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. I found elements of the narration irritating and yet, while I didn’t like the anonymity of a collective first person voice it seemed to very effectively convey Fan’s world. For me, it wasn’t Fan herself that made the story interesting, or even the (incomplete and sometimes hazy) world depicted. What held my attention was trying to work out how Fan was going to arrive at (and at which) one of three possible endings I imagined for her. But by the end of the novel, Fan as an individual was less important than her story, which itself became secondary to the language used in writing it.
And yet, while elements of the story are recognisable and familiar, it’s never comfortable. Fan is not a superhero and her ordinariness (in some aspects) is more unsettling than some of the challenges she meets during her travel. It’s hard to categorise this novel: it was an interesting journey but I’m not at all comfortable with its conclusion.
‘What hasty preparations we make for our future.’