Chang-rae Lee deviates sharply from his comfort zone in Such a Full Sea, the author’s first foray into speculative fiction. Readers who went into this book expecting another Native Speaker or The Surrendered will be jarred — until one realizes the disservice that comes from pigeon-holing Lee’s newest endeavour into the confines of a single genre.
Indeed, judged purely as a work of speculative fiction, Lee’s On Such a Full Sea is adequate but nothing spectacular. Famed science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin chafed at Lee’s perceived misuse of “social science fiction” due to his refusal to offer pedantic details of how his dystopic near-future came to be. Writes Le Guin:
[A] novel about a future society under intense political control is social science fiction. Like Cormac McCarthy and others, Lee uses essential elements of a serious genre irresponsibly, superficially. As a result, his imagined world carries little weight of reality. The whole system is too self-contradictory to serve as warning or satire, even if towards the end of the book the narrator begins to suspect its insubstantiality.
But, evaluating On Such a Full Sea based solely as a work of speculative fiction is an unfair treatment that ignores Lee’s deliberate play across multiple genres, particularly Asian American literature. In fact, On Such a Full Sea — with its focus on protagonist Fan and the evolution of her identity as she embarks on a hero’s journey through a world that serves as metaphor for contemporary China, Chinatown, and American — clearly draw upon the “essential elements” of the Asian American genre.