Fan is a tank diver who cares for the fish and maintains the tanks, and though she's small even by the undernourished population's standards, she is possessed of unusual strength and will, so much so that she can dive seemingly beyond the limits of her body, ignoring its urgent pleas for air, or rest. Reg is her boyfriend, a gangly youth of mixed African American and Chinese blood, whose main virtues seem to be that he's well-liked by all, and that he doesn't carry the disease or diseases the book refers to as "C". The couple is well thought of, partly because they seem comfortable with each other and not caught up in the passionate rutting youth frequently displace courting and companionship for.

Then Reg is summoned by the management and disappears and Fan takes off to find him.

The story is told by someone still living in B-mor, and switches between their recollections of events there and Fan's encounters in the outside world. The mystery of what happened to Reg, and Fan's defection from everything she's known to find him make them cult heroes, with graffiti images of the pair springing up on walls that had been heretofore pristine. The upscale Charter communities that had bought their fish are shying away from it, following a contaminated crop that reached consumers, and tastes are changing away from the production facility food that enclaves like Fan's produce.

So between accounts of what happens to Fan in the outside world, we watch the slow disintegration of order within B-mor as the passive and conforming colonists slide into agitation and despair. In many ways it's the better of the two narratives, but as it lacks a hero, it's not the more engaging.

Fan, hero to both reader and narrator, sets off from home with no conception of how she'll find Reg, no real grasp of what the world beyond B-mor is like, and an amazingly slowly developing fetus within her. No sooner than she sets out she gets hit by a car and thrown to the side of the road, her leg broken by the impact. This is a stroke of great fortune for her, as after being thrown in the back of the aging car and driven to a rural compound in the Smokes, Fan discovers that she's been taken in a man named Quig, one of the few physicians outside the Charter communities, a Charter member who was exiled for selling drugs left over from his now banned veterinary practice to health club members.

Selling drugs wasn't his idea, but after pets were identified as a disease vector and banned, his wife wasn't content with his efforts to build a legal business and started pilfering his old stock, ultimately dragging him into the scheme. They didn't last long on the outside, and now the damaged pet doctor lives on top of a hill where the injured and ill line up to be seen, carrying whatever they have of value.

A ruined man, but still king of his hill, he refused an offer by a wealthy Charter dweller he once saved to return to life inside what looks like the world we know, more or less, to stay on in the wilds.

Fan heals and begins to take a place in the community, despite the antagonism of the healer's woman, and it seems like she might do well to settle here and help out, but it's not in the healer's plans. He needs to travel north to the Charter of Seneca to get the loan of a drilling rig from his former patient. He takes Fan along as part payment, and her Swiftian tour of dystopia picks up another spot, this one chillingly close to the gated communities and suburbs of today.

In the end, Fan experiences the full range of wealth and abundance that the author's world offers, each stage only a dystopian glass filter away from the world of the reader. Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver on a number of levels, leaving us with questions that suggest the story will continue, though not with eager anticipation.

Fan never seems to be getting closer to the mystery of Reg, and despite her indomitable will, generally seems pretty passive about it all, at least until forced by events to take a stand. Though her story is being told in great detail by the unnamed narrator in B-mor, as far as I could tell, there's no indication that she is journaling it, or that anyone is communicating with the community.  But what bothers me the most is the world the author has created. For a post abundance America, it's both spread out and strangely foreshortened, consisting of large stretches of wilderness populated by communities continuing today's indulgences, albeit with a supply of devalued people to use as they see fit.

Quig's ability to get from B-Mor to the Smokes and then to Seneca doesn't mention how he's finding or paying for gas, and even assuming prodigious fuel economy and durability from his "old VW electro-diesel", he gets around pretty well.

"The drive that night took longer than even Loreen had estimated due to their having to take detours around impassable roads, and it felt to Fan, drugged by an injection that Quig administered mid-trip when she could not stop moaning--and then shouting--from the sawing pain in her thigh, that it was a journey of days. For someone born and raised exclusively in B-Mor, there's really no occasion for making trips of such duration, and it's amazing to consider that this was the circumstance of her first true venture beyond the gates: sopped to the core, a ringing in her ears, perhaps a hairline fracture in her hip or leg, and being taken by strangers to a place that promised only hardship, or worse."(1)
One of speculative fiction's weaknesses is the tendency to simplify  worlds, whether physical or cultural. When visiting a distant planet, this is somewhat inevitable, since the author has to create it out of whole cloth, though in reality, most settings in science fiction are based on microclimates and cultures found in the present on planet Earth. World and civilization building are facets of speculative writing that get high praise when done well, and count heavily against an author if glossed over. Speculative fiction, be it fantasy or science fiction, is as much a literature of place as one of magic or science, which serves to create the setting that the characters will inhabit, and the story is driven by their reaction to it.

The setting of near future dystopia would seem to have a distinct advantage over far flung space or planetary adventure, since it already has a world created for it with which the reader is familiar, and needs only to be viewed through the apocalyptic glasses to create a setting for the adventure. In practice, the very richness of reality often undermines the story's credibility, as engaging with it head on would bring the plot to a grinding halt and lose the reader in short order.

The most interesting thing in On Such a Full Sea to me is the narrator's stilted tone, which communicates to the reader that they are hearing a tale from another viewpoint than their own much more clearly than the distorted landscape it inhabits.


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