On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

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Genre(s): Literary Dystopian Sci-Fi
Series: Stand-Alone
Riverhead Books
Release date:
January 7th, 2014
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Slice of Life (HM), Four Word Title

Goodreads | Book Depository | Amazon

Execution: ⭐⭐
Enjoyment: ⭐⭐

“A tale, like the universe, they tell us, expands ceaselessly each time you examine it, until there is finally no telling exactly where it begins, where it ends, or where it places you now.” 

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee is dystopian science fiction for people who have never read any dystopian science fiction and would prefer to keep themselves at arms-length from anything “genre” fiction. While I enjoyed the prose, that was about the only thing I enjoyed. I got the sense while reading that this novel was intentionally light on science fiction and character-driven elements not because they would have harmed they novel (they wouldn’t have), but because the author didn’t want to be associated with the genre. The writing itself is lovely, poetic, and ambitious; Lee writes in the plural “we,” where just who “we” is must be interpreted by the reader. Each sentence is packed with descriptors and atmosphere. Unfortunately, Lee’s characters are poorly fleshed out and his women are often infantilized in a frustrating manner. The setting, plot lines, and overall themes are nothing new and have all been explored in other works – and usually done without sacrificing character and plot quality.    

Lee comes highly recommended on paper, having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction back in 2011 for his novel The Surrendered, having won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011 for the same novel, and On Such a Full Sea itself was honored as the ALA Notable Book of the Year. It has generally been my observation that no matter how well done a “genre” book that is clearly science fiction or fantasy is, it tends to be passed over for such awards on the grounds of not being sufficiently literary. Therefore, authors like Lee tend to avoid the being labeled genre fiction at all costs by avoiding the things that actually make for a good piece of genre fiction: specifically, good characters and good plot. It frustrates me that this is the case – why must SFF with heavily political, social, cultural, and ethical themes be relegated to only being eligible for the Hugos, Nebulas, etc? Why is it only watered down SFF, which mires down engaging plots and characters in excessively mundane, overdone settings wrapped in extra-dense prose that is eligible for these highest of literary honors? Being SFF does not preclude being literary, as authors such as N. K. Jemisin, Ada Palmer, Brooke BolanderMariam Petrosyan, and many others have clearly and eloquently shown us.

Lee is extremely liberal with his prose, taking his time to create a folk-lore style atmosphere. More than anything else, it felt a bit like listening to my grandfather tell a story; he meanders from thought to thought, focusing not only on the story, but also on what happened to him while the story took place back at home. The words ramble across the page stream-of-consciousness style, gradually making a path to their goal. While I enjoyed this style of writing, readers who prefer a quick pace and a plot that moves along regularly may not appreciate his wordcraft. The quotes used here are fully representative of his style – if these do not appeal, I doubt that 350 pages of the same will be sufficient to change your mind. Although I’m tolerant of purple prose, this often became a bit much even for me, particularly when I compared his writing with the works of authors such as Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. El-Mohtar and Gladstone write with a focus on atmosphere and poetry, yet do so without the slightly pretentious tone that Lee manages to convey.

On Such a Full Sea is set in a post-apocalyptic America, which is indicated to have been resettled by Chinese immigrants. The main character, Fan, comes from the city of B-Mor (Baltimore), a walled compound with a communistic economy. As children, the citizens of B-Mor are sorted into jobs based on aptitude tests. There are, however, a few independent businesses which have been passed down along family lines, so we do know it’s not a wholly socialist society. Life in B-Mor is fairly standard dystopia, albeit watered down. To be frank, life in B-Mor isn’t terrible. Everyone has one day off per week, access to free healthcare (though during times of economic downturn this is reduced), and plenty of accessible entertainment including tv shows, video games, and community events. Outside of B-Mor, however, are the lawless counties, where folks must toil and scrape out a living from the damaged soil. It’s pretty much Dystopia Lite, since even the counties are shown to have some degree of civilization even if crime is fairly rampant. Naturally, there is a ruling upper class: The Charters.

“Here in B-Mor, along the runway-straight blocks, we can’t avoid enduring the same extremes as in the open counties, bit it is a blessing to note that we have numerous places to go for respite, like our indoor gymnasiums and pools, and the subterranean mall busy with shops and game parlors and eateries, where people naturally spend most of their free time.”

The Charters are an extremely wealthy group with a capitalistic society. Everyone trains and goes to university for careers of their choice. However, if one falls into debt, they are expelled from the community and banished to the counties, where they typically succumb rapidly to either disease or social predation. People in all social classes suffer from a disease called ‘C’, which is implied to be cancer – possibly due to nuclear fallout.

Fan is repeatedly infantilized and stripped of agency. While I see what Lee was attempting to do in a literary sense, which was to set Fan up as a folk hero who mirrored the circumstances of her hometown, B-Mor, I feel that this could have been done in a way that didn’t reduce her to the status of a child. She was repeatedly described as small, petite, youthful, childlike. Frail, delicate. Those she meets on her journey bend over backward to help her… ostensibly due to seeing her as their own child. Yet, throughout this, Fan is an adult. In fact, she’s pregnant. Her entire journey is centered around men: she’s looking for her lover and partner, the father of her child, who was “disappeared” by the government due to being C-free. God forbid Fan has any personal motives of her own which aren’t based on men, after all. We are never privy to Fan’s own thoughts or perspectives. She exists only to be moved through the world by others, played across a board. She could easily be replaced with a literal cardboard cut out without the story suffering one single iota. She rarely even speaks – usually, others speak for her.

“She did stand out physically, and not because she was beautiful. She was pleasing enough to look at. She was tiny, was the thing, just 150 centimeters (or not quite five feet tall, and slime besides. . . at sixteen, she had the stature of a girl of eleven or twelve, and thereby, when first encountered, she could appear to possess a special perspective that one might automatically call “wisdom” but is perhaps more a kind of timelessness of view, the capacity, as a child might have, to see things and people and events without the muddle of the present and all it contains.”

If one reads this from a literary point of view, you could easily argue that Fan is meant to be a stand-in for the people of B-Mor. She’s meant to represent them collectively. The people of B-Mor are themselves children in many ways, with a limited experience and a closed off world, sheltered from the dangers of the counties and the financial risks of the Charters. This would be a fair and valid reading, but I cannot help but find the trope of women representing children to be old and tired. We’ve been there. We’ve done that. How about we make Fan an interesting, engaging young woman who represents hopes, dreams, and ambition instead? How about we make her an interesting and multi-faceted character? Give her a voice. 

The other women represented in the story have a similar lack of agency, except for when it comes to “mothering” Fan. Were it not for their desire to mother and protect one whom they see as a child, they would never have stood up to the men in their lives. I feel that this is a very poor representation of women as a whole; we’re more than mothers. We care about more than just children. One Charter woman “collects” young girls, who were brought on to the house as maids. After her husband, y’know, sexually assaults and/or rapes them, she brings them up to her room where she treats them as dolls and strips them of their individuality. They exist solely to fill the roll of children (or perhaps more aptly, pets) for her. She saves Fan from her husband with the intent to keep her as one of her girls. Another woman, later, saves her from her own husband who intended to sell her. Men are consistently the aggressors who drive the plot, with women stepping in to save the child-like Fan. Ultimately, it is, naturally, a man who saves Fan and spirits her away from the devils of the world. None of the women in this story are granted the power to fully save her, despite it being indicated in the novel that women do in fact hold positions of high social standing or can pursue demanding careers. The women who do those things never once make an appearance within a powerful context, which I think speaks more to the author’s own assumptions rather than the world he wrote.

“We have to view Fan as recognizing, at that moment, not just Miss Cathy’s mania but how much the Girls mean to the woman. This might seem exactly wrong, given how apparently willing she was to leave poor Four and Five to the full run of their fates. For it was ultimately not a particular girl or girls who were most important but their totality, the way they could web her and cocoon her and settle her down each night and day so that there was no untoward pinch or wrinkle, the temperature of their corpus always regulating and kind. It was all about her, yes, it was solely her storm or fine clime they were subject to, and in this regard the greatest potential disturbance was not their complement being diminished but the specter of sudden change.”

The socio-economic themes are slightly more interesting, specifically how the people of B-Mor instituted a nascent rebellion during a period of economic downturn. True to life, as soon as the economy started to swing back up, the people of B-Mor settled right back down. This is a decent, albeit generic, piece of commentary on how blue-collar working class castes can be controlled. Within Charter society, family units often broke down – ostensibly due to an overly materialistic lifestyle and lack of social connection. As pets were known to carry disease, dogs, cats, etc were all outlawed – which caused the trend of having a “kept” protégé to flourish, similarly to how Fan was inducted into the pet-like group of girls.

All in all, while On Such a Full Sea had a few redeeming characteristics, I did not feel that they were able to overcome the glaring deficiencies represented in the novel. The prose was lovely, albeit overdone, but the characters and setting both came off stale when held up against the larger backdrop of the SFF world as a whole. Lee did not say anything different or revolutionary in his novel, nor was he able to convey older concepts with enough of a twist to bring about a new or fresh perspective.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?

Drop me a line in the comments below!


Published by Christine Sandquist

Christine Sandquist is an NYC-based sensitivity/developmental editor and author assistant to writers such as Hugo Award Winner Mary Robinette Kowal, World Fantasy Award Winner Tobias S. Buckell, and SOVAS Award Finalist Cadwell Turnbull. They specialize in analyzing and providing feedback on works that include diverse, queer casts, representations of sexual trauma, and broader gender-based violence. They are part of the team behind Reddit r/fantasy, the internet’s largest discussion forum for the greater speculative fiction genre.

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