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Originally published Sunday, January 12, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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‘On Such a Full Sea’: Chang-rae Lee’s vision of a grim future

“On Such a Full Sea,” Chang-rae Lee’s new novel, is an all-too-believable dystopian vision of a near future, where groupthink rules and a brave young woman dares to challenge it. Lee will discuss his book Wednesday at the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Chang-rae Lee

The author of “On Such a Full Sea” will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Microsoft Auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Free (206-386-4636; )

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“On Such a Full Sea”

by Chang-rae Lee

Riverhead, 352 pp., $27.95

Who needs another apocalyptic novel? Between the Left Behind series, Margaret Atwood’s dystopias and Cormac McCarthy’s bleak trek on “The Road” — to name just a few — we’ve already got a picture of the future, and it looks scary.

Yet, as more visions of a grim tomorrow keep coming, Chang-rae Lee’s version, “On Such a Full Sea,” grabs our attention. In a departure from his previous work, Lee, author of the novels “Native Speaker” and “A Gesture Life,” tweaks a whole host of present-day concerns — Big Brother, environmental degradation, foreign invasion, rationed health care, income inequality — while grounding them all in our darkest impulses: fear, greed, power.

It’s a believable world with a believable heroine, all described by a coolly clinical narrator who tracks the young woman through three distinct Americas. Those in the top rung, the Charters, live in super-gated communities where they are “always striving to be exquisite microcosms, testing and honing and curating every texture and thread of their lives.” At the opposite end are those either born or banished to the “open counties,” lawless lands where everything that civilizes us is broken.

The third group lives in facilities organized to produce goods for the Charters. This is the home of the book’s unnamed narrator and the protagonist, Fan: Both are residents of B-More, once a city of abandoned row houses called Baltimore. Chinese emigrants resettled there some generations back after environmental damage made their own country uninhabitable.

Fan is a teenage tank diver who monitored fish farmed for the Charters until the day she ran away in search of Reg, her boyfriend and father of her unborn child. Reg’s disappearance may or may not be related to the fact that testing indicates he has a cancer-free gene. Everyone in the Charters is afraid of C, as it’s known.

Regardless, Fan’s bold and unprecedented move is a mind-changing event for B-More’s residents, who can scarcely imagine such a breach of the social contract.

The story alternates between witnessing the cracks in B-More’s groupthink that follow Fan’s departure, and tracking Fan’s own progress through the counties and on to the Charters. There, she hopes to find her long-lost brother and enlist his aid in finding Reg.

Although Fan is the novel’s central character, it’s the voice of the narrator that puts meaning in the story — one person serving as an entire Greek chorus. This narrator is so inculcated with communal values that she or he can only speak as “we,” perpetuating an Asian stereotype that Lee, who is of Korean descent, feels free to employ in service of his story.

“Imagination may not be limitless,” the storyteller observes. “It’s still tethered to the universe of what we know.” So where can the creative spirit take us in a world so depleted by materialism on one end and desperation on the other?

This is where Fan comes in. A young woman of boldness and self-composure, she doesn’t think so much as do. She is a latter-day Joan of Arc, demonstrating courage and compassion no matter where it leads.

“On Such a Full Sea,” taking its title from Shakespeare, is an accomplished novel of ideas that makes us think about what kind of tomorrow we’re creating. For better or worse, that ship will soon be sailing.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and book critic.

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