Throughout the modernization of Korea, there was little time for the fantastical imaginings that guided science fiction, yet despite prejudice and misunderstanding, the genre broke boundaries during the dawn of the information age through two influential writers.
The Status of Sci-Fi in Korea
Gongsang (daydreaming). Until the 1990s, that particular word was the prefix of the Korean expression for the English term, “science fiction.” Of course, it is clearly untrue that Koreans are somehow culturally predisposed to dislike or think less of science fiction. However, for some time, it was true that science fiction works were considered fantastic stories, out of daydreams. For the past 100 years, Koreans have experienced a string of dramatic changes: Japanese colonization, subsequent liberation, civil war, division of the country, dictatorship, democratization, and industrialization. Considering the harsh realities that Koreans were facing, it is easy to see how stories with robots, space travel, clones, cyborgs, and time-travel seemed like far-off daydreams, lacking a foundation in reality. The Korean people had to soldier on through difficult challenges whose solutions had no connection to the world created by science fiction. Because of these challenges, it was understandably difficult for Koreans to seriously consider and reflect on the effect of science and technology on their lives.
Although science fiction has remained marginalized in Korean literature, there has been a constant flow of published and translated works. In 1907, parts of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne were translated, and in 1925, Rossum's Universal Robots by Karel Capek was translated as proletarian literature. Under the dictatorship of the 1960s, George Orwell's 1984 became especially popular and was taken as an allegorical criticism of fascism. Aside from these particular examples of widespread appeal, however, science fiction among general readers has been confined to a list of “must-read” books, for lack of a better description. Children are acquainted with the juvenile book versions of the sci-fi canon, including Frankenstein, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and War of the Worlds. As readers mature, while they may continue reading sci-fi novels, their interest is largely replaced by sci-fi movies from Hollywood; in other words, most adults who watch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey stop there and do not go on to develop an interest in science fiction and read books in the genre. Of course, there are a few readers who continue to appreciate their childhood exposure or end up rediscovering their appreciation for science fiction. This is the audience that will read works from the major canon of science fiction: works by Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and others, both in the original language and in translation. Some of these readers will remain avid readers of science fiction; some may begin translating these works; and some may even try their hand at writing science fiction. Those are the readers that form the underpinning of Korean science fiction’s development and its increased accessibility.
In this article, two writers, Bok Geo-il and Djuna, will be introduced. Both of these writers are examples of the transformation from an aficionado of the genre to a writer of science fiction. Their works of science fiction have made a dramatic impact on modern Korean literature, where realism continues to reign.
Postcoloniality Through Science Fiction:
In Search of an Epitaph
In 1987, Moonji Publishing introduced a new writer, Bok Geo-il, with the publication of his novel, In Search of an Epitaph. For the publishing industry of the time, Bok’s debut was unusual. Moonji, one of the major publishing houses in Korea, had never published a work of science fiction before, nor had they published any first-time writer’s novel. Additionally, Bok’s background was also considered atypical. The author was a graduate of the School of Management at Seoul National University and had been working for banks and trading companies. In 1983, he suddenly quit his white-collar office job and began working on his novel. For four years, Bok worked on In Search of an Epitaph. To the surprise of many, the novel used elements from the science fiction genre, which was unusual. At the time of his debut, Bok was already 39 years old. A science fiction novel by a 39-year-old debut writer drew the attention of many readers and writers at the time.
In Search of an Epitaph is a work of alternate history in which the Japanese occupation of Korea continues to the present. While the alternate history motif may not be the essential, definitive element of science fiction, this type of work occupies an important place in the genealogy of science fiction. Major works of sci-fi that also use alternate histories include Ward Moore's 1953 work Bring the Jubilee in which the Confederacy wins the American Civil War, Philip K. Dick's 1962 work The Man in the High Castle in which Germany and Japan win World War II, and Harry Harrison's 1972 work A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! in which the United States is never founded due to George Washington's premature death. In Search of an Epitaph was a result of Bok’s interest in Western science fiction, which he must have been seeking and reading on his own.
"One who has never been a slave cannot know what it means to have been a slave. The experience of being colonized is a shadow cast upon the soul of a nation. It is a shadow that can never be undone," Koh writes in In Search of an Epitaph.
In reality, Korea was colonized by imperialist Japan in 1910 and was liberated in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. In 1961, the military dictatorship began systematically suppressing political dissidence even though the democratic movement continued in opposition to the regime. In In Search of an Epitaph, Korea in 1987 is still a Japanese colony. Koreans have completely forgotten their own history and language and live as second class citizens who are systematically discriminated against by the Japanese. The Japanese Empire has been ruled by the military since 1960 in order to maintain colonial control efficiently. Kinoshita Hideo, a Korean, is a poet who has a day job in a large corporation. As he becomes more and more interested in the Korean language and its literature, he is accused of subversion by the Japanese government. Ultimately, he ends up killing a Japanese military officer and flees to Shanghai where there is a Korean government in exile.
What is he in search of? The name that will be engraved on his gravestone. More bluntly, the poet is searching for the freedom to choose which of his two names will be on his epitaph: Kinoshita Hideo, his Japanese name, or Park Young-se, his Korean name.
"Freedom and colony are two mutually exclusive ideas. If the people of Joseon are not afforded true freedom, if Joseon becomes a country like the current Japan, the people of Joseon, naturally, must continue their fight for freedom...”
In Search of an Epitaph problematizes two conditions. One has to do with colonia...