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Three Bleak-but-Beautiful Dystopias that Inspire Chang-rae Lee

Pulitzer-nominated novelist Chang-Rae Lee has been named one of The New Yorker’s “20 Writers for the 21st Century” but his newest book, “On Such a Full Sea,” is set in the future. A dystopian future to be exact, where the city of Baltimore has been converted into a labor colony where Chinese Americans produce food for the wealthier classes of society.

While Lee insists to us that he is, in his own life, a sunny sort of person, he clearly knows how to create a fictional world that is simultaneously dark and beautiful – so we asked him to name some other alluringly twisted images of humanity’s possible future.


I’m Chang-Rae Lee. My book is set in the former Baltimore, 150 years from now, and Baltimore is quite different. It’s a labor colony filled with workers who are of Chinese descent, brought over to produce fishes and vegetables for an elite charter class, partly because this world that they live in is pretty much poisoned beyond reckoning.

I should note that “On Such a Full Sea” is also a love story, and though bleak, I hope contains a hidden beauty in a world that’s gone wrong. So here’s my list of three other dystopias that I think are bleak but still quite beautiful.

“Blade Runner”

The first film would have to be “Blade Runner.” Ridley Scott directed it in 1982. I’ve watched the movie probably 10-15 times.

The lead investigator, Harrison Ford of course, sets out to track and destroy wayward androids in the strange city that’s dripping with dark liquids and neon lights. What makes it so cool is that it feels absolutely like a logical extension of all the things that we know today. You know, the ubiquitous ads, the sense of mobility and flight –  and then, of course, the idea that what’s human will be pushed forward, and maybe backwards, in certain ways so that we’re never quite sure who “we” are and who “they” are.

All dystopian stories originate in what we fear now. It finds its expression in that future landscape.



The second film is a movie by Lars von Trier called “Melancholia.” That came out a couple a couple of years ago. Basically this rogue planet called Melancholia is on a collision course with Earth.

But what’s cool about this story is that, again, like all dystopic visions, it’s really about a current anxiety. It’s a very private one. It’s about depression. It’s not just that the world is ending; it’s that there’s been some desolation inside the psyches of these people, and therein are the worlds that are really colliding and being destroyed.

In “Melancholia” the character’s concern is this feeling like she doesn’t belong in this world. I think a lot of depressives feel that way. They have a dystopic sensibility and perspective. A lot of people do who aren’t “normal” or of the mainstream.

I’ve always held that immigrant novels can be read as dystopic novels. They describe what’s here, but the what’s here for those particular newcomers is like entering a strange and brave new world.


“To Build a Fire”

Last but not least is a short story by Lack London. A very famous one called “To Build a Fire.” I don’t know if you remember this story from 7th grade or 8th grade, but it’s a fantastic story about a lone trekker trying to get back to the camp where his fellow trappers are. The problem of course is that it’s very very cold. The temperature starts to plummet 60-below and 75-below.

We’re given all his desperate attempts to light a fire. The first fire gets him warm, but then it’s suddenly put out. He begins to realize that he’s got to light this other one, and he can’t quite do it. What I love about this story is that it feels as if we’re watching him on some distant planet trying to simply survive, but the thing about it is, it’s our planet. We realize how close we are to life and death.

I’m actually a fairly sunny person. I don’t walk around the streets looking for, you know, all the potential ways in which we might find our demise, but I think in my dreams and at my writing desk, all those anxieties that I’ve been trying to ignore come back to me. I think that’s what focuses me sometimes. It wakes me up. It makes me feel in a strange way alive to think about all that menace that our landscape is full of.