Let’s Go to Dystopia

Kunsthaus Zurich/© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Max Ernst: The Entire City, 1935–1936

Dystopian novels portray a society, usually of the future, that has arrived at the destination we’re all headed for if we don’t change now. The great dystopian novels and the scary developments they portray convince us of things that are all too possible in the society we live in, if we hadn’t spotted them for ourselves. The most shocking dystopian novel is the first one you read, when the whole idea of the arbitrariness of human arrangements comes over you, with the realization that the future is contingent on the present, and can be affected by something you do or don’t do now.

For people of a certain age, that seminal reading experience is likely to have been one of the classics—Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451—while younger people may have started with something like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Chang-rae Lee is to be included in a list of serious literary writers who’ve turned their hands to dystopia. He teaches in the creative writing program at Princeton and has won the PEN/Hemingway Award for one of his sensitive, quiet, engrossing earlier novels in the realistic mode, Native Speaker, and a number of awards for others of his novels, none prefiguring his new one.

This novel, On Such a Full Sea, is the picaresque tale of Fan, who has a one-syllable name, as is common in science fiction. Fan is a tiny young woman, a diver in the vast tanks where fish are raised that support the community of B-Mor, Baltimore that was in the olden days. Fan has slipped out of B-Mor to search for her lover Reg, who has disappeared. Reg, in most ways just a nice, regular guy, is unusual in being one of the few people to be free of the malady, C, that ultimately kills all citizens of B-Mor. After their one sexual encounter, Fan is pregnant with his child.

B-Mor is a community that fits into the tripartite cosmology common to many foundation myths, involving outer darkness, earth, and some sort of heaven. The regimented and futuristic B-Mor corresponds to earth. As a worker there, the narrator—who tells the story of Fan—knows the place was built on the ruins of the deserted former city and peopled with immigrants from a village in New China that had become uninhabitable with pollution. It’s a world that didn’t do anything about climate change:

Because it’s rarely pleasant out of doors, we’ve come to depend on the atmosphere of seasonally perfumed, filtered air and the honey-hued halo lighting and the constantly updated mood-enhancing music that all together are hardly noticeable anymore but would likely cause a pandemonium were they cut off for any substantial period.

What the characters take comfort…

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