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Feb 09

Book Review: On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

What’s It About

Set on a dystopian Earth where class is strictly defined, a girl – Fan – leaves the relative safety of her home to look for her boyfriend who has mysteriously disappeared.  Fan’s search exposes her to the poverty that exists beyond her walled city of B-Mor (once known as Baltimore) to the excesses of the paranoid and indulgent rich.

Should I Read It?

No.  While the writing is gorgeous, even if it did lull me to sleep at times, Lee’s take on dystopia isn’t anything you probably haven’t read before.  The rich are indulgent and cruel and perverse.  The poor are desperate and frightened and ignored.  And the laborers, who live in their walled cities and feed those in power, are essentially sheep who do what they’re told.

The biggest problem of the novel though, something I’ll cover in more detail in the Commentary, is that we never really get an insight into Fan’s interior life.  This is done on purpose by Lee, but coupled together with some thing world building, it’s difficult to care about anyone or anything in the novel.

Representative Paragraph

An insight into the “beliefs” of the people who live in B-Mor:

Fan didn’t ask what those beliefs were, as she would have no real idea what the cost of transgressing any specific doctrine would be, religious or philosophical, as we in B-Mor pretty much practice none; other than an undying habit of pragmatic attention and action, there is no overarching system we subscribe to anymore, no devotion to a deity or origin story, no antique Eastern or Western assertions of goodness and badness to guide us. We abide by directorate regulations, yes, but are mostly ruled by one another as to what is optimal, which is debatable but in fact no more so in B-Mor than anywhere else, even as amoral as we may be considered by others. At least we are not wholly ruled by the pursuit of wealth like Charters, or by the specter of ill chance like open counties people, which endows us, we will say, with a certain equable stance that does not tip us either too far forward or back.

Commentary

It’s an odd experience reading On Such A Full Sea right after finishing A Brief History of Seven Killings.  Plot aside, tonally these novels couldn’t be any different.  Where Brief History forces the reader to engage with the characters and the narrative, On Such A Full Sea actively keeps its distance.  This seem to be Lee’s intent.  In describing Fan, the main character of his novel, for an interview with The Guardian, he states:

I meant her [Fan] to be the focus of our attention, the central character… but not necessarily the central consciousness. She’s not that sort of hero: she’s not loquacious, she’s not philosophical; she is more elemental. She’s there, she persists. And that’s the sort of person I wanted her to be.

Lee realises this elemental effect by relating Fan’s story through a first person plural – “we” – a sort of group-think formed out of the citizens of B-Mor, her home city.  It seems that Fan’s decision to drop everything and look for Reg, her boyfriend, results in the people of B-Mor, who have never questioned or debated the decision of their Masters, to suddenly reflect on their daily lives.  This results in the appearance of graffiti on once pristine walls and people standing up in cinema and saying Fan’s final words, “Where you are,” before she departs.

The problem with this strategy is that we never really get to know or care about Fan.  We’re told that she loves Reg, just like we’re told that she’s carrying his child.  But we never get past that surface reading.  Does she ever doubt her decision to leave home?  Is she frightened for the life of her unborn child?  When she meets her long lost brother for the first time (yes, spoiler) how does that make her feel?  I don’t necessarily need to be told these things, but Fan’s response to everything is so measured and detached that as a character – even one that’s grown into a legend – she lacks substance.  Or in other words, there’s too much elemental and not enough person.

What also lacks substance is Lee’s world building.  Gary Wolfe has noted several times in the Coode Street podcast that drawing a line between our present and the future envisioned in a dystopian novel is nearly impossible.  On Such A Full Sea suffers from that problem.  I found it difficult to imagine a future where class has become so stratified that it’s more a thought experiment than an economic reality.  More than that, given this is a world that has suffered major environmental damage and social upheaval, it’s not clear how society pulled itself up to the stage where technology and food production and media is not something that’s questioned, but simply accepted.

And while I get that it wasn’t Lee’s intent to spend most of his novel filling in the world-building gaps, that the world Lee has created is more a commentary on our present than a genuine future, it still needs to feel somewhat believable and internally consistent for the messages and themes to have resonance.  As Ursula K Le Guin says far better than I have in her review of the novel,

Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre [social science fiction] irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.

The writing is very beautiful.  It’s both precise and yet lyrical.  Each word has obviously been chosen carefully.  But I never was engaged in Fan’s search for Reg and never believed the world she inhabited.  It’s a shame because I’m always fascinated to see what non-genre writers do with old SF tropes.  In this instance, the answer is not very much at all.

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