Chronicling Korean Science Fiction

From the translation of Jules Verne to "Westernization" via Japan, Korean sci-fi has been inextricably entwined with Korea’s complex history.


The Beginning: Eastern Ways with Western Means

Science fiction still remains largely in the background of all literary genres in Korea today. Although it has been supported by a broad range of loyal readers in its long history of 106 years, Korean science fiction has been continuously and generally underappreciated. The primary reason for this fact is that translation, rather than creative writing, has been the foundation of Korean science fiction, and until the last 20 years, the field had not yet produced a controversial enough work capable of attracting substantial attention from readers and literary critics. In particular, Korean sci-fi was seen as a type of reform movement more than as a literary genre; later, science fiction was considered, naively, to be either children’s literature or Western literature, which inhibited popular interest and critical study in the genre. Furthermore, Korean science fiction, as well as modern literature in general, has not been free from the paradoxical expectation that it should domestically reform pre-modernity and externally overcome the influences of the West while simultaneously assimilating Western practices. However, the development of Korean science fiction has been led by patriotic students studying abroad, passionate for reform, and writers full of loyalty and enthusiasm for their country; this fact speaks to the peculiarity of the history of Korean science fiction.

The first work of Korean science fiction was The Adventures of Travel Under the Sea, published in Taegeukhakbo in 1907. Taegeukhakbo was an academic journal founded by a student studying in Japan in August 1906, and the journal began introducing and popularizing Shinkyoyook, or Westernized education, and new scientific knowledge for the purpose of establishing a modern nation-state. The Adventures of Travel Under the Sea was a translation of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and was co-translated by Pak Yong-hee, Jarakdang, and Mohumsaeng. In the following year 1908, Yi Hae-jo published Verne’s The Begum’s Fortune with the title The Iron World. In this manner, the early history of Korean science fiction is marked either by reformists who were former students studying abroad or the people who believed in the theory of Eastern ways with Western means, claiming that they had to adapt to Western scientific technology while following the Eastern spirit and ethics.

Not only is it unusual that the roots of Korean science fiction were planted by the translations of reformists, it is also interesting that all the works translated were Verne’s. Even the third piece of Korean science fiction, translated by Kim Kyo-je and published in Oriental Seowon in May 1912, was a translation of Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon. Therefore, it is not a stretch to conclude that the early history of Korean science fiction was influenced exclusively by Verne.

It is difficult to say why Verne’s novels attracted Korean reformists. By using an external approach to the text, an extrinsic explanation may be possible. In brief, the Verne phenomenon would have been a result of the historical and cultural circumstances in the Daehan Empire, the present day Republic of Korea, when the works were translated. As mentioned above, the Western world was seen simultaneously as an entity to overcome and an object to master. During the Daehan Empire, Japan had succeeded among Asian countries in modernizing their society using the principles of Datsu-A Ron, the theory of de-Asianization, and the country itself was Westernized (or a deputy of the Western world). This situation has been reflected in the process of the popularization of science fiction in Korea. These young Korean reformists wanted to modernize their own country and overcome yet learn about the Western world (or Japan) at the same time. To do so, they needed to resist Japanese influence while examining and adapting to it. For that reason, early Korean science fiction was all produced by translating Japanese translations of the original work. In 1905, during this time, the Daehan Empire was deprived of its diplomatic rights; soon after, it was relegated to a colony of the Japanese Empire.

Recent research in comparative literature demonstrates that Korean science fiction has been created in the shadow of modern Korean history. The Adventures of Travel Under the Sea was translated from Daihei Sanji’s Kaiteiryokou, the 1884 Japanese translation of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Of course, there were also exceptions. Considering the translator’s ideology ref lected in The Iron World, the second work of science fiction in Korea, and its linguistic sophistication, it is highly possible that Yi could have translated it from the Chinese translation of Bao Tianxiao, who was a popular novelist in modern China.

On the other hand, the fact that Verne’s novels were translated as strange adventure stories, that is to say, as wondrous tales, reveals the attitude of those contemporary translators towards science fiction. Other than the apparent goal of science fiction to act as a reform movement, translators were also concerned with the inherent purpose of entertaining to improve the circulation of the journal where the works were published. As a matter of fact, science fiction’s identity as a mass reform movement cannot be separated from its desire for popularity; in this sense, reform and popularity are two sides of the same coin. Thus, the origins of Korean science fiction are buried in complex relationships with Western culture shock, as well as enthusiastic reform and popular entertainment; these great forces regulated Korean science fiction throughout the 20th century.


Development: Stepping Stones in a Narrow Creek

Just as ever y path in life is dif ferent, the process of modernization and the development of literature in Korea is not completely analogous to the Western experience. The fact that the development of Korean science fiction was different from that of the Western world or that we were late comers should be no cause of disappointment as there is no such thing as a correct answer or a predefined direction to be taken in the current of history and literature.

After the initial enthusiasm for Korean science fiction, the movement was quieter after the publication of Kim Kyo-je’s Airship. In 1925, more than 10 years after Airship was published, sci-fi was reinvigorated again as a proletarian literature movement. This time, the movement again began with another translation: Pak Young-hee, a leader in the proletarian literature movement and a reporter for Gaebyeok magazine, translated and serially published Karel Capek’s play, Rossum’s Universal Robot (1920), with the title Artificial Laborer. Capek’s work marked the first-ever appearance of a robot character in science fiction. Again, Pak’s translation was also translated from a Japanese translation: Suzuki Zentaro’s Robotto (1924).

Since then, the genre of science fiction, which had been both a reform movement and a proletarian literature movement, became literature in its own right. The genre expanded to include publications in literary journals and experimentation by individual writers, though the development was sporadic, advancing like stepping stones.

Publication during Japanese colonization started with Shin Il-yong’s translation of A Trip to the Moon and continued with Kim Tongin’s experimental short story "Dr. K’s Experiment," Yi Won-mo’s translation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Heo Moon-il’s Dragon Boy of the Sky (1930), and Kim Ja-hye’s "Radium" (1933). In addition, a year after Pak Young-hee’s Artificial Laborer was published, Kim Woo-jin, the only Korean science fiction critic during Japanese colonization, published “Watching Artificial Laborer at Chookji Theater” in Gaebyeok in August 1926. With these little accomplishments, science fiction progressed slowly through t...