Postcoloniality and Imagining the Post-human: Bok Geo-il's In Search of an Epitaph and Djuna's The Pacific Continental Express

  • onNovember 2, 2014
  • Vol.20 Summer 2013
  • byBok Geo-il

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 FrankensteinTwenty 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 coloniality and the other, with political dictatorship. Bok thinks of coloniality and dictatorship not as separate issues, but as one integrated problem. What is the ideological orientation that can simultaneously overcome the colonial condition and political dictatorship? In answering this question, Bok's thoughts bypass nationalism to arrive at the ideology of freedom because coloniality and political dictatorship cannot coexist with freedom. In other words, In Search of an Epitaph is a work of science fiction that thinks postcolonialism and democracy are all together.


A Chilling Post-human Nightmare: 
The Pacific Continental Express

By the end of the 1980s, personal computers were widely available in Korea. In the early 1990s, many had joined the Bulletin Board System (BBS), which required phone lines to be connected to a computer through a modem, thus providing a new means of communication. In Korea, the popularity of BBS contributed enormously to Korean cultural history. Various databases were built, containing all kinds of information about non-mainstream cultures and communities, including science fiction and horror movies. People with different cultural preferences were able to exchange information and share mutual cultural convictions. BBS in a Korean context takes on a very important significance in its cultural history. Through the dynamic process of reading what was already written and contributing one’s opinion to the digital bulletin boards, people became engaged, and a phenomenon occurred; active readers became potential writers. While this cultural current tended to converge on the Internet after the mid-90s, in Korea, BBS was the digital cradle for subcultures and the technological foundation that made the tribalization of taste possible. Djuna was one such writer, born from an environment of digital media.

"I picked that name as my ID because I was reading Djuna Barnes at the time," said the elusive Dijuna.

Djuna is an Internet ID. More specifically, it is the moniker of an author that writes both works of science fiction and film reviews. To date, Djuna has remained an anonymous Internet personality: no information exists on Djuna’s name, gender, age, or educational background. Some speculate that Djuna is a woman; other rumors state that Djuna is a creative collaboration between three individuals. Djuna communicates solely via the Internet; email may be used to discuss future assignments or works, and Internet messaging services and chat applications are used for interviews.

In 1994, the author started publishing film reviews and short pieces of science fiction on BBS. In 1997, Duty Free Zone, a collection of short works of science fiction by Djuna, was published. Djuna became widely recognized as an author in 2002 when Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd. published The Pacific Continental Express.

The Pacific Continental Express symbolically resembles the footsteps of a hitchhiker traveling through the galaxy of science fiction. As an avid reader of the genre, Djuna alludes to many works of science fiction. The short story “Cello” arises from Issac Asimov’s Robot series, and “Square Dance” is an attempt to imitate Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Djuna has stated that some major influences include many other sci-fi writers, including H. P. Lovecraft, Harry Harrison, Erich Kastner, and Jack Finney. The fix-up, a series of short fictions whose storylines unfold independently of one another, that Djuna has published is an homage to and demonstrates an anxiety of influence towards the works of science fiction that the author has read. The works of Djuna are born from the lineage of science fiction and continue the exploration of new, uncharted paths in the galaxy of science fiction.

From "Parasite:" “I know that she thinks that there is no greater injustice than that the humans are at the top of the food chain over her kind. Slowly, the City was developing its own civilization and intellect, surpassing the values of humans.”

In The Pacific Continental Express, “Parasite” and other works express a range of imaginative thoughts on the post-human. In Djuna's works, there is no utopia of convenience sustained by machines, nor is there a dystopia of human alienation where machines rule over humans. Unlike other works of science fiction, Djuna does not write about rediscovering what humanity is by overcoming a dehumanizing machine civilization. The author's imagination is not consumed with androids, where machines are incessantly made in the image and likeness of humans, nor are the author’s works filled with cyborgs trying to exceed the limits of humanity by combining machinery and humanity. Instead, Djuna challenges the widely accepted premise that machines, in all circumstances, are created for and exist to serve humanity. In Djuna's works, machines are self-producing, autopoietic, and self-evolving entities in their own right. Machines are not mere tools for human beings; rather, they are a new step or system in the evolutionary process. Djuna’s gaze critically examines the unequal co-evolution of machines and humans. In doing so, the anthropocentrism that dominates our experience slowly becomes less valid, losing ground.


A Source of New Possibilities in Literature

Both Bok Geo-il and Djuna occupy very important positions in the history of Korean science fiction and literature. By writing during a political dictatorship that was approaching 30 years in power, Bok Geo-il captured his own subconscious political mindset in the plot of his novel. At that time, his novel asked questions that needed to be asked, questions that sought to understand the coloniality of Korean society and simultaneously attempted to overcome structural political oppression from the standpoint of postcolonial theory. By the 1990s, Korea had achieved democracy, and was quickly maturing through industrialization and developing into an information society. As a writer, Djuna symbolically represents an era when it was common knowledge that science and technology were the fundamental principles that define our lives. Through many works, Djuna presents a world that moves beyond humanity and rethinks the very premise of Western science fiction.

Today, Bok Geo-il is the doyen of writers, approaching his 70s; Djuna is also a seasoned 40-something-year-old writer. Between the two writers lie the strata that consist of layers of changes and achievements created by Korean science fiction during the last 25 years. At this point in time, science fiction is an important source of new literary experimentation and imagination in Korea.



1. In Search of an Epitaph (2 vols.)
Bok Geo-il, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
1987, 528p, ISBN 9788932009797 (Vol.1)
2. The Pacific Continental Express
Djuna, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2002, 312p, ISBN 9788932013602