On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

On Such a Full SeaImagine a future without Natty Boh.

Set in a near-future Baltimore (“re”named B-Mor), On Such a Full Sea tells the story of Fan, a teenage employee of an Inner Harbor fish-farm who abandons the relative, repressive safety of her walled corporate-police state to search for her lover, Reggie. Reggie has mysteriously been disappeared by the corporate overlords of B-Mor after Reggie scores literally off-the charts in the frequent, dreaded, medical tests administered to all employees of the company-town.

Though the narrative follows Fan and Reggie, the story is told in an eerie, communal voice of the second-person plural which centers the story on the fate of B-Mor. Through this collective “we” we, the readers, learn that the present-day inhabitants of Baltimore largely hail from China, pressed into corporate slavery in order to escape an over-polluted and populated central China generations ago. Baltimore, and other cities alluded to in the Midwest, have also been largely depopulated by economic collapse and degraded food-supplies due to degraded environmental health before being repurposed as labor camps. The immigrants to B-Mor labor to produce “pristine” tilapia and other fish to sell to the “Charters;” walled enclaves for the rich, famous, and powerful. In between the company towns and the Charters lie the relatively lawless and impoverished “Counties.”

Through the community’s collective voice, the reader learns of B-Mor’s history, and speculates as to how Fan survives the routine horrors of the Counties, and later, a Charter Village in New York. The voice is haunting, and through this voice the dystopia presented in the novel comes across as believable and logical. At times the voice seems to grope towards both disquiet and outright rebellion before snapping back into the conciliatory and sheepish voice of a community held in total check by economic and police oppression. I found myself yelling at the community, “don’t you get how messed up that is? Or that!?” time and again. And time and again this line of questioning made me think about the grisly things about our culture and our time which we explain away or resign ourselves to as we try to make a living that is often complicit, if not downright supportive, of larger, destructive forces.

We live in turbulent times, and it seems there is a particular glut of dystopia in how contemporary authors are imagining the future in a world of growing economic inequality, climate change, globalization, and lightning-speed technological (and biotechnological!) innovation. Yet the deluge (pun intended) of apocalyptic and dystopic fiction– from The Hunger Games to Game of Thrones to Avatar, Oblivion, and other perennial summer blockbusters– can get tiresome and banal.

But to use a cliché to describe how Lee dispels them, On Such a Full Sea breaks free of the mold into which most dystopic futurescapes are cast. Perhaps that’s overstating it; its more that Lee playfully inhabits and shows off what a great literary talent can do with the chronically undervalued tropes of genre fiction. Lee’s other novels are largely realist; often taking up the lived experiences of Asian American immigrants facing exclusion, racism, and economic hardship both before coming to the US and throughout the rest of characters’ lives. Lee uses the near-future advances in medicine and luxury contrasted with corporate dominion to punctuate his metaphors of contemporary wealth-inequality in the world in On Such a Full Sea.

Elegantly written and especially gripping to those of us who have spent some time in Maryland, On Such a Full Sea is a dark story you won’t want to say goodbye to once you’ve come it its end.

We recommend it highly.

Availability: USMAI
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended.

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