Friday, May 9, 2014

Science Fiction: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

As promised, I am following up last week's post on The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee with his most recent novel, On Such a Full Sea. I knew that this book would be different from The Surrendered based on the fact that other readers had been placing it under the categories of science fiction and dystopian fiction. And while I wasn't a huge fan of The Surrendered, I didn't severely dislike it either, so I had somewhat moderate hopes for this book.

The Situation: Fan is one of B-Mor's (what used to be Baltimore) best fish tank divers. Although she is incredibly small, often mistaken for being much younger than her actual age of 16, she is able to hold her breath for an incredible amount of time, making her one of the most efficient fish tank divers in the facility, which is what B-Mor is. The fish tanks that Fan works in provide fish to the much wealthier, and heavily secured, Charter areas of the future United States of America. Once China had environmentally ruined all of its cities, the surviving citizens settled around the globe, with Fan being a descendant of the ones who chose B-Mor as their new home. Now facilities such as B-Mor provide food and produce to the Charters, while enjoying a fairly nice, albeit modest life for themselves. At least it is better in the facilities than it is in the counties, where there is anarchy, crime, and often extreme violence. Fan has a decent job, is surrounded by family, and even has a steady boyfriend named Reg.

The Problem: One day Reg does not show up for work, and nothing much is thought of it, until he keeps not showing up, and is never heard from again. His disappearance isn't talked about much, even by Fan, who doesn't really talk much at all. But one day, Fan just up and leaves B-Mor, with no warning. The only evidence of her departure is a simple video showing her leaving the settlement voluntarily, taking no one with her. It is assumed she has gone off to look for Reg, or maybe even her brother Liwei, who was given admittance into a Charter because of his intelligence, long before Fan was even born. Despite Fan's size and age, her chances of surviving out in the counties are actually quite good, given her almost mythical nature and intelligence. But she still must be careful of people who would wish to take advantage of her, and also do what she can to hide the fact that she is pregnant. And while she is well aware of the dangers of the counties, surviving the dangers of the Charters may be something she isn't prepared for.

Genre, Themes, History: As I said in the introduction, this book has been tagged as both science fiction and dystopian fiction. While the future that Lee paints here in On Such a Full Sea isn't quite like what can be found in a book like Enders Game, or even The Dog Stars, where an illness has wiped out most of the population causing the survivors to trust no one, it does have some instances of advanced technology, fear of certain illnesses, and a new way of life that has caused the American population to be divided into three clearly separate classes: the counties, the facilities, and then the Charters. Downward mobility is incredibly easy, and upward mobility is of course incredibly difficult. Only the incredibly smart or the incredibly athletic have any chance to make their way from a facility to a Charter. Making it out of a county is pretty much out of the question. And even within Charters there are still separations, made obvious by where people live and how they live. While the counties are more or less left to their own devices as to how they wish to live, the facilities and the Charters are incredibly structured. Also, while the counties are subject to cases of incredible violence and brutality, there is little crime in facilities as well as Charters, as neither allows the citizens to own firearms. It is yet another take on what the future of our country could look like should we continue on the path we're on. And the narrator, while not quite third person omniscient, isn't really first person either. It is a strange hybrid of the two, making me believe that it is either someone close to Fan who knows her story, or someone from a governing entity that was able to observe her every move throughout her journey. The ending also leaves open the question of whether this narrator has her best interest in mind or not.

My Verdict: I was hoping to like this book more than I did The Surrendered, and I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. Lee's writing in this book is very clean and easy to grasp, even as he is explaining a world that is very different from ours and something we have never seen before. And although Fan doesn't speak much (in fact, there isn't much dialogue at all compared to most books, or maybe it just seems that way because Lee doesn't use any quotation marks), she is an incredibly intriguing protagonist, and her actions say it all. Lee's future, while incredibly different from what we have today, isn't completely inaccessible either. And he makes it clear that while the Charters are the wealthiest class with the most opportunities and resources available to them, that doesn't make their situation ideal, or mean they are automatically the happiest class. But at the same time, he doesn't make the people of the counties out to be some honorable group of rebels fighting against the machine. All three classes have their problems. I can see how some would take issue with how some of the events throughout Fan's journey are linked together. And be forewarned, this book has the dreaded ambiguous ending, but I think it is one that gives the reader something to think about, as opposed to something to just be frustrated over.

Favorite Moment: Hopefully without giving too much away, I'll say my favorite moment is when Fan is rescued from a would-be pedophile.

Favorite Character: Although she is almost unreal and leans slightly outside of the realm of believability, I pick Fan. She's incredibly wise and courageous and resourceful for a 16 year-old. And I always admire a character that knows when to keep their mouth shut.

Recommended Reading: For me, On Such a Full Sea is an interesting cross between Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, with a little bit of George Orwell's 1984 (and some of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84) mixed in. Any of those books would be a great follow-up.

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