Geoff Mak on On Such a Full Sea in LARB
These are the times in which Chang-rae Lee’s fifth novel, On Such a Full Sea, arrives. Contrary to the historical and contemporary subjects of Lee’s previous novels, Full Sea tells the story of a futuristic, dystopian America after China has colonized the United States, making it his biggest departure to date. In this novel, Lee, whose fiction first appeared during the rise of ethnic studies in the 1990s, retains his usual political point of view; that is to say, it’s a primarily social one. There aren’t any cyborgs, and the presence of the internet figures minimally and passively. Lee’s imagination is much more concerned with questions about class and identity, which have a near deterministic power over the individuals in the cosmos of Full Sea.
In Lee’s futuristic America, the fish are jumping and the income gap runs high. The living is easy if you’re rich, and if you’re not…well, it’s slightly uncomfortable. This is Lee’s vision of the future: China, overindustrialized, polluted its own country beyond livable conditions, so they began the search to colonize a New China. The colony of choice was America, which had become an abandoned wasteland anyway, and so they snuffed out the natives and moved in. A decrepit city like Baltimore was renamed B-Mor, and turned into a factory civilization in which its labor citizens collectively devote their lives to farming fish or vegetables. Sure, they’re paid for their work, and with actual money, and they’re allowed to buy luxury goods and go on vacation, but they money they earn can barely afford it, and the economic caste system is so locked that social mobility is nearly impossible.