On Such a Full Sea
Release Date: January 7, 2014
Sometimes dystopian fantasies set in our future are terrifying because of the utterly foreign and frightening effects we have heaped upon ourselves; a dire tolling of funereal bells or a teeth-gnashing drudgery in which everything we know has been transformed into grit and grime and darkness, fire and brimstone, tooth and nail.
Then there are those realizations of a dystopian future that are even more chilling in how believable they are; not that we have learned any lessons, but that we hang on and let the tides of change wash over ourselves as a civilization, like barnacles on a rusted derelict. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is one such story; now we have Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea.
Set in a future North America, in and around what was once Baltimore, there is little to explain why life is now so different in social structure and cultural displacement. Indeed, there is no sense of a “United States”, but neither are there any indications of a great political upheaval other than an influx of settlers identified as being a part of “New China”. There are no revolutions, no clandestine rebellions, no urban warfare that one would expect were this displacement to have come about by force or coercion; a reader might surmise that economic realism was the real catalyst for the changes.
There are hints that the “originals” who have settled into “B-Mor”, displacing the natives and reinventing the settlement, were fleeing some kind of environmental apocalypse.
There is an old B-Mor saying that one hears a lot these days. Or so it would seem. It came over with the originals, surely, and like many of their sayings, notions, traditions, it has remained in currency. It goes like this:
Behold a fire from the opposite shore.
For the originals, it was advice to be taken literally, for back where they came from there were indeed real fires raging (whether by accident or design or negligence), plus constant plumes of lethal smoke from the primitive industrial processes, not to mention the attendant spews of fouled waters, and countless megakilos of buried waste products that eventually poisoned the entire subdistrict. You had best stay back, suggested the sage. Or flee.
But why these denizens of New China have been settled in this B-Mor of the future is not as important as the role they play in this new society, how they fit into the structure of the world that is.
The world – or what we see of it – is comprised of three types of areas. The first are groupings of communal facilities incorporating working settlements such as B-More and D-Troy which produce essential goods that are both specific to the needs of their customers, and are unparalleled in quality, such as fish husbanded in huge, meticulously maintained tanks, and lush vegetables grown in the ensuing tropical environment, all very carefully cultivated and harvested under the watchful eye of the omnipresent “directorate”. In return for producing such superior goods, the inhabitants of B-Mor (who are mainly Chinese, even though there has been some intermingling with the few native inhabitants who resisted resettlement, leading to the occasional child whose dark hair forms a fuzzy Afro) receive housing, health care, elder benefits, and a host of other stabilizing stipends that allow them to build a cultural identity and, while not perhaps to thrive, to live comfortably in a familiar and orderly communal environment.
Then there are the Charter villages. The Charters are where the wealth is concentrated and who hold the economic power; the administrators, the specialists, the policy makers. They are the ones B-Mor works to supply, and from whom everything else trickles down; they are the best and the brightest as well as the most affluent. Privileged yet hard working and intelligent, the Charters are beautifully maintained, living beautiful lives with beautiful children and attaining the best of the best, because they can afford it. While it is possible for someone from the settlements to ascend to the Charter villages (in fact, children in B-Mor who have reached the end of their schooling are tested; those in the top 2% may be selected to begin a new life as a foster child in a Charter home – a great honor, even if it is unattainable for all but a lucky few), it is rare.
Then there are the counties, those areas outside of both the settlements and the Charter villages. This is where most of the indigenous population lives, and those who have no ties elsewhere – those who have fallen from grace. People from the counties only interact with the Charters as labor, performing the lowest of services in what is almost an indentured arrangement. There is little to no infrastructure in the counties other than what is crumbling into disrepair, no organization nor funds to maintain the status quo. There is a frontier feel to the counties, a pervasive red-neck lawlessness that is not totally devoid of graciousness and generosity, although incidences of these are few and far between – and suspect. Anyone who travels the counties should always have their guard up and their eyes open.
Into this world-that-is, we are introduced to Fan, a young girl from B-Mor who works in the fish tanks and who is, in fact, one of the best divers the facility has ever had. Although petite and almost childlike in appearance, she is incredibly strong and has trained herself to hold her breath for an inordinately long time. She loves being in the tanks and actually enjoys the time she spends taking care of her charges (the fish); but even though she takes pride in her meticulous work, she is still modest and unassuming.
… Fan was not beautiful but rather distinctive in her presence, which was one of more than merely being petite but like a distillation, this purity by way of exquisite scale, and to view her perfect little hand clutching the railing, and the tense purse of her mouth as she awaited her turn inside, was enough to tap a fresh well of admiration in your heart.
It is sweet, shy, quiet little Fan who unknowingly becomes a rallying point for a swelling unrest in B-Mor, a focal point for their restlessness and a pique to spontaneous rebellion, not that she herself incites change but simply because one day, with no forewarning, no real planning and no fuss, she walks away from B-Mor in search of her boyfriend, Reg. Reg is an equally sweet, shy, quiet fellow – a perfect partner for Fan – who has mysteriously disappeared in an organized “call-away”; one unremarkable afternoon at work, he answers a manager’s summons and then is never heard of again.
Fan has no idea where Reg has been taken or why, but she clings to one small hope of being able to find out. Many years earlier, one of her older brothers was “Chartered” due to his superior test scores. As is the custom, once accepted into a Charter village, a child never returns to their settlement, having moved on to a different life. Fan does not know where her brother Liwei is, exactly, but she does know he is in a Charter village, and believes that if she finds him, he will be able to help her discover what happened to Reg. It’s a crazy, totally naive plan, but it’s all she has – and that faith in herself and her purpose is why she is adored for her actions in the B-Mor she has left behind.
As Fan travels in her search for her brother and for Reg, we are kept apprised of her actions through a nameless narrator, who – through inclusive yet remote third person narratives – also gives us insight into the mien and manner of all that transpires in the book. This narrator, who incorporates the reader with gentle yet pervasive “we’s” and “us’s” and whose narration appears to be as much supposition as documentation, is allowed to focus not just on the action of the main characters, but the activities and motivations that have created and maintain the background environments, and the hidden or merely glimpsed reactions, thoughts and feelings of the supporting players. With this information, we are able to peer knowingly and even intimately into a world that would otherwise be fraught with our own confused value judgments.
At all times both familiar and disconcerting, author Chang-Rae Lee has invited us to observe a future world with no clarion calls, no epic battles, no rousing speeches, yet one that is terrifyingly realized in how normal it all feels. There is no warning being sounded in On Such A Full Sea, no moral being held up for scrutiny, no “there but for the grace of God” moments, but there is an acceptance that the world in which Fan travels is merely how it will be. It is a vision that we recognize and accept, which is perhaps the scariest bit of all. Yet, due to its intimacy, we are inevitably drawn into a deeply human story that we have little power to resist – and that, in and of itself, explains so much.