In recent years much-praised British novelists Kazuo Ishiguro and Jim Crace both took brief left turns into futuristic fiction, with Ishiguro tackling cloning (“Never Let Me Go”) and Crace devising a post-apocalyptic America (“The Pesthouse”). Neither was entirely successful. Now it’s the turn of acclaimed South Korean-born U.S. writer Chang-Rae lee, whose latest novel is set in a decomposed United States long after its colonization by peoples — “the originals” — from polluted, “uninhabitable” China. America is now New China, and B-Mor (once Baltimore), a “self-sustaining island” populated by submissive Asian-styled laborers entrusted with curating fish hatcheries for the country’s elite. Cancer, here thinly disguised as “C-illnesses,” is the only substantial menace.
Through an omniscient, third person-propelled narrator, Lee portrays a highly regimented culture divided between urban worker bees, upscale “Charters,” and ostracized rural folk condemned to the lawless Far West-like “counties.” A never-described directorate oversees society as a whole, with New China obviously reflecting contemporary political paradigms (the rural poor, the new rich, and the controlling Communist Party). Into this mix he introduces Fan, an agile fish harvester romantically linked to fellow worker bee Reg. When Reg vanishes, possibly as a test subject (he is C-resistant), Fan — pregnant — does the unthinkable: she bolts B-Mor to track down her boyfriend. Her Gulliver-like travels send her into the vortex of counties life, rife with gunplay and sexual abuse, and into a gilded Charter city, where both Reg and her long-lost brother will come into play.
But Fan’s disappearance, the narrator tells us (in prose that varies from the pretty to the techie colloquial), is cause for amazement in otherwise complacent and conformist B-Mor (“Fan captured our imagination…”) Her quest is lionized as a journey toward meaning. That’s in part because Lee’s brave new world isn’t brave or new. B-Mor’s class structure, which exists under “moody, thwarted light,” is a fast-forwarded version of today’s China dagger-plunged into a post-democratic North America which “thrived for a time” but whose social neglect eventually made it ripe for takeover (it “inexorably declined and finally disappeared.”). Fan gone rogue plays inadvertent Magellan made to regard the many membranes of landscape around her.
Ultimately, Lee’s intriguing but too precious novel is a cautionary parable about Oriental ambitions and Western shortcomings, with no love lost for today or tomorrow’s China. Fan is not so much a character as a lesson plan and warning. For Lee, whose Korean roots entertain the seed of his country’s longtime disquiet toward China, the future is now, a fiction an admonishment.