Descartes's Descendants: The Novels of Bae Myung-hoon and Kim Bo-young

As science fiction continues to work at gaining respect as a literary genre in Korea, two young writers are at the forefront, bringing imagination and a touch of realism to their explorations of human existence.

 

Emerging Writers

In the Korean literary scene where realism has traditionally dominated, science fiction was, in both quantity and quality, relatively underrepresented. Moreover, at times science fiction was not recognized as literature and cherished only by a small fan base.

In the 2000s, a trend began in the Korean literary scene: the active exploration of fantasy and the future. These explorations led to discoveries of a new reality. A new generation of writers started traversing the line between the fantastic and the real, intermixing elements from realism and fantasy. In novels, protagonists that were aliens, zombies, clones, and "pseudo-human[s]" began appearing. These creatures problematized the humanistic value system and humanity as a race. The settings of these works escaped the familiar reality and expanded into a computer-generated virtual reality, outer space, and post-apocalyptic worlds.

In the midst of these changes and developments, science fiction entered into Korean fiction. In addition, readers and literary critics focused more attention on this genre. The young writers who have received the most attention are undoubtedly Bae Myung-hoon and Kim Bo-young. These two authors write science fiction, but their works also span broadly over the genres of fantasy, children's literature, and detective novels. Nonetheless, the majority of their works, and the ones that received the most attention, are science fiction.

Bae caught the world’s attention with the book Tower (2009) and the short story collection Hello, The Artificial Being! (2010). In subsequent years, he consecutively published the science fiction novel Divine Orbit (2011) and Sir Chancellor (2012), a novel with elements of science fiction.

On her part, Kim simultaneously published two collections of sci-fi short stories, Distant Tales and An Evolutionary Myth (2010), and she recently reemerged with Seven Executors (2013), a novel with elements from mythology, eschatology, science fiction, and Chinese martial arts literature.

Bae is prominently recognized as a writer in the Korean literary scene where realism reigns; Kim has received a strong show of support from science fiction readers. In this article, the works of these two writers will be explored.

 

Bae Myung-hoon: An Experiment on Being

Bae Myung-hoon is a young writer that has demonstrated the literary potential of science fiction in Korean literature through the work Tower (2009) and the short collection Hello, The Artificial Being! (2010). The strength of Bae's work lies in his clear and uncomplicated narrative style, witty and ingenious ideas and cognitive supposition, characters with distinct personalities, and his exploration into the ethical side of human relations.

“Hello, The Artificial Being!” from the short story collection Hello, The Artificial Being! garnered much attention among critics and the readers. This story unfolds around a strange product, "Pact," that was left to the protagonist by a friend, the exceptional scientist Shin Woo-jeong who had committed suicide. This product is an enigma. Even the reason why it was left to the protagonist is unknown. According to its user manual, "Pact" is the pure being itself that was extracted through Descartes’s statement "Cogito, ergo sum." The protagonist is completely at a loss as to what to do with this thing, and he finally decides to release it into outer space. Only then does the protagonist realize that this pure or artificial being is art, precisely because it has no use of any kind and "what remained of the being entered deeper inside" him when he sent "the being off into outer space." Through this series of events, the protagonist finally realizes that the death of his friend, which he was struggling to understand, was caused because of problems with relationships.

The theme of the problem of relationships is revisited in depth in “Proposal” (Moonye Joongang, fall 2010), a work that captures the essence of Bae's science fiction. This short story is an earnest literary experiment that attempts to address the anxiety and fear caused by the idea of a parallel universe from the perspective of “otherness.” “Proposal” is also an exceptional work that showcases a scientific imagination, an essential element of science fiction, in a precise and exhaustive manner. The protagonist is serving in the army of the United Earth Surface, which is facing suspicion and false accusations from inhabitants on Earth and contending with attacks from an unknown alien armada in outer space. By the end of the story, the unknown aliens are revealed to be the protagonist himself from the future and the community he currently belongs to that encountered through a space-time warp, an event particular to parallel universes. “Proposal” is a work characterized by a rigorous reflection of the self: the alien is one's self that is most unfamiliar and alienated.

Bae’s first novel was Divine Orbit, which derives from the question, "What if God exists physically somewhere in the orbits of the stars?" From this point on, Divine Orbit’s imagination takes off into the far reaches of the universe. The protagonist, Eun-gyoung, who dreams of becoming an astronaut, wakes up from her cryogenic slumber on the planet Naniye, 150 thousand years after she was charged and sentenced with the crime of aiding the terrorist Baklava. She discovers that Naniye is an artificial planet built by her father who froze her. While trying to escape the planet, she encounters Friar Namul who bears a resemblance to Baklava. From there, the two begin their curious adventure, wandering through space.

Despite its extensive scale, Divine Orbit is a captivating read. Not only does it contain elements specific to science fiction, such as the proof of the existence of God, the demise of the human race, and space travel, it also delves into fundamental questions of being human: love, faith, and friendship. The novel is sure to become a milestone in the history of Korean science fiction.

Sir Chancellor, Bae’s most recently published work, tactfully attempts a kind of sociological extrapolation of the future by using versions of actual events that occurred recently in Korean society. The novel depicts, through both positive and negative images, the multitudinous facets of human dealings that are likely possible in the hypothetical future world under the rule of the chancellor. In such ways, Bae’s works extract the most essential elements from the abyss of human existence using extrapolation, intriguing premises, and brilliant ideas.

 

1. Seven Executors
Kim Bo-young, Polabooks
2013, 560p, ISBN 9788993094831
2. An Evolutionary Myth
Kim Bo-young, Happy Reading Books
2010, 336p, ISBN 9788989571667
3. Distant Tale...