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.