Friday, January 17, 2014


On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee, Riverhead Books, 2014, 352 pp

If Chang-rae Lee chooses to write a futuristic novel we can safely say that speculative fiction has moved out of the ghetto of genre into the uptown of mainstream fiction. That he has brought about a distillation of the gated-compound-versus-the-barbaric-wilds trope into a quest for the fine line between free will and fate only proves what we have known all along: that speculative fiction explores the various what-ifs of human existence and is built upon our oldest myths.

"It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore. We think, Why bother? Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone. You can search it, you can find pix or vids that show what the place last looked like, in our case a gravel-colored town of stoop-shouldered buildings on a riverbank in China, shorn hills in the distance. Rooftops a mess of wires and junk. The river tea-still, a swath of black. And blunting it all is a haze that you can almost smell, a smell, you think, that you don't want to breathe in."

That calm measured prose, a Chang-rae Lee hallmark; that theme of the displaced Asian person trying to understand how to fit into the Western world; a heroine, strong, slightly skewed, but eerily sympathetic. Anyone who has read this author will feel that familiar zing in this first paragraph.

We are placed in the midst of the repurposed areas of a future America following a long decline. Have I read a modern novel where the narrator is a plural first person representing the consciousness of an entire town? I don't think so.

They are retelling the story of Fan, skilled diver in the labor settlement of B-Mor. She maintains the gigantic fish tanks where high quality seafood is grown for the inhabitants of the elite walled villages, the areas where only the most intelligent and wealthy live in supreme luxury and safety.

Fan is about 16 years old and Reg, her lover and husband to be, has vanished. They think he has been captured for some role in a Charter village because the rumor in B-Mor is that Reg was "C-free." His blood did not carry the taint that almost every other person harbored, an anomaly of serious interest to the medical science of the day.

Fan commits an act of destruction in a town where order and obedience is revered, then hits the road. The town figures she has gone in search of Reg and indeed she has. Thereafter we follow her through the anarchistic counties where she suffers from violence and benefits from kindness; then into the village where she suspects Reg might be, where she benefits from kindness but in the end suffers from a different sort of violence. To readers of The Road or Oryx and Crake, this is familiar territory.

I wanted Fan to accomplish her quest. I craved the moment when she and Reg would be reunited. I marveled at Fan's strength of character even as I feared it would not be enough.

The title comes from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:

"There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our venture."

Fan flames out into obscurity. The collective voice of B-Mor is finally convinced of the rightness of the quest. "Don't hurry Fan. Stay put for now. We'll find a way. You need not come back for us." Freedom is a state of mind maintained by persistence and action. We yearn for the protection of irony but Chang-rae Lee once again has stripped that all away.
(On Such A Full Sea is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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