My review of Chang-Rae Lee’s “On Such a Full Sea” is in the winter-spring 2014 issue of Ms. I’m still thinking about the book, and about why I so often end up with mixed feelings reading science fiction by “literary” writers.
On one hand, Lee makes skillful use of science fiction to explore Asian culture and the Asian-American experience. He delivers a brilliant critique of American class divisions, and of the way immigrants, in trying to get ahead, can be seduced into participating in an unjust system.
But the dystopian set pieces (especially the crossing of the lawless lands, here called “the counties”) were disappointingly unimaginative. The best science fiction has the power to show us ourselves in the mirror of the alien. Although “On Such a Full Sea” started out with images of haunting strangeness, by the end I felt it wasn’t nearly strange enough.