Chang-rae Lee’s new post-apocalyptic, post-climate change novel On Such a Full Sea is told in a voice thick with accumulated nostalgia and melancholy. The story takes place in the ashes of apocalypse; in the wake of climate change, water contamination, swine and bird flu epidemics and urban decay. It exhibits a wistfulness for a “prehistoric world, when the air was drier and clearer and more temperate,” along with a mournful longing for foreclosed utopias, lost origins and distant homes.
Sliding between the past conditional (“she would have”) and the future perfect tense (“we will have”), the novel’s present feels equally pregnant with the dashed dreams of the past and the narrowing possibilities of the future.
In the world of On Such a Full Sea, history has circled back on itself; Lee’s dystopian future begins to resemble our own present. America has been recolonized by climate change refugees pushed out of “New China” by pollution.
Brought to blighted, abandoned cities to work for giant corporations, the first settlers – the “originals” – have created close-knit and stable communities such as B-Mor (previously Baltimore) almost from scratch. These communities are rooted in family, work and self-abnegation. In a sense, climate change has offered the promise of a clean slate; the possibility of a from-the-ground-up sort of technocratic utopia.
The intervening 100 years, though, have seen the rigid stratification of America (now, the Association) into archipelagos of exclusion and inequality and the decline of the utopian promises of the originals.
By the time we get to it, B-Mor is a community that has begun to see the limits of its devotion to work ethic, self-sacrifice and respectable politics. It has begun to find holes in its unqualified progress narratives, its state-sponsored histories, textbooks and museums. B-Mor, then, is a community aware of its own end and preservation: “We can’t help but envision what may well come.”
Spoken by a “we” to a plural “you,” the story is related in the unified voice of an entire community. It has an oral and extemporized quality to it – almost as if it has been told many times before and will be told many times to come.
There is a tension between the murmured mantras of “It is fine” or “It is right” and the creeping awareness that “deformations have appeared on the surface of our serene terra.” This narrative technique lends the story a quality of distance, a skein of mystery.
Barely perceptible behind this skein of mystery are the outlines of a character: the novel’s (mostly) silent heroine, Fan. Fan is constantly transacted and animalized by the story’s other characters and the novel itself. The book relies on her smallness and her silence; on both her prophet-like qualities and her lack of agency.
The first-person plural narrator speaks through and for Fan. Fan is the canvas onto which the B-Mor community projects its collective anxieties and fantasies, more a fetish object than a real person. This weakness speaks to a larger weakness – an inability to complicate the predictably noir-ish, masculinist tropes of dystopia fiction – on the part of what is otherwise an incredibly relevant meditation on themes of immigration, climate change, memory and community.