It’s a little worrying that Chang-rae Lee can imagine the future America as such a specific, believable third-world country. The dystopia of his new novel, “On Such a Full Sea,” isn’t literary escapism – it’s a firm, quiet warning. With futuristic sci-fi, the devil is frequently in the details, but Lee’s imagined world never fails to convince; the smallest nuance is shifted forward toward its inevitable conclusion, or else given a reason to stay the same. It’s not that the world is likely to look like this – it’s that a lot of the world looks like this in slightly different terms right now. And the terms can change.
Our teenage heroine, Fan, is a diver in the immaculate tanks of fish sold by the city of B-Mor (which used to be Baltimore until it was turned into a gigantic fishery) to the Charter towns and villages – settlements of the ultrarich who carefully keep B-Mor and other cities (such as D-Troy) indebted to them. Fan leaves the village in pursuit of her boyfriend, Reg, a young man with peculiar immunity to a plague that ravages everyone, rich and poor; he’s been spirited away by the government for study, and she must break taboo and follow.
Between the production facilities and the wealthy hamlets, there are what Lee calls “the counties,” one of the book’s many, many unassumingly perfect locutions. Under no government except the rule of might, the people in the counties pity Fan, abuse her, and at one point memorably attempt to press-gang her into a traveling troupe of acrobats. On one level, this is a novel about slavery: Fan is sold frequently (and not just by county people), sometimes for horribly understandable reasons. Her escapes and evasions recall in melodramatic terms the quieter problems of her hometown, which are explained to us by the decorous, sensitive narrators – an unnamed “we” who still live in B-Mor. Fan’s story in “On Such a Full Sea” is brilliantly plotted – the last few pages twist and double back in thrilling ways – but the novel’s power comes from the long, discursive passages about B-Mor in all its maddening unfairness.
In switching between Fan’s journey (much of which, our storytellers repeatedly caution, is probably embroidery from many retellings) and the plight of the suffering city, little details occur to Lee’s narrators – it became disturbingly popular to drown yourself in the B-Mor fish tanks in protest during a recession, they remember. Elder abuse flares when the economy flags. Lee seems to question the readerly love of triumph over adversity in a book where so many characters’ precarious future lives are a hop, skip and a stumble away from people we might know.
Lee really breaks out the satirical thumbscrews when the story arrives in a Charter village: Even his good characters are compromised by their wealth. “She would become an all-hands mother,” Lee writes, “which meant managing every last aspect of the helpers’ and cooks’ tasks and responsibilities, and overseeing the post-school tutors for the children, as well as the clothes shopping and interior design, plus, of course, arranging the doctors’ visits and the vacations.” Really? All by herself? It’s a laugh line out of context, but in its proper place in the story, it’s simply another of Lee’s apparently bloodless descriptions of the way things are.
That seeming indifference veils a moral certainty that borders on fury if you prod at it a little; like the best future fiction, “On Such a Full Sea” demands uncomfortable questions of the present. What if the Chinese factory laborers who assemble our cars and computers become immigrants who set up shop a few miles down the road after they’ve razed their own country to make our trinkets? Where is the line between what we choose to do and what we’re forced to do? Lee offers no easy answers; even the questions are hard-won. “The odd thing, the funny thing,” he writes, “is that there has been very little chatter about any of this, when, of course, if there was the simplest outbreak of lice going around, there’d be a wild cry of concern from our citizenry, along with a round of alerts and recommendations from the authorities.” So much should be so different, Lee tells us. How could we ever be complacent?