Review: On Such a Full Sea

In his futuristic novel, On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee fears for our ability to conceive of a better tomorrow: Guernica

OnsuchafullseaIn On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee’s protagonist, Fan, takes an expedition out of a future, oppressive Baltimore—now called “B-Mor”—which has a set-up that will be familiar to readers of dystopian fiction. The residents of B-Mor are the long-off descendants of the people of “New China,” who came to America after turning their home country into an environmental wasteland. Their world is defined by a strict power structure: Like so many employees, the residents of B-Mor have regular tasks and days off, but their lives are circumscribed by their inability to move up and leave. Fan, for instance, is recruited to tend to the fish that serve as the primary foodstuff for everyone from the elite Charters to the less-privileged residents of B-Mor.

Lee uses B-Mor’s social structures to highlight the cutthroat attitudes that inequalities can breed. B-Mor’s elite—the Charters—live as well-coiffed dictatorial MBA-types looking down on even their own progeny, worrying they won’t live up to their predecessors: “I’ve looked back at the historical numbers and performance is declining at every grade level,” one says. “We’re losing what makes a Charter a Charter, which is the tireless drive for excellence. The compulsion to build and to own.”

In this way, B-Mor offers an extreme version of our contemporary lives: Individuals are geared toward a particular role in society, with little variation. Subterranean malls and indoor pools have been built to help people avoid the polluted air. The walls of B-Mor keep them confined in the city and its schooling system serves only to indoctrinate and protect. B-Mor’s citizens convince themselves of their independence, but in fact they are deeply controlled. To leave B-Mor’s walls is to risk death; to refuse the party line is to risk expulsion by disappearance. A deadly “C-illness” has emerged, threatening to cause widespread deaths. Even the activities of a free day or a love affair are fodder for problems, as the relationship between Fan and her boyfriend, Reg, demonstrates. When Reg suddenly disappears, Fan takes extreme action by defiantly killing the fish she tends to, and leaving her home.

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