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On Such A Full Sea [Paperback]

Chang-Rae Lee
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

9 Jan 2014

Lithe and tiny, Fan is a diver at the New China settlement of B-Mor, a worker colony long-ago known as Baltimore, her circumscribed world the temperature-controlled fish tanks that feed a contaminated continent, and Reg, the golden-skinned, simple-hearted man she loves.

Rigorously pressurised and demarcated, the dystopian America Fan serves is ruled by the professional Charter caste. While B-Mors are obedient and tranquillised by duty and the fear of chaos, the pampered, ruthless Charters inhabit idyllic, over-supplied communities behind whose gates they jostle ceaselessly for dominance. Estranged from nature, B-Mors and Charters alike shy from the spaces between, where 'counties' people - outcasts, free-thinkers and renegades, bandits and pedlars - forage and grub and steal and kill. One quiet day Reg is removed from the colony - whether for a nameless infraction, or because he is disease-resistant in a world where no one is C-free, it is impossible to say. Fan decides she must follow. But her departure threatens to disrupt the whole order of B-Mor society, and only savage action can hold it together.

A mesmerising narrative of courage and longing, On Such a Full Sea is an epic tale: brilliantly speculative, absolutely involving and profoundly humane.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown (9 Jan 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408705478
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408705476
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.2 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 188,877 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Engrossing (Financial Times)

Watching a talented writer take a risk is one of the pleasures of devoted reading, and On Such a Full Sea provides all that and more...His marvelous new book, which imagines a future after the breakdown of our own society, takes on those concerns with his customary mastery of quiet detail - and a touch of the fantastic (New York Times Book Review)

I've never been a fan of grand hyperbolic declarations in book reviews, but faced with On Such a Full Sea, I have no choice but to ask: Who is a greater novelist than Chang-rae Lee today? His new, his fifth - where have you been? - book seals this deal. A chilling, dark, unsettling ride into a dystopia in utopia's guise, this is a novel that might divide but will no doubt conquer where it matters most (Los Angeles Times)

Similar to Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go . . . a strange, skilful performance (Independent)

The Road suddenly feels unthreatening in contrast to Chang-rae Lee's engrossing new novel . . . [a] fine entry into this tradition (Financial Times)

Fascinating . . . for all its adventure narrative, it is underpinned by a solid and shrewd reading of present-day American economics (Guardian)

Book Description

From the beloved award-winning author of Native Speaker and The Surrendered, a highly provocative, deeply affecting story of one woman's legendary quest in a shocking, future America.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
"On Such a Full Sea" a novel written by Chang-rae Lee is a story about the American dystopian future, made in beautiful style, but at a slightly lower level of quality due to the pace that makes some parts of novel a bit too slow to go through.

In a future Baltimore, now called B-Mor, reader will see the divided world - on one side the small and privileged Charter Villages placed outside the city, on the other side former city that was transformed to production settlement.
There Chinese refugees were placed when in the past many parts of China became unsuitable for life and now their descendants are working and living to fish and produce food for those new elite.

A story that is actually a legend is told from the third mysterious person perspective - at its beginning reader will meet main character, a female named Fan, who is fish-tank diver that will leave her home when the man she loves will disappear. She will embark on a dangerous and uncertain journey, not giving up until she finds the truth, and through her voyage the reader will learn about the future world characterized by crime and the dangers until she will reach remote locations of which she had previously only heard stories...

The novel premise is excellent, because most readers who love science fiction also like to read about dystopian visions of the world especially if you have such interesting and convincing imaginary world like this author managed to create.
The only thing that makes it slightly less enjoyable and separates it from the excellent rating is the plot development around the middle of the novel when the activities will become a bit too slow and often it seems as if the author deliberately prolonged action in order for novel to obtain extensiveness.
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By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 500 REVIEWER
The title of this novel is drawn from a line in Shakespeare’s play, ‘Julius Caesar’. It’s a line from Act IV Scene II where Brutus speaks to convince Cassius that it is time to begin the battle against Octavius and Antony : ‘On such a full sea are we now afloat/ And we must take the current when it serves/Or lose our ventures.’ Sometimes (but not always) this line seems appropriate to the journey of Fan throughout this novel.

At some time in the future, after a period of decline, America is a rigidly class-stratified society. Urban neighbourhoods are now self-contained labour colonies. The labourers themselves are descendants of people brought over from provincial China, by then an environmental ruin. The lives of the labourers are given shape and purpose by their work which is to provide produce and fish to the small elite charter villages that surround the labour colony. Fan is a female fish-tank diver in the B-Mor settlement (once known as Baltimore). Fan leaves her home when Reg, the man she loves, disappears. Her journey in search of Reg takes her from B-Mor, through the anarchy of the Open Counties to a faraway charter village. Fan’s quest becomes a legend to those she leaves behind, and the narrative unfolds in a first person plural voice: the collective voice of those that Fan leaves behind in B-More.

