Bok Geo-il is widely considered to be a writer who has ushered in a new epoch in the Korean SF genre. Having made a spectacular debut with the novel In Search of an Epitaph, Bok has continued to expand the horizons of Korean SF by making use of distinctive literary devices such as time reversal or the reverse of history.
Ko Doo Hyun: You debuted as a writer at age 41 with the novel In Search of an Epitaph published in 1987 after you quit a pretty decent job. At the time of your debut, you were an obscure writer. What made you choose to write a science fiction novel using the literary device of a so-called “alternate history” for your debut? A lot of people wonder why you chose the SF genre among others.
Bok Geo-il: At the time when I started to work on my first book, Korean society was in an extremely oppressive atmosphere. My first book was published in 1987. At that time, the Fifth Republic of Korea had been established by a new military group, which lasted from 1981 to 1988. Under the authoritarian regime, which was established as a result of a military coup, it was very difficult to depict Korean society as it was. I thought that under such circumstances it would be unwise to opt for a mainstream literary technique to reflect and portray the reality of Korea. So I decided to reverse the concept. That is, I attempted to draw attention to the fact that the era of the Fifth Republic shared something in common with the Japanese Imperialist era.
Ko: If your debut novel In Search of an Epitaph can be taken as a “reverse of history,” then A Traveler in History published in 1991, four years after your first book, could be a “reverse of time.” It was first published in three volumes. Now more than 20 years later, you are going to publish the fourth volume. What has driven you to follow up with this sequel? I was told that after you were diagnosed with liver cancer, the first thing that came to your mind was to finish this series.
Bok: I always wanted to depict the fundamental structure of Korean society through an intellectual novel. In this sense, my second novel, A Traveler in History, was set in a context where sophisticated knowledge of 21st century Korea is transplanted into 16th century Joseon. The first, second, and third volumes of the book have been released, which have all been highly received by readers. However, after the release of the third volume, a flood of requests to write articles has deprived me of time, thus preventing me from working on my next book. Along the way, I was diagnosed with cancer, which of course sobered me. At that time, what crossed my mind was that I had to finish the sequel first more than anything else. As of now the writing process is almost done, so I expect that a new book will come out by this fall.
Ko: Many people think that SF novels will grow in hand with futurology. You have defined “science fiction novels as science incarnate that best reflects the real world.” Then, what do you think is the difference between pure literature and science fiction?
Bok: It is technology that drastically changes our life. Well, technology basically arises from science. For that matter, mobile phones can be cited as an example. Unfortunately, however, literature is unable to deal with technology properly. Literature, more often than not, explores the emotional aspects of human beings. Science fiction is a type of writing that takes stories related to science more seriously. Of course, novels from different genres also partially deal with science. Every novel that portrays modern societies, to some extent, shares the characteristics of science fiction.