[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1594486107″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/515s1mROSoL.jpg” width=”221″ alt=”Chang-rae Lee” ]A Dystopia… Or Not?
A Feature Review of
On Such a Full Sea: A Novel
Hardback: Riverhead, 2014
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Reviewed by Philip Zoutendam
Dystopian. That’s what got me to the bookstore for this novel. Good novel, very good novel, even excellent novel, and I can wait for second-hand or maybe even a library copy. But a dystopian novel—some future world falling apart for being too tightly held together—will get hardcover price from me. (Which is why I have a hardcover box set of The Hunger Games, though I couldn’t bear to finish them.)
A curious thing about this particular “dystopian novel”: there is no doubt, from the first chapter, that it is an excellent novel, but there is a lot of room to question whether it actually is a dystopian one.
It looks like dystopia. It has the obligatory future setting—America a few centuries from now, where Baltimore is B-Mor and Detroit is D-Troy, and the cities of largely Asian colonists have been assembled long enough that their genesis story is history rather than memory. There’s also the backdrop of catastrophe, something gone wrong that changed life as we know it to life as these characters live it. Life occurs at the literal extremes in this book; the coasts are the only places habitable for anything like civilization. And finally there are the clean and rigid class divisions.The wealthy and comfortable live in (and jet-set between) the “Charters”; the working classes inhabit the facilities, where their work provides the essentials for themselves and the Charters; the remainder—the outlaws, outcasts, and mistfits—occupy the places in between, the “open counties,” where the tough eke out a living and the rest do not.
This neo-caste system looks like the key ingredient for dystopian angst and rebellion. It looks like the fuse smoldering away towards the inevitable explosion—between the colonies, between men and their minders.
Yet when you realize that explosion isn’t coming, it’s not entirely a surprise, and that’s because the book never fully felt dystopian. It lacks the requisite pressure and friction. Things seem to be as they are, and people where they are, mostly of their own accord. It isn’t clear who the lower classes would rebel against, and it’s ultimately clear they wouldn’t want to even if they did know. Even the hinted-at disaster that framed this world in the first place—apparently just climate change—seems mild and gentle and natural.