It is known where we come from, but no one much cares about things like that anymore. We think, Why bother? Except for a lucky few, everyone is from someplace, but that someplace, it turns out, is gone. You can search it, you can find pix or vids that show what the place last looked like, in our case a gravel-colored town of stoop-shouldered buildings on a riverbank in China, shorn hills in the distance. Rooftops a mess of wires and junk. The river tea-still, a swath of black. And blunting it all is a haze that you can almost smell, you think, you don't want to breathe in.
So what does it matter if the town was razed one day, after our people were trucked out? What difference does it make that there's almost nothing there now? It was on the other side of the world, which might as well be a light-year away. Though probably it was mourned when it was thriving. People are funny that way; even the most miserable kind of circumstance can inspire a genuine throb of nostalgia. (p. 1)
Chang-rae Lee's latest novel, On Such a Full Sea, is set in an environmentally-devastated United States hundreds of years in the future. Urban cores are all that remain of certain American metropolises, with the former suburban communities now walled-off sections called Charters and the rural areas now known as Counties. Within these remnants of the urban cores are labor settlements, where the descendents of imported labor work making products and raising food for consumption in the affluent Charters. While some might be quick to label this a "dystopia," it is but merely a setting through and around which the themes and action of On Such a Full Sea occur.
At the heart of the novel is a disappearance of Reg, a young man who seems to have a natural immunity to a number of genetic disorders, known here as C, and a young woman's, Fran, search for him. It is not, however, a quest narrative, at least not in the sense of Character A seeking out clues to Character B's whereabouts, but rather a search for understanding on several levels, whether they be personal or societal in nature.
In the link I provided above to a commentary I wrote several months ago regarding a particular review of On Such a Full Sea, I devoted part of the article to discussing how this novel should not be evaluated along the lines of a genre SF novel, despite the commonalities between it and certain SF novels, especially those of a "dystopic" nature. Months later, those points largely stand. Readers accustomed to reading works set in a dilapidated future setting might presume certain things about that setting that would make such a novel "work"; On Such a Full Sea diverges from those expectations. Below are two snippets from my earlier comments on the book:
What Lee does within his book is question several premises: how do those living within a stratified system that is gamed against them adapt to their environs? Why do we seek change when there is the possibility of personal failure at best and fates worse than mere death at worst? Do we have even the illusion of free will in these settings? How do we narrate our lives when we are ignorant of so much? Does religion have to lie at the core of matters? These are questions that have been addressed by several other writers over the centuries, of course. Yet what Lee does here is raise them within a multi-faceted story in which place/environment does not matter as much as the humans that are living within these bounds.
This raises a larger question: does the setting within a presumed dystopia have to be meticulously constructed in order for the story to be effective? In stories that aren't strictly dystopic, such as Charlotte Gilman's Herland or Voltaire's Candide, the settings/premise frequently take a back seat to human interactions and development. If one examined their "worlds" too carefully, no doubt there would be inconsistencies and dodgy "world" dynamics that would "ruin" the "realism" of these imagined places. Let me say that again with greater emphasis: would "ruin" the "realism" of these imagined places. Ay, there's the rub. Lee is not as interested in the "realism" of his imagined setting as he is in exploring concepts within the framework of Fan's search for Reg (and the ancillary issues discussed by the anonymous narrator who jumps back and forth in literary time to address certain points from a variety of viewpoints).
This does not mean that On Such a Full Sea is a perfect novel. On the contrary, the narrative loops in and out of the "literary present" in such a fashion that narrative momentum is often lost in the digressions. There are times where the characters could have been developed better in order to achieve Lee's desired effect. Yet his balance of searching questions with well-articulated prose and halfway-interesting characters makes On Such a Full Sea a satisfying read. It may not fit others' criteria for a dystopia, but its questions about our own lives and how our present inequalities may be carried forward into the future does make it a thought provoking read. Sometimes, that is all some might ask of a tale and Lee here manages to provide that and extra.