Future Islands

If Chang-rae Lee’s newest novel, On Such a Full Sea, is what our US-China future portends, how can we change it?

Everyone knows that the US-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century. US overconsumption is underwritten by Chinese overproduction and it binds our two countries together at the hip. It’s a dramatic image. As dramatic as the fact that almost every commodity within the radius of your arm’s reach has a “Made in China” label on it somewhere. It’s an image we’ve become familiar with through incessant warnings about trade wars, currency manipulation, and China not “playing fair” in the global economy.

But if we talk and think about the relationship as an economic rivalry, then we miss the real drama of the image, the fact that we’re stuck with each other. In the second season of House of Cards, “China” becomes a card to be played in domestic politics. Politicians and billionaires know that the relationship is complex and interdependent, yet they scramble to score political points with playground rhetoric about standing up to China. Complexity for the elites, cartoons for the masses. But the real pleasure of the plotline is that its closed-door, smoking room secrets are not really secrets to us anymore. Both US-China relationships—interdependency and rivalry—are offered for our entertainment. We the audience know the score already. We know that the US-China relationship has evolved, that our futures are intertwined. But if the show presents our relationship through a clumsy reliance on “orientalist nonsense completely unnecessary to the plot,” as one commentator put it, we still lack the vocabulary to talk about interdependency. It’s that lack—that loss of words and images and stories—that makes the true complexity of our future together feel like a secret.

Chang-rae Lee’s newest novel, On Such a Full Sea, is all about secrets.

It takes us several centuries into our own US-China future, and it’s not a happy one. Lee builds his world by taking the metaphor of the 1% and the 99% to a monstrous extreme. One of the seeds of the novel came to him while on a train passing through a blighted section of Baltimore. The sight helped him to realize that his ongoing interest in China had been provoked by “an anxiety about the decline of American power and status”: an anxiety stemming from the fact that economic relations between the US and China facilitated the debt-financing bubble that exploded six years ago, creating the conditions for today’s rounds of austerity. In Lee’s vision of the future, this pattern has only continued and intensified. The 1% and the 99% exist in a quasi-feudal relationship, each living in separate, interdependent settlements that, while geographically close by, might as well be as distant from each other as “the nearest star.”

In the world of On Such a Full Sea, man-made environmental disasters have long ago compelled much of the Chinese population to accept labor conscription in abandoned US cities like Baltimore (now called “B-Mor”) while the US simply no longer exists as such. Instead, an organization called the “Association” administers three strata of society: charters, facilities, and the “open counties.” And all of the world’s inhabitants now suffer from “C-diseases,” cancer.

Since Lee’s aim is to reflect our world back at us, the novel aspires to a kind of realism, albeit one that is immediately recognizable as “science fiction.” It uses Asian settings and images to speculate on our technology-rich future, joining the tradition of fiction that connects Arthur Vinton’s yellow peril novel Looking Further Backward (1890) to William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), to more recent “slipstream” novels like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004).  But the bureaucratic aesthetic of Lee’s novel offers a striking counterpoint to the muscular, hypermasculine cyberpunk of most Asianized futuristic science fiction. Japan-centered science fiction like Gibson’s tends to champion the exceptional, technologically realized individual: “console cowboys” who, by sheer dint of their idiosyncratic brilliance, can move nations.

In contrast, Lee devotes many pages to healthcare narratives: stories about hard decisions between cost and care that would have fit neatly into an Obamacare stump speech. The novel therefore shares a lot in common with Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith’s solo performance about the US healthcare system. Indeed, it seems important to Lee that we learn about the most mundane aspects of the Association’s various policies. A typical passage informs us that “the maximum stay period in the health clinics is effectively one work cycle (six days), no matter the condition or needs of the patient, as the family is now responsible for the fees past that time, fees that are well beyond most any B-Mor clan’s capacity to pay.”

Much of the novel’s world-building occurs through explanations of how healthcare delivery structures society. Charters are the gated neoliberal Utopias: authoritarian, litter-free, with the feel of rationally planned suburbs. Their predominantly white and Asian residents devote every waking moment to the “compulsion to build and to own”: if they falter they risk banishment to the counties, which would mean losing their access to “C treatments.” The tautness of each Charter’s perfect design is echoed in their residents, who

strive to be exquisite microcosms, testing and honing and curating every texture and thread of their lives, from what they eat and watch and wear to whom they befriend and make love to, being lifelong and thus expert Connoisseurs of Me.

In the charters, parents and children alike are subject to constant measurement and metrics. Their self-satisfaction is airtight, their meals bland, and their shopping interactions seamlessly integrated with their daily gestures.

The “facilities,” also gated, are mono-ethnic worker settlements established by the Charters for the specialized production of goods and commodities. Their ethos is communal, oriented to the “wider ecology” of the settlement. Over successive generations, the denizens of facilities like B-Mor have come to accept and even naturalize the soft authoritarianism of the Charters, who ration their healthcare and confine their individual destinies to the operations of their facility’s specialization:

We provide pristine, beautiful fish and vegetables, and in return we enjoy estimable housing and schooling, technical training and health care, and a salary (if prudently managed) that makes possible modest levels of entrepreneurship, and even some exotic travels.

What Charters fear most are the “unknowable dangers of what they ingest.” Their domination of the facilities is meant to guarantee a steady supply of precisely engineered foods that are crucial to staving off and treating C-diseases.

In the first draft of this review, I toyed with the phrase “Whole Foods realism.”

On the surface, B-Mor’s dense, urban landscape resembles the Asianized Los Angeles of Blade Runner, but its residents’ earthy satisfaction and conviviality sometimes suggests Hobbiton. There is happiness, and there are charming festivals with lanterns and deep-fried delights. Because they have accepted death in order to focus on living, B-Mors see themselves as spiritually superior to the Charters, who sacrifice living to cheat death.

Outside these heavily administered spaces are the counties: states of nature sprawling between facilities and Charters in which society and the land have both gone to seed. Uninsured highwaymen roam the landscape, killing with impunity. Most of the inhabitants have been exiled from the Charters—people who have fallen short of “excellence.” The story of the counties’ decline sounds uncomfortably familiar to our post-2008 ears: “The settlements originally developed because the old-time towns and small cities were dying off because of crushing debts, as they couldn't afford to run the schools and repave streets and fix the sewers, the last intact services usually being the police.”

The parable Lee offers is clear: privatized Charters and facilities are responses to the increasing chaos of the counties’ public space. After a certain point, the commons became too unruly to hold on to. Lee never shows us the moment when people finally decided to give up, the moment when the Association was born. But he shows us the purified consequences of this process—a process that can only be described as neoliberalization: either an unlivable cult of individualism, or an existential resignation and total dependency.

In much speculative fiction, spaces like the counties are where the potential for change ferments, where bands of merry men risk their lives to rectify the imbalances of the social structure. Nothing of the sort is found in On Such a Full Sea. There is no in-between, only a mode of life that is nasty, brutish, and short.

The action in the novel begins when a sixteen-year-old diver in one of B-Mor’s fisheries, Fan, leaves the safety of B-Mor’s confines to search for her boyfriend, Reg, who has gone missing in the counties. There is a rumor that he is “C-free”—and thus very interesting to Charter doctors—and this is presumed to have something to do with his mysterious disappearance. While Fan goes after him because she is in love with him, she also goes because of a special impulse that distinguishes her from the drone-like, B-Mor masses: “If she possessed a genius,” the narrator opines, “it was a capacity for understanding and trusting the improvisational nature of her will.”

Fan’s story is told to us by a “we” that we eventually learn is the collective voice of B-Mor’s residents. It—they—are a docile bunch. Rather than resent or resist the confinement of the facilities and centuries of exploitation, they long ago resigned themselves to social and imaginative heat-death. They repeat slogans to each other like “Do not discount the psychic warmth of the hive,” and “Our generation will plant the trees. The next will enjoy the shade.” Above all, they take comfort in the endless, cyclical nature of their labor. B-Mor, as they proclaim, is where “routine is the method, and the reason, and the reward.”

Fan’s exit stirs something in them. They cannot understand her decision, and so they follow her quest with the curious, omniscient scrutiny of a Greek chorus. Is her departure an isolated incident? Or the harbinger of a new world? After Fan leaves, strange things begin happening. B-Mor residents find themselves engaging in random acts like suddenly standing up in cafés with hands outstretched; in a society in which merely thinking outside the coziness of normativity is a world-historical act, people begin to litter in park ponds. It’s the kind of randomness that Erich Auerbach once championed as the emblem of human resilience: a uniqueness that totalitarianism could never dominate. Yet as the collective narrator works towards this realization, Lee raises a darker question: does it even matter? “The question is not whether we are ‘individuals,’” the narrator explains quite early on. “The question … is whether being an ‘individual’ makes a difference anymore. That it can matter at all. And if not, whether we in fact care.”

Here is the question Lee appears to be building towards: If this is what our US-China future portends, how can we change it?

On Such a Full Sea, which takes its title from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, offers no answers. But it hammers home the point that answers will certainly not be found in the story Americans like to tell themselves about China’s future: a story in which American liberal democracy always wins, and the evil empire falls. It’s a story most powerfully reinforced by the famous photograph of the “Tank Man,” who, armed only with two shopping bags, bravely blocked the progress of tanks wending their way toward protestors in Tiananmen Square. It’s the kind of tableau that Lee’s collective narrator spends the entire novel attempting to stabilize, unsuccessfully: Fan standing alone against an onslaught of betrayal and unexplained cruelty.

These stories are good fantasies. But the Tiananmen protests began not with students trying to overthrow communism in favor of democracy, but with their demands for more modest political reform. Of the thousands of demonstrators massacred by army forces on June 4th, 1989, few were students. Most were workers who, like the students, wanted a bigger share of China’s capitalist transition. The Tank Man is just one story of triumphant individualism that we tell ourselves to remind us of who we are, to find our bearings amidst our shifting US-China realty. There are many lies we have to tell ourselves for this story to work, many secrets that need to be guarded.

Lee is no stranger to genre writing. His first novel, Native Speaker (1995), explores Korean American identity through the conventions of detective fiction. As in that novel, On Such a Full Sea refuses to adhere strictly to genre conventions. But if in Native Speaker loyalty and disloyalty to convention resonate powerfully with themes of betrayal, deception, and self-deception, in Lee’s latest novel this refusal of commitment feels like a flaw. When, at the novel’s end, we find ourselves in the province of the suburban novel—territory Lee previously visited in Aloft (2004)—we find ourselves disappointed. Not enough time has been spent in science fiction for Lee to make his world work; not enough of his world has been built. Lee reportedly wrote the novel very quickly. Perhaps he lost confidence in science fiction to reflect our world in the way that he thought it would. Perhaps he simply wandered too far outside of his comfort zone.

In any case, the novel’s skepticism about the value of individuality undermines a basic assumption of the conventional novel form: the existence of a coherent protagonist. Fan never resolves as a distinct character, even if we know a lot about her. We know she looks much younger than her age, that she is pregnant—one of the novel’s most clumsily handled details—and that she is extremely driven. But in her most significant moments, she tends to mumble cryptic phrases like “Where you are,” and respond to unlikely turns of fate—such as an encounter with a family of homicidal vegetarian circus performers—with a limpid mixture of readiness and fatalism. Without any clear sense of interiority, her decisions seem to indicate the guiding hand of an author nudging the plot along.

Lee explains in an interview that On Such a Full Sea began as a story he tried to write about the rural migrant workers in Shenzhen, China, who produce many of the goods and commodities we consume in the US. He saw in their stories a microcosm of the changing US-China relationship. But he abandoned that story:

A novel, even a social realist one, can’t simply be a comprehensive rendering of what is. A novel requires a special angle or approach, whether in structure or language or theme, to justify itself. I didn’t quite have that angle.

If he had continued in that vein, he might have written a novel that followed in the footsteps of non-fiction books like Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls (2008) and Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Scattered Sand (2013), or documentaries like Yung Chang’s Up the Yangtze (2007) and Fan Lixin’s Last Train Home (2009). Works like these have familiarized Western audiences with China’s mostly rural, mostly young and female migrants, and have also instructed Americans on how we are supposed to feel about them. As beneficiaries of these migrants’ sacrifices and labor, Americans owe them something—sympathy at the very least, but maybe more.

What Lee seems to have recognized is that this way of telling the story of the US-China relationship has its limitations. The act of staring someone in the face for too long can slip into scientific detachment, even noblesse oblige. What one needs is a broader sense of the “wider ecology.” On Such a Full Sea is still the novel that Lee began writing, but he found his angle. To understand Fan, Lee needed to build an entire world around her. To understand US-China reality, he needed to imagine its future. These speculations become one and the same in On Such a Full Sea.

What’s brutal about the realism that Lee achieves is that he anticipates a US-China reality in which identity matters little, and individuality even less. It is a world in which the 99% have turned to the 1% for salvation and, over the course of centuries, found comfort in an uneven arrangement. Why would individuality make a difference when history has ended? Why would individuality make a difference when there’s no difference left to be made?

Despite its speculative nature, perhaps the only thing we can fault the novel for is being too much of the moment. A degree of awkwardness must be allowed for a writer who must make recourse to a non-realistic genre to tell the story of a complex, emerging reality. Even if Fan’s character is under-realized, even if her identity is indistinct, we still identify with her. We identify with her meagerness, with her inadequacy for the grand canvas of the novel. We see ourselves in her as her heroic individuality is pulverized by an ocean of forces too great for her to resist. Under such conditions one cannot be expected to imagine an alternative, an outside of the system. One can only move along in hopes of eventually crossing one border too many, and finally making the difference that has thus far been impossible.

For Lee, that border is the one between the US and China. But if he’s right, then the end of history will last a long time.