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

This novel is part quest and part dystopian fiction with hints, to me at least, of a futuristic morality play.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  164 reviews
51 of 58 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unsettling dystopian fiction 17 Nov 2013
By Daffy Du - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I've been a fan of Chang-rae Lee ever since reading his first book, Native Speaker. So even though speculative fiction isn't really my thing, I wanted to read On Such a Full Sea, simply because of who wrote it.

In this book, Lee has a detailed a grim, dystopian future, clearly drawing on the major issues of our day--pollution, income inequality, disease, lack of opportunity and more. The world he has created is rigidly stratified, with the wealthy Charters at the top--those who have all the opportunities and wealth, those in self-contained labor settlements, formerly major U.S. cities, whose purpose is to provide the Charters with food, and those who must fend for themselves in the counties. The heroine, Fan, is from one of the labor settlements, B-Mor, which it quickly becomes apparent was once Baltimore. The labor settlements are populated by the descendants of the "originals," who were brought over from China. There is almost no upward mobility for anyone except the Charters; however, once in a while someone from the settlements, who does exceptionally well on tests, will be plucked away and placed in a Charter community, as Fan's brother had been many years earlier.

Fan, at 16, is an exceptionally good diver, able to hold her breath longer than anyone and responsible for cleaning the fish tanks that produce seafood for the Charters. She's in love with Reg, who works in the greenhouses. In Lee's futuristic world, cancer (C-illness) is ubiquitous--everyone develops it at some point--except Reg, who for reasons unknown, seems to be impervious. One day, he disappears, and Fan does the unthinkable--she leaves B-Mor in search of him. The rest of the book is an account of her adventures, with people in the counties and the Charters.

On Such a Full Sea is based on an original concept, and Lee's literary gifts are on full display. (The man can write!) But I found the pacing rather slow in many places, and felt my usual confusion with the genre, not always sure what he was referring to. I also wasn't sure what made Fan so circumspect and perfect in so many ways--it was never explained. The book is told from the point of view of Fan's relatives (I think), left behind in B-Mor, where she became something of a legend. It's never clear how the narrators could know what they do about her activities after leaving the settlement. There is also only passing reference to an uprising of sorts that takes place after she leaves, so it wasn't clear to me why it happened, other than various policy changes the governing directorate made, or why and how it died down. And the ending leaves much up in the air.

This would be a good book for fans of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and anyone looking for a different kind of read.

At one point I considered granting it only three stars, but the writing is so good and the concept so original, I've relented and rated it four.
90 of 108 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fiction more focused on art than science 1 Dec 2013
By a scientist - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I try not to give three star reviews - I'd rather adopt a clear position. So why have I given this book three stars? Because I really wanted to like it, but I just didn't. It's not a bad novel, and I will probably continue to follow this author in the future, but I can't recommend this novel.

Briefly, this is a story that explores class relationships in a future society, specifically the relationship between lower and upper class Westerners and lower-middle class Asians. There isn't much science behind this fiction - it's definitely more soft SF than hard. It is written by a Princeton writing professor who clearly believes that science fiction needs more pretentiousness in its writing. The story starts awkwardly, settles into a nice enough rhythm in which we follow the eventful life of an uneventful character, and ends somewhat unexpectedly.

Once I got into it, it held my attention, but I was ultimately disappointed, especially with the lack of character development and the unimportance of the near future setting. It did have some of the whimsical feel of Murakami, and I'd recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore. It also had some of the depth of Nicola Griffith's early work (Ammonite, Slow River). I would recommend any of those works over this one.

If you found this review unhelpful, please leave a comment to help me understand why. I didn't want to give away too much of the plot but I'm happy to give more details if that would be helpful.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I couldn't get through this book 13 Feb 2014
By Menagerie - Published on Amazon.com
I read the first 120 pages and walked away. The story is fascinating as is the world that Lee has created. It isn't quite dystopian but the Chinese have taken over America and formed small insular communities according to a person's social and financial status. The thought that went into creating this world is amazing as is the imaginings of the consequences of such a way of life.

What I couldn't stand about the book was the way it was told. The main characters, Fan and Reg never get to speak for themselves. Everything is observed by an omniscient narrator who was a part of Fan and Reg' working class community called B-Mor. This distance, while underscoring the loneliness of their regimented and suppressed lives makes it hard to really care about the characters. I got very tired of the narrator's voice even while being impressed with the insight they provided.

The writing itself is beautiful, at times even lyrical, but the overall distance from the characters left me cold.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and compelling, with rich characters and memorable scenarios 29 Jan 2014
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Imagine us. We are sitting on a dying earth, but our contentedness precludes us from acknowledging it. We work near tirelessly, day in and out, for the course of our lives to remain steady, static. We live communally, but barely speak with each other. Our own corner of the world is all we know and all we’re encouraged to understand. Save for the rarest cases --- fiery, untouchable brilliance, or the unexplained interest of a nebulous governing power --- we have no social mobility. And above all, we do not question our state of affairs, save in idle commentary. For what would be the use?

This is a glimpse of the world of Chang-rae Lee’s ON SUCH A FULL SEA, a novel set in a future dystopia that seems, at first, a great departure for him. Yet, although Lee here takes his first crack at speculative fiction, he still preoccupies himself with those themes that have served him so well for so long --- hope, will, betrayal, knowledge, regret --- in a setting reflecting our own, only eerily, near-apocalyptically stretched.

The novel’s narrator is a collective one: an ever-shifting group of unnamed inhabitants of a fishing labor settlement called B-Mor (once Baltimore), founded by emigrants from New China, who left to escape the pollution destroying their countryside. B-Mors are members of the second-tier of a rigid, three-tier class system that stretches worldwide. Although the dwellers of such settlements are lower than the powerful, ambitious residents of the wealthy Charter villages, they remain safer and better off than the denizens of the vastly numerous surrounding counties.

The B-Mors tell, reflectively, the story of Fan, a gifted 16-year-old fish-tank diver whose world is shattered instantly when her lover, Reg, disappears one afternoon without a trace. In reaction, what Fan does to B-Mor is simply unthinkable: unwilling to accept the illusions of safety in a society in which she has no say or control, she leaves.

Venturing off into the counties, she travels far and wide in search of Reg and discovers the chaos that reigns outside the walls of her home settlement. The counties are untamed and unshielded from an environment shattered by the failures of previous cultures and ignored by the governing bodies of the world --- here, the seemingly incurable C-illness that ravages the human genetic makeup is less easily managed. During her travels through the wild and eventually a Charter village, Fan runs constantly into danger, including a medical commune where, desperate for supplies, the residents use children as currency, and a family who hoards people as we keep pets.

Throughout the novel, Fan stares stolidly into the face of these terrors, and her character remains cryptically self-certain and driven, despite her drastic ordeals in what the narrating B-Mors call “this ever-dimming world.” Yet the narrators themselves make up for this, noting this mythic quality in Fan as they tell their own parallel tale of how they have begun to chafe at the confines of their predetermined, prepackaged lives in the B-Mor settlement. They see in Fan’s ostensibly rash decision to abandon her home the capacity for hope, for dreaming of something different --- an ability they, as a culture, have never been allowed to have.

And this is the great achievement of ON SUCH A FULL SEA. Yes, the novel is gripping and compelling, the characters rich and scenarios memorable, but it is in the story’s telling --- literally in the way in which it is told --- that we find the writer’s true brilliance. The relationship between B-Mor and Fan is symbiotic, even if neither is entirely able to grasp it, and on occasion it is difficult to determine whether Fan’s story is truly hers, or if the settlement’s tellers are simply conjecturing, unable to keep the possibility of her movement, ever onward, from their minds. In the end, it is hard to know. For as the B-Mors remind us, “a tale, like the universe, they tell us, expands ceaselessly each time you examine it, until there’s finally no telling exactly where it begins, or ends, or where it places you now.”

Reviewed by John Maher
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars And We'll All Float On Anyway 15 Nov 2013
By Sean Rueter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Mr. Lee's new novel is so full of smart, speculative fiction ideas, I'm somewhat amazed that I'm not giving it five stars. Extrapolating out our current class and culture divide to three intertwined social constructs, bound together by commercially reinforced corporate-political overseers, is brilliant. In many senses, we're already there, but On Such a Full Sea distills it into story in order to make it even more clear.

Likewise, the protagonist, Fan, and narrator of the novel, her original community, the urban wasteland turned Socialist Capitalism collective known as B-Mor, are ingeniously realized themes. Fan is a Zen-like cipher whose abilities made her excellent at her job in B-Mor and throughout the novel both attract acquaintances and enable her to survive and thrive in the circumstances she encounters. The people she left behind are like any mass of humanity viewed as a group, occasionally agitated but ultimately more concerned about their day-to-day existence than grand notions of right and wrong.

Fan's story is amazing and at times thrilling. There's relatable human drama in the time she spends in each of the modes of living in her world. But there's also over-the-top perils that seem contrived as much to provide additional shock as they are to contribute to the novel's themes. In the cases where they appear, they stick out and distract from a message that the author had already successfully presented, without adding any thrills.

And I guess that's why I ended up giving On Such a Full Sea less than the highest rating. For as inventive and important as the book was, and as beautiful as Chang-Rae Lee's prose can be, there were too many times that I considered putting it down, or wished that we could fast-forward some narrative aside or dystopian scene, or struggled to relate to Fan as a character instead of as a Koan.
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