Sunday, April 5, 2015

Review: On Such a Full Sea

Author: Chang-rae Lee
Genre: Dystopia, Science fiction
My Rating: ★★★(3 of 5 stars)

On Such a Full Sea- Chang-rae Lee
Image courtesy of Google Images
In the wake of the commercial successes of ‘dystopian’ stories that have leapt from page to screen, the genre has been treated by many contemporary writers as their experimental sandboxes. However, modern dystopia requires a rather formulaic approach by design, so finding a title that effectively throws in a bit of thematic variety is very rare.

The typical formula goes like this: there’s a bleak setting, perhaps a wild landscape that is a by-product of (a) a big catastrophe, (b) an invasion of supernatural or extraterrestrial forces, (c) a deadly war, or (d) the neglect of its lousy stewards—humans. Smack in the middle, imagine surviving human settlements or patches of stratified societies closed off by walls or domes that protect them from the ‘world’. These societies live an unnatural lifestyle crutched by technology, with their governments continually promising to keep them safe. Enter a smart, young, and feisty hero/heroine, who will discover something wrong with the authority. That’s where (s)he will stand up, go beyond the walls, seek the help of the free outsiders, and try to rectify the wrong in the world she lives in.

Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea was introduced to me by fellow readers as a modern dystopian tale that is largely different from its peers. They told me it has the destroyed-world-with-walls setup, but insisted it is something new; they said it has got a young heroine in the forefront, but that it is not exactly catered for the young adult audiences. I was colored curious, so I picked it up. It turned out that the book does follow the typical modern YA dystopia blueprint, but the author twists his style in a way that lets the readers see—or feel—the genre in a new perspective.

In the story, the society is divided into three: the Charters, or the enclave of wealthy and sometimes cutthroat individuals living in grand villages; the lower labor colonists, usually of Asian ethnicity, who were driven away from their pollution-ravaged homes to now toil in providing the necessities of the Charter villages; and the counties people, the ‘uncivilized’ populace living beyond the gates that mark what are supposed the safe zones.

Our protagonist is a tiny teen-aged girl named Fan, a fish tank-diver in the labor colony called B-Mor (formerly Baltimore) who goes beyond the safety of their gates to search for her disappeared lover. Although we have her as the storyline linchpin, the book as a whole does not so much revolve around her as it does around the collective people of B-Mor. This is because the story is narrated in the first-person plural point of view, a powerful “We”.

The unusual POV choice is one of the things that separate On Such a Full Sea from its peers in the genre. It’s new and romantic; it’s friendly and able to establish an instant rapport with the readers. It could have been the story’s main strength only if it did not come twinned with its main weakness: the vague character makeup of Fan.

Whenever readers dive into a fictional world, I think it’s very important for them to have something to latch onto. Give the readers something to care for; give them something to root for. It’s obviously deliberate in Lee’s part to make a heroine out of an ordinary, quiet girl who makes an uncharacteristically bold choice, but if the reasons behind her choice are blurry, if they are just woven from gossipy speculations and blind admiration, her action that officially turned her into a legend loses a degree of impact. It may be an element of the fable structure, but the rest of the ingredients in the tale appear to be sacrificed.

The point is it’s good that the readers may get a fine, refreshingly impersonal, and sympathetically communal voice from the narrator, but it produces multiple blinds that prevent us from seeing what are supposed to be important in a good story. It makes a character, who could be unconventionally charming, a little too flat. The collective storyteller cheers for Fan’s successes, but what exactly for? Stepping out or running from safety is a significant symbolism for the B-Mors, but can its significance ripple through the audiences reading the whole thing?

(Some might argue that Fan did all what she did because of love. But saying that is just that, saying. The readers have never actually felt that love; the narrator is saying they know Fan loved Reg, but it’s all secondhand to the readers. That’s telling instead of showing.)

The world-building would have been spot-on if it weren’t for its loopholes—or should I say its inner mechanisms that are kept secret from the readers. Many questions popped into my head: How did such a society come about? What are the new main laws that such a society must abide by? What are the schemes they are using to keep a strong, surviving society where there is evidently a system for business, trade, and industry while chaos and ruin is running so close on its outskirts? These things, if touched even for just a couple of paragraphs or so, could have provided more concreteness to this universe.

There are so many things that needed to be presented clearly, but I do understand that Lee here is underscoring not the technical aspects of this world but the philosophy and effect of Fan’s actions. There are long passages on destiny, on freedom, on impacts of socio-cultural caste systems on a person's individuality, and on how a small decision of an ordinary girl can make people think again, can make people realize their choice is in their hands, can make people look the other way and remind themselves that they are actually longing for change.

Nevertheless, I loved how ‘romantic' my experience with this book had been. It's like listening to a friendly stranger talk fondly about the life he left miles away; it's like he has so much to say and you have so much to ask but time runs out, so when he leaves, you just let the loose threads of his story them be blown by the wind.

Although Lee succeeded in making me realize there is a refreshing flavor of contemporary dystopia out there, he wasn’t quite able in pulling me completely in his world. Some chapters proved to be engrossing while the others left me thirsty for more. I still think this is a decent read, though. I have heard that Lee’s previous works are much, much better than this, so I’ll definitely try them out.


  1. If you want to read more dystopian stories, you should go directly to sci-fi classics such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Fahrenheit 451, Childhood's End or even Speaker for the Dead. These books offer a more diverse plate when it comes to the social and moral issues they tackle. The formula you have described I feel is more age-appropriate for the Young Adult variety of narrative and it's really limiting. So I suggest you check out the aforementioned titles so you can enjoy and appreciate the genre a lot more :) Great, insightful review as always. :D

  2. There's also Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, of course :)

  3. Thank you for your comments, Ekairidium! I have already read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Fahrenheit 451, and a few other classics that do not follow the formula I indicated above. (I'll check out Childhood's End and Speaker for the Dead, thanks! As for A Brave New World, it's currently on my to-read list, though I wanted to reread 1984 first before going through it, for obvious reasons.)

    I have actually no problems enjoying the genre, but I am on the prowl for something specific. Perhaps I have not underscored it enough in my review: the main reason I did not seek for classic dystopian titles is that I wanted to zero in on how contemporary authors will make something new out of the typical pattern popularized by the many novels that recently received the page-to-screen treatment. Most of these books, of course, cater to the young adult audience. But target market notwithstanding, I simply wanted to see something that will make itself stand out in the middle of this fad. :)

    I became curious about Lee's "On Such a Full Sea" because fellow readers said "it's different". They said it has the destroyed-world-with-walls-and-young-heroine story setup, but they insist "it's something new"--oh, and it is not YA, despite the fact that its formula does seem to have been extracted from popular YA titles. From this you may see why I was intrigued to no end, so I have to read it to find out why they say what they say about it. (I should have included this up in my review to make things clearer, haha! Perhaps I should, yeah).

    Actually, "On Such a Full Sea" does not skimp on moral or social issues (see third-to-last paragraph). I just became more concerned with the world-building and Lee's other aspects of storytelling, which I find were sacrificed when he focused on humanizing his narrating voice. :)

    1. I see. Thanks for the clarifications :) I did find the title of this book intriguing since I believe it's from one of my favorite Shakespearean quotes from Julius Caesar "There's a tide in the affairs of men". I might check out this book someday.

      Speaker for the dead is the sequel to Ender's Game so you probably should read the first novel first. Childhood's End is something I would profusely recommend to you. The way it approached the dystopic theme is truly unique. Of course, Brave New World is the definitive dystopia novel and I think you will enjoy it.

      Speaking of dystopia, check out The Orphan Master's Son. It's about North Korea, at least a fictionalized novel about it. And if we have an actual dystopic place in real life, it's most definitely North Korea.

      Thanks for the response!

  4. Hi Airiz. Nice review. It's been a long while since the last time I read about fiction. I would be very interested to read this one. For the last 5 years, I have been a loyal reader of books by John Maxwell.

    Looking forward to your next book reviews..

    Have a nice day ahead...