Dystopian literature often presents a future society that is heavily repressed and controlled, but disguised as one that is idyllic and free. The genre reminds us that what at first seems like a logical—even ideal—solution to our problems only masks an insidious chaos that could erupt at any time. Pulitzer-nominated author Change-rae Lee’s new work, On Such a Full Sea, masterfully describes this tension between such “solutions” and their aftermath.
Lee divides his future America into three societies. The most prominent are “facilities,” manufacturing colonies populated by Chinese immigrants that culturally and economically enforce a rigid, permanent working class. Facilities supply goods for the “Charters,” the remnants of the more affluent cities, populated by white-collar workers strung out by a relentless pressure to succeed and acquire. Anyone unlucky enough to be forced out of the Charters lands in the “counties,” a rural wasteland of lawlessness and violence.
Lee anchors both his facility protagonist and narrator in B-Mor, a remnant of the original city name, Baltimore, but also an ironic miscall to action: In B-Mor, it’s nearly impossible to ever really “be more.” B-Mor’s main task is supplying the Charters with fish as well as the hydroponically grown vegetables that lurk above the fish tanks. All basic needs for housing and healthcare are met, if not luxuriously, and after a preliminary education, everyone works in the fisheries and gardens. Emigration is extremely rare, immigration non-existent, and life is homogenous.
Fan is a young tank diver in love with a gardener named Reg. When Reg disappears, she leaves B-Mor for the counties, and eventually the charters, to find him. It isn’t clear where Reg has gone or why, although rumors swirl he has a unique genetic disposition of heavy interest to the Directorate, the shadow totalitarian government.
A period of economic instability in B-Mor almost immediately follows Fan’s departure, where demand for goods plummets and the first rumblings of discontent emerge. Lee’s unnamed narrator recounts the story of Fan and Reg as it is passing into legend. For the citizens of B-Mor, Fan and Reg represent a unique moment of breaking away, of unrealized possibilities laid bare, that becomes the catalyst for the first wave of collective action against the state.
On Such a Full Sea, like many dystopian works, examines the conflict between the individual and the group, and the convincing yet implausible dream of a perfect community. Through quickly but vividly rendered scenes, we see across all three societies the learned helplessness of conformity and the internalized violence of repression. Lee’s profound compassion for his characters, no matter how desperate, strange or immoral, elevates the novel even further. This kindness is rooted in his omniscient narrator, who struggles between championing the only way of life he or she has ever known and recognizing its limits. Fan is ambiguously rendered, as most folk heroes are, as somehow extraordinary in her ordinariness, both stunningly beautiful, agile and strong, yet plain, small and accessible. We can’t know if the narrator’s detailed account of her adventures is the result of editorial conceit, the intense and omnipresent surveillance of the future, or the hyperbole of myth, but the narrator’s admiration for the B-Mor heroine is lyrical and touching. Through a story by turns suspenseful and thoughtful, On Such a Full Sea challenges us to reexamine the direction of our society and our own responsibility to the future.
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee | Riverhead Books | $27.95 | 368 pp.