What exactly is a dystopian novel? One would think that in this era, when the mode is so favored and the term is bandied about so promiscuously, we would have a firmer handle on the topic. But it seems to me that many novels are blithely dubbed dystopias when they are really something else, and that this misapplication of category distorts a true understanding of such mis-labeled books.
Utopias came first of course, and refer to an ideal state of human mutual or social existence. Robinson Crusoe might lead a pretty idyllic solitary life, save for lack of companionship, as might Adam in the Garden of Eden. But these are not utopias, since there is no society. Essentially, then, utopias speak to how we conduct ourselves communally, under a set of sociopolitical and interpersonal rules and customs and regulations and laws. Civilization at its best.
To be the opposite of a utopia, then, a dystopia, or bad place, should depict a setup where individual freedoms and liberties and happinesses are maximally discouraged—under a set of deliberately imposed bad laws, rules, regulations and customs, enforced by some kind of willful, proactive dictator or ruling class. By this standard, several core dystopias are discernible. Orwell’s 1984 of course. The Hunger Games. And so on.
But here’s where the nomenclature often gets misapplied. Not every scenario that exhibits violence or inequality or hard times or selfish politics qualifies as a dystopia. By my lights, there has to be a deliberate imposition from above by malefactors of the unnatural conditions that lead to suffering. (Although I suppose it might be possible to imagine a bottom-up, crowd-sourced, autocatalytic dystopia. Now that’s a book I’d like to read!) In fact, such non-coordinated hardscrabble milieus might be defined as the essential state of mankind except for certain exceptional Belle Epoques. Were the Middle Ages a dystopia, simply because life was strenuous and harsh and short? Was the Global Economic Depression of the 1930s a dystopia? Is the present moment a dystopia, as some partisans on both the right and the left would have us believe? I think not, in all those cases.
What many people call dystopian novels are really Dark Ages or Post-collapse or Post-apocalypse stories. One certain Belle Epoque has ended, with either a bang or a whimper, and now humanity finds itself once more in the “nasty and brutish,” “red in tooth and claw” state of existence that has been the lot of about ninety percent of all the people who ever lived. Such books can be unrelentingly grim, like McCarthy’s The Road, or actually rather wistful and melancholic and pastoral, such as Crowley’s Engine Summer.
All of this long preface to assert that Chang-rae Lee’s new book, On Such a Full Sea, is not a dystopian novel, and that reviewers who go to it in search of a dystopia—such as Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times—will misread the book and be dissatisfied. Because Post-collapse books are not out to indict malefactors or extoll the Heroic Resistance. Instead, they are all about how to share the common suffering of the low times and thereby lessen it; how to be happy even under perilous and reduced circumstances; and what kind of eternal values remain behind when all the extraneous fripperies of modern life are stripped away.
And on this score, Lee’s book does a wonderful job of fulfilling the author’s intentions, with inventiveness, empathy, artistry and genuine extrapolative vigor.
Roughly one hundred and fifty years into the future, the USA (really the only region the book’s nameless narrators are familiar with, and hence all that the reader sees) exhibits the following structure. There are rich enclaves called Charters, where life is easy and folks are urbane and sophisticated and pampered, albeit hard-working as well. There are middle-class, laborer-populated centers sometimes dubbed “facilities.” And there is everything else, the “open counties,” where people survive in varying degrees of rude self-sufficiency or savagery. There is no domination as such among the three regions. The Charters have commercial relations with the facilities, and even stage sporting events between them. Selected youths from the facilities can earn a Charter citizenship. In the facilities, life is not mere drudgery, but a balance of labor and pleasures, with holidays and ceremonies and recreation and shopping. As for the populace of the open counties, even they interact with the others to some degree—a doctor from the open counties has a patient in a Charter community—and are mostly left alone to sink or swim.
Immediately, one can see this is no dystopia. Yes, there is unfairness and inequality, but not enforced by any clan or cadre. It’s simply the system that has evolved to best accommodate the less-than-optimal environmental and historical factors. There is no broad dissent or dissatisfaction, and while things are changing, as they always do everywhere and everywhen, there is no sense of a revolt against unbearable masters. The society hangs together organically and believably, as a logical extrapolation of current affairs and trends. (And of course many of the follies of 2014 come in for some lambasting.)
Our focus initially and throughout is the facility of B-Mor, formerly our Baltimore. Many hollowed-out USA cities were filled with Chinese immigrants fleeing the collapse of New China, and over decades they turned around these decaying burgs. Mixing with native populations, they have created a hard-working and successful syncretic culture more Asian than otherwise.
In B-Mor lives Fan, our heroine, a tender of the big pisciculture tanks where the fish that constitute much of B-Mor’s livelihood grow. Fan is in love with Reg, a rather bumbling yet affable young lad. And when Reg disappears, Fan, pregnant with his child, leaves B-Mor to search for him, little reckoning with the dangers she will face. In the open counties she meets a benefactor, Dr. Quig, who proves both good-hearted yet amoral, a kind of compromised Graham Greene “whisky priest” figure. She encounters killers and victims alike, putting herself in mortal danger. When she reaches the Charter city of Seneca, she finds more sophisticatedly perverse traps set for her, all before learning of Reg’s strange fate. At the end, Fan vanishes into a realm of myth. The whole tale has a kind of Tom Jones picaresque feel to it, with Fan assuming a bit of an Everywoman role.
“The more we follow the turns of her journey, the more we realize she is not quite the champion we would normally sing; she is not the heroine who wields the great sword; she is not the bearer of wisdom and light; she does not head the growing column, leading a new march. She is one of the ranks, this perfectly ordinary, exquisitely tiny person in whom we will reside, via both living and dreaming.”
Other characters are created with large yet psychologically deft strokes, and a kind of agreeable Victorian voice pervades. “What perverse episode lay ahead for her now? How might she have to defend herself? And how would she ever manage to escape, which she needed to do soon?” Lee propels Fan’s story onward with alacrity and unpredictability.
In chronicling such a life, average yet exemplary, Lee is, I feel sure, harking back to the Communist mythmaking of China, seen in such iconic accounts as that of the perfect soldier, Lei Feng. At the same time, Lee—a reader of SF from youth, as he has revealed in interviews—is using SF’s capacity to create “myths of the near future,” a Ballardian phrase embodying a New Wave preoccupation, seen in such books as Delany’s The Einstein Intersection. In fact, go back further, to 1962 and Cordwainer Smith’s “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell.” That Instrumentality template fits Lee’s book perfectly. A young average innocent whose challenging life resonates outward. Readers might also twig to the Sonmi-451 thread in Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
Mythmaking is central to Lee’s book and purpose. We are getting Fan’s story secondhand, through anonymous tellers who are at least some small chronological remove, in a time when the love story and quest of Fan and Reg has begun to assume legendary status. As all legends do, their tale embodies the values and core concerns of the culture from which it sprang, and Lee demonstrates this when our narrators detail how reports of Fan’s life are starting to unhinge the day-to-day routines of B-Mor.
All of this is accomplished with Lee’s trademark gorgeous prose and gentle, deliberately slowed-down pacing. The book provides endless linguistic inventiveness, such as when a voluptuous sleeping woman is described as “this sonorous mound of a whorl.”
Ultimately, what Lee has given us here is not some straw man of “Bad Times Which Must be Overcome,” but rather a vibrant snapshot of one moment of the eternal Wheel of Life, like some SF equivalent of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth.