On Such a Full Sea

A late review, but better late than never. I don’t think I would have picked up On Such A Full Sea unprompted; I read this for a book club at work that I found myself able to attend (this review is based on some of my takeaways from that discussion). I ended up reading it quickly over the course of a weekend. The literary merits of the novel aside, it did very well engaging and drawing me in, something that is often tricky for novels that need to situate readers in an unfamiliar world without overwhelming them with reams of description.

This is full-blown dystopian fiction of the literary variety. We have a future world in which the United States as a society has split into three classes: the open counties (low), the facilities (middle), and the Charter villages (upper). The open counties are where law, order, and government have ceased to exist, and every man and woman is for him or herself. The Charter villages are where material prosperity reigns amidst an atmosphere of hyper-competitiveness, the land of the executives, scientists, and management consultants. The facilities, the most interesting, are where immigrants from New China live in highly socially cohesive communities organised around the ancestral notion of the clan, surviving by selling factory-grown food to Charters in exchange for basic security, healthcare, and leisure.

Our protagonist, a young woman named Fan, is from B-Mor (Baltimore, in the olden days), the emblematic such facility. Fan leaves B-Mor looking for her lover, Reg, who one day simply disappears, taken away by the shadowy Directorate that runs B-Mor. Thus Fan’s adventures begin, and the reader follows Fan along as an unnamed narrator, also from B-Mor, narrates her journey, alternating it with liberal exposition of B-Mor history, culture, and present happenings. This gives us the novel’s basic structure: back and forth from the B-Mor narrator’s musings to whatever place Fan happens to be in at that point in the narrative.

I’ll leave aside the details of Fan’s journey (for that, read the novel), and instead make a few higher-level points. First, if you’re looking for near-future dystopia, read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake first. This isn’t to say On Such a Full Sea doesn’t stand by itself; but I think it’s easier to see what Lee is trying to do with On Such a Full Sea if you use Atwood’s novel as a reference point. (And Atwood’s novel is the better one, in my opinion, so if you had to read only one of the two, you’d be better off with Atwood.) Second, as an Asian reader, I quite enjoyed the East Asian flavour that B-Mor society was so strongly laced with. It was fun to see Lee’s take on what a Baltimore colonised by immigrants from “New China” and placed into the larger backdrop of a society that was still recognisably American would look like.

Overall, the novel is mostly direct social commentary packaged as surprisingly readable fiction. Each of the three worlds of the novel exemplifies a contemporary idea or characteristic taken to an extreme: the open counties, libertarianism; the Charter villages, the materialism and hyper-competitiveness of today’s upper classes; B-Mor, the Confucian notions of family, community, and self-sacrifice. Unlike the other characters who inhabit each of these worlds, Fan is the only one in the novel who appears to be wholly free of social strictures, whose striving is based on who she is and what is in her heart, rather than on notions of what is seen as good and appropriate in the society around her. Fan and the mythmaking around her seems to be Lee’s main point in the entire novel.

Verdict: Surprisingly readable social commentary. You’ll enjoy the East Asian cultural elements slipped into otherwise stock Western fare. But if you have to choose between this and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, read Atwood instead.

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 factory-farmed fish

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