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Book Review: On Such a Full Sea

Most apocalyptic authors do not posses the creativity or desire to end their novel outside the standard normal tropes: a protagonist who submits to his (and it rather often seems to be “his”) malevolent overlords either through acquiescence or death, or else a plot that simply doesn’t bother with catharsis at all.

So I was never a big fan of this genre, and that’s largely Aldous Huxley’s fault. (Random fact: Huxley wrote the original screenplay for Disney’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Disney rejected it on the grounds that it was too literary. I feel Walt on that one.) The Host is a great exception. Yep, that’s the one written by Stephanie Meyer, who when she’s not writing about sparkly teenage vampires actually has quite a graphic imagination. If you’re looking for somewhat-lighter adult apocalyptic lit, go read it.

If you’re looking for something a bit darker, I’d start with Chang-Rae Lee.

On Such a Full Sea presents a literalization of the present day classist economy at every function of life. Fan, our hero, is a sixteen-year old diver working in the fish farm tanks of her industrial class community. The world Fan inhabits remains distant and unknowable, revealed only partially through the course of the Wonderland-esque episodic adventures of Fan on her search in the “open counties” outside the walls of the community in which she was born and raised. There are enough familiar details, however, to eerily ground Fan’s surroundings in a place clearly evolved from our own society. It becomes increasingly obvious that Fan’s community of “B-Mor” is, in fact, a post-apocalyptic Baltimore, in which the largely African American “native” community has been run out by or integrated into the “New China” population, who set up their production settlement there many generations ago. Smartphones have become handscreens, videos are vids. An interest in “ancient culture” has been preserved, including an “old-time anime film” recognizable as Mamoru Oshii’s resurrection-themed cyborg classic The Ghost in Shell.

Lee’s genius is his creation of the vaguely sinister narrator, who speaking presumably for the community, refers to itself in the plural as it recounts Fan’s story from an observational point of view, in a voice reminiscent of Biblical evil spirits (“My name is Legion, for we are many…”). From the narrator, we eventually learn a great deal about life in B-Mor, but little about the state of the world and few details of the caste system mechanics. We learn nothing concrete about how the world came to such apparent deterioration, a subtly that refuses to insult the reader and is refreshing for the genre. Ultimately, the Fan’s story is not about personal resolution or answers but rather the progressively darker emotions of a captive-class society, projected onto the determination of one small girl who dares to keep going out into the world, rising again and again.

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