There is a tide

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

This novel reminds of recent dystopian movies and books such as Elysium, The Road, Never Let Me Go and Cloud Atlas. Our zeitgeist recognizes the ever accelerating gap between haves and have-nots, and these novels and films reflect that collective consciousness. The gap always existed between the rich and poor worlds, but now it exists within developed countries like the US, threatening broad swathes of the former middle class.

Leonard Lopate Show: Chang-Rae Lee talks about his new novel, On Such a Full Sea, set in a future, when a long-declining America is strictly stratified by class. Abandoned urban neighborhoods have become high-walled, self-contained labor colonies. The members of the labor class work to provide quality produce and fish to elite villages. In this world lives Fan, a female fish-tank diver, who leaves her home in the B-Mor settlement (once known as Baltimore), when the man she loves mysteriously disappears.

Interestingly, the wealthy dwellers of the Charters allow the top 1 percent of children from the labor colonies to ascend in class. The main character Fan’s brother was adopted by a Charter family, and she seeks him out for help. The genomic angle manifests in the disappearance of Fan’s love, who is dispatched (for study?) because of a rare mutation that makes him resistant to the still-deadly “C-diseases” (cancer?).

An excerpt from the book.

… When our ancestors were first brought here—the archival vids and pix show them rolling in on fleets of shiny silver company buses—the air was to them fresh and clear, just like in the image of the roofless row house, and when they stepped out, they must have been entranced by the scant briny notes of the harbor waters, breathing them in deep. And think of how startled they might have been by the strange brand of tidiness in this place (once known as Baltimore) and other abandoned cities that settlers were sent to in other eastern and midwestern states, this preservation by dint of absence, such that after they gathered their luggage from the curb and were shuttled by carts to the houses assigned to them, our and your and Fan’s forebears among them, their gasps were not of trepidation or disappointment but of gratitude and relief.

Indeed, it’s difficult for us to understand how genuinely grateful they were; we glance around B-Mor now and it’s impossible to imagine how our people could have felt that way (how time and safety and a filled belly rapidly evolve us!), to be presented with so depleted a cityscape and still have a heart-surge of excitement. The legendary Wen Shurbao, who would be our first and only mayor, reportedly exhorted his brethren by invoking the classic proverb: “Our generation will plant the trees. The next will enjoy the shade.”

Surely there were the discontented among those originals, but which of them could deny the promise of this place? Here was an entire community, ready for revitalization. Yes, the houses were basically shells, but in fact many still had roofs and walls and sturdy stairs; yes, few had any boilers, but the majority had salvageable wiring and plumbing; yes, the floors had to be scraped and sanded and refinished, every cabinet and counter scrubbed and disinfected of the leavings of birds and vermin and insects, and yet what activity offers more immediate, honest gratification than shining up a seemingly ruined surface back to the distinctive grain of its essence?

… We should concede that unlike the experience of most immigrants, there was very little to encounter by way of an indigenous population. There were smatterings of them, to be sure, pockets of residents on the outskirts of what is now the heart of B-Mor, these descendants of nineteenth-century African slaves and twentieth-century laborers from Central America and even bands of twenty-first-century urban-nostalgics, all of whom settled the intimate grid of these blocks and thrived for a time and, for reasons that history can confidently trace and identify but never quite seem to solve, inexorably declined and finally disappeared. Our predecessors had the unique advantage of being husbanded by one of the federated companies, rather than the revolving cast of governmental bodies that overreached in their efforts or were disastrously neglectful, all of them downright clueless. The originals were brought in en masse for a strict purpose but with their work- and family-centric culture intact, such that they would not only endure and eventually profit the seed investors but also prosper in a manner that would be perpetually regenerative.

… Perhaps it was the same with our originals, though in a different circumstance. They went about their first labors, renovating the row houses in the same way, it turns out, that certain antique American communities used to do, the foreman or forewoman of each block marshaling all its residents to converge on one address and revamp, say, the bathrooms or kitchen, the museum clips just like a science class vid of hundreds of ants tugging a sourball-sized rock. You can picture it now. They’d go from one house to the next, right on down the block, this mobile, instantly adaptive assembly line, each person assigned a function, with the children passing beach pails of dust and rubble in a brigade, the elderly offering sips of cool chrysanthemum tea from canteens, even the unwell propped up in chairs close by or even inside the site, so that they might lend moral support or learn by watching. …

Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3,

Under your pardon. You must note beside,
That we have tried the utmost of our friends,
Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe.
The enemy increaseth every day.
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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