Chronicling Korean Science Fiction

  • onNovember 2, 2014
  • Vol.20 Summer 2013
  • byCho Sung-myeon

The Beginning: Eastern Ways with Western Means

Science fiction still remains largely in the background of all literary genres in Korea today. Although it has been supported by a broad range of loyal readers in its long history of 106 years, Korean science fiction has been continuously and generally underappreciated. The primary reason for this fact is that translation, rather than creative writing, has been the foundation of Korean science fiction, and until the last 20 years, the field had not yet produced a controversial enough work capable of attracting substantial attention from readers and literary critics. In particular, Korean sci-fi was seen as a type of reform movement more than as a literary genre; later, science fiction was considered, naively, to be either children’s literature or Western literature, which inhibited popular interest and critical study in the genre. Furthermore, Korean science fiction, as well as modern literature in general, has not been free from the paradoxical expectation that it should domestically reform pre-modernity and externally overcome the influences of the West while simultaneously assimilating Western practices. However, the development of Korean science fiction has been led by patriotic students studying abroad, passionate for reform, and writers full of loyalty and enthusiasm for their country; this fact speaks to the peculiarity of the history of Korean science fiction.

The first work of Korean science fiction was The Adventures of Travel Under the Sea, published in Taegeukhakbo in 1907. Taegeukhakbo was an academic journal founded by a student studying in Japan in August 1906, and the journal began introducing and popularizing Shinkyoyook, or Westernized education, and new scientific knowledge for the purpose of establishing a modern nation-state. The Adventures of Travel Under the Sea was a translation of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and was co-translated by Pak Yong-hee, Jarakdang, and Mohumsaeng. In the following year 1908, Yi Hae-jo published Verne’s The Begum’s Fortune with the title The Iron World. In this manner, the early history of Korean science fiction is marked either by reformists who were former students studying abroad or the people who believed in the theory of Eastern ways with Western means, claiming that they had to adapt to Western scientific technology while following the Eastern spirit and ethics.

Not only is it unusual that the roots of Korean science fiction were planted by the translations of reformists, it is also interesting that all the works translated were Verne’s. Even the third piece of Korean science fiction, translated by Kim Kyo-je and published in Oriental Seowon in May 1912, was a translation of Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon. Therefore, it is not a stretch to conclude that the early history of Korean science fiction was influenced exclusively by Verne.

It is difficult to say why Verne’s novels attracted Korean reformists. By using an external approach to the text, an extrinsic explanation may be possible. In brief, the Verne phenomenon would have been a result of the historical and cultural circumstances in the Daehan Empire, the present day Republic of Korea, when the works were translated. As mentioned above, the Western world was seen simultaneously as an entity to overcome and an object to master. During the Daehan Empire, Japan had succeeded among Asian countries in modernizing their society using the principles of Datsu-A Ron, the theory of de-Asianization, and the country itself was Westernized (or a deputy of the Western world). This situation has been reflected in the process of the popularization of science fiction in Korea. These young Korean reformists wanted to modernize their own country and overcome yet learn about the Western world (or Japan) at the same time. To do so, they needed to resist Japanese influence while examining and adapting to it. For that reason, early Korean science fiction was all produced by translating Japanese translations of the original work. In 1905, during this time, the Daehan Empire was deprived of its diplomatic rights; soon after, it was relegated to a colony of the Japanese Empire.

Recent research in comparative literature demonstrates that Korean science fiction has been created in the shadow of modern Korean history. The Adventures of Travel Under the Sea was translated from Daihei Sanji’s Kaiteiryokou, the 1884 Japanese translation of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Of course, there were also exceptions. Considering the translator’s ideology ref lected in The Iron World, the second work of science fiction in Korea, and its linguistic sophistication, it is highly possible that Yi could have translated it from the Chinese translation of Bao Tianxiao, who was a popular novelist in modern China.

On the other hand, the fact that Verne’s novels were translated as strange adventure stories, that is to say, as wondrous tales, reveