On Such a Full Sea (2014) – Chang-rae LEE

Chang-rae Lee chaired the judging panel for the Man Asian Literary Prize a few years ago, and since then, I’ve been meaning to get around to reading some of his work. So walking into the bookstore the other day and seeing his new sci-fi novel staring at me was a sign.

In the future, nation-states are no longer the norm. Ethnic groups have spread out, and it is now more common to see Chinese in America than Caucasians. One such young woman, Fan, has been trained from a young age to be a diver, to farm the fish the one percent eat. But when her boyfriend goes missing, she starts a quest that will change her life.

This isn’t a novel about a dystopian future (the lower classes are almost never seen, only described in hushed tones) so much as a novel about current trends in social mobility. While the best kind of sci-if takes elements of contemporary society and moulds them into a possible future, Lee essentially asks what it would be like if global society simply continued as it were, preserved in some static bubble, the only thing changing the technology and pop culture we consume.

It’s unsettling to read about the future of the upper class as living in a society where sushi bars and wood-fired pizza are the pinnacle of the culinary experience. Isn’t this where we are now? It is jarring that a novel so concerned about gently mocking the upper classes of the West and their obsession with organic food and cleanliness should be set in the future. It seems like something of a missed opportunity—you could transplant the action into contemporary America, and end up with a piece that carries more weight and emotional punch.

Fan self is little more than a cipher through which Lee can present his ideas. Her hero’s journey, such as it is, is to find her boyfriend, who left their safe, middle-class town one day and never came back. The narration makes it clear that Fan is not a woman of action: “the funny thing about the tale of Fan is that much of what happened to her happened to her”. Though we are repeatedly told that this woman, and her quest to find her one true love, sparked a rebellion movement in an otherwise perfect town, there is no suggestion that . Which would be fine if Lee presented her as an imperfect woman whose influence is a side-effect of her personal journey, but the reader never gets a sense that this is what’s happening. Instead, the disconnect between what the town venerates her for (running away) and what happens next (not much) is so great, one cannot help but feel disappointed as her tale unfolds.

Instead, her road trip allows Lee to present different facets of this new world, a world that, we are reminded again and again, is highly stratified. And yet, there is movement. For all the talk of being three vastly different communities, almost all the secondary characters we meet have been through some upheaval of their own.This is most obvious in the final act, when Fan is taken in by a man and his family who are about to make millions from a medical breakthrough. But Oliver has a secret, and the reveal will make your eyes roll from sheer narrative convenience. If you want people to believe that this future is bad, you need to show it.

I don’t want every dystopian future to be like The Hunger Games in its brutality and moral ambiguity. But if a writer chooses this genre, he or she is doing it for a political purpose—to highlight current issues that need to be changed. Though Lee’s On Such a Full Sea engages with contemporary issues, he doesn’t use the genre to its full effect, leaving readers wondering if the whole thing wouldn’t have been better off in another setting.

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