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[Essay] The Future Crossroads of Korean SF Literature

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • byPark Sang Joon

As the Featured Writer section of this issue spotlights a science fiction writer, we have taken this opportunity to invite two experts to contribute special essays on SF literature. This first essay looks at the background of the development of Korean SF and its future prospects.—Ed.

 

The year 2020 will go down in history as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. To make matters worse for those living in South Korea, the rainy season hit especially hard this summer, battering the country with days of endless rain.

Under these specific circumstances—biological disaster and climate-induced crisis—people’s thoughts are likely to turn to the apocalyptic, to unprecedented encounters with nature, society, and daily life, which until recently, had been the realm of science fiction. As a reader of the SF genre, I look forward to new SF works that will be born in and shaped by these circumstances.

From the Poverty of the Twentieth Century to the Flowering of the Twenty-First Century

The science fiction genre originated in the West, meaning that original Korean science fiction was initially built on the introduction of foreign SF works. Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—one of the primogenitors of the genre—was first introduced to Korea in the year 1907. Works of science fiction subsequently introduced to Korea often did not focus not on reflections on science and technology, which could be considered the traditional province of the genre elsewhere. Instead, these works were oftentimes stories written with education and enlightenment in mind, characterized by their stubborn insistence on scientific utopias. Works like the aforementioned Twenty Thousand Leagues, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000–1887, which were critical of contemporary human society, were in many cases only partially translated into Korean and then abandoned. As a result, until the 1980s, the public in Korea saw the genre as little more than a means to scientific enlightenment.

As a result of this public perception, works of science fiction written in Korea were largely geared towards children and the YA demographic. With the exception of “Jaeang bujo” (Disaster relief) (1960), a short story by writer Kim Yoonjoo (who was only recently rediscovered as the originator of the postapocalyptic genre in South Korea), about the only other notable work of science fiction in modern mainstream Korean literature was Bok Geo-il’s novel Bimyeongeul chajaseo (In search of an epitaph) published in 1987.

The slow development of original science fiction in Korea is in many ways due to the country’s tumultuous modern history. Decades of Japanese colonial rule almost immediately gave way to the Korean War, which was followed by national division, as a result of which stories in the genre—outside the purpose of scientific enlightenment—were seen as groundless works of escapist fiction. Neither those who sought artistic aesthetics nor those who sought to bring social hypocrisies and injustices to light attempted to take science fiction as a serious literary approach. With the exception of Moon Yoonsung’s 1967 novel Wanjeon sahoe (Perfect society), very few works of literary fiction defied this trend to make a truly serious attempt at the genre.

The rapid development of original science fiction in Korea in the twenty-first century, in a sense, is a righting of something that had long ago gone off-course. The genre was slower to grow in Korea than in other industrialized countries because of the aforementioned lack of understanding and awareness about science fiction. However, the elements that make up the genre—the exploration of the impacts of science and technology on humans and societies—were always destined to become part of mainstream discourse. For Korea, that moment came in the twenty-first century as the Hwang Woo-suk stem cell fabrication scandal, the AlphaGo victory over a human baduk champion, and the new “daily life” made possible by the greatest public internet infrastructure in the world reached the lives of ordinary Koreans. The new contexts provided by these social and historical developments demanded a new level of imagination from the public, leading them to science fiction not as a means of enlightenment, but as a means of critically reflecting on the impact of science and technology on the world.

The rise of genre fiction as a whole cannot be understated in this regard. Literary works in the horror (Lee Woohyuk’s Toemarok (The soul guardians)) and fantasy (Lee Yeongdo’s Dragon raja) genres became wildly popular bestsellers in the 1990s, widening the field and drawing more interest in genre fiction. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series and Rowling’s Harry Potter series were also major contributors to the rising popularity of the field. The introduction of foreign writers Michael Crichton and Bernard Werber served to further expand interest in the genre as Korea readers responded to their works with great enthusiasm.

The surprising success of author Kim Choyeop’s solo anthology in 2019 and her near-instant breakthrough into the world of mainstream literature was the culmination of many quiet but consistent accomplishments of original Korean SF throughout the years. The signs had been present for over a decade—writer Djuna’s works, which had only been consumed by SF communities in the 1990s, garnered the attention of mainstream literature readers in the twenty-first century (Moonji, one of the largest publishers of mainstream literature in Korea, published Djuna’s anthology Taepyeongyang hoengdanteukgeup (The transpacific express) in 2002). “Mainstream” writers such as Kim Young-ha, Park Min-gyu, Yun I-Hyeong, and Kim Junghyuk broke away from the traditions of solemn gravitas established by older authors and dove into SF without hesitation. It was thanks to these years of development that Kim Choyeop, who made her literary debut through a new writers’ SF competition, was able to publish a solo science fiction anthology that became a mainstream literary bestseller.

Searching for a Brighter Future

SF literature in Korea today enjoys an unprecedented boom, yet at the same time faces the challenge of diversification, following in the footsteps of countries with a deeper tradition in the genre. To this end, Korean writers must fill in the vast spectrum of science fiction that ranges from hard SF to slipstream fiction.

The twenty-first century also marked a period of change for the genre on an international scale. Rapid scientific and technological progress has altered the very fabric of daily life, and these changes are no longer considered the exclusive province of science fiction as mainstream literature also grapples with the theme of science and technology’s impact on society. Alvin Toffler made this observation as early as the 1970s, remarking that SF would face an identity crisis. As a prominent futurist, Toffler had long been an advocate of the inclusion of science fiction in public education. His assertion was that rather than have schools focus solely on the past via history lessons, science fiction literature must also be taught in order to help students look to the future.

Korean science fiction stands at the crossroads of challenge and opportunity—opportunity because the country’s near-unprecedented speed of economic and political development has also come with great cultural confusion and upheaval, which ironically provides ample fuel for the genre to draw upon. If the twentieth century was an era of scientific imagination, the twenty-first will be an era that calls on writers to draw on their ethical imagination—and few other countries are faced with such an unending series of such issues as Korea.

Korean science fiction has garnered international attention over the past several years. Clarkesworld—one of the most popular science fiction magazines in the English-speaking world—recently published a number of Korean short stories, and Korean works were involved in a story exchange with Chinese short stories via the Future Affairs Administration, a Chinese science fiction platform. The English-language anthology of Korean SF works, Readymade Bodhisattva, was published in 2019, and major Korean SF writers such as Kim Bo-young and Djuna have signed deals with American publishers. Kim is making especially large strides, signing contracts for the publication of multiple works via HarperVoyager and preparing for simultaneous publication in both the US and the UK. Chinese writers Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang’s recent Hugo Awards victories brought Asian science fiction into the spotlight, which bodes well for original Korean SF works.

Another challenge faced by SF literature in the twenty-first century is the waning influence of print media. The development of information and communications technology continues to transform the media landscape daily, and with each year younger generations show a greater preference for video and visual media over books. English writer Will Self described this phenomenon as the decline of the Gutenberg minds. Established science fiction writers, too, no longer simply write for print media—they create their worlds with potential adaptations into film or television, video games, comic books, and performances in mind from the moment they begin their work, marking a clear change in the traditional creative process.

Korean science fiction today is growing at an exponential rate, not only in the traditional literary medium but also in media such as web novels, web comics, and TV series. From a broad perspective, it can be said that the SF genre’s base is growing—it will be the task of science fiction writers, then, to preserve the unique values of traditional written fiction in the ever-growing world of Korean SF.

 

Translated by Slin Jung


Park Sang Joon is the head of the Seoul SF Archive. He has served as the first editor-in-chief of the genre literature magazine Fantastique and as the head of the SF publishing house Omelas. He has authored several books, most recently A Report by an Alien from the Future (Eulyoo, 2020), and has translated books such as Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke into Korean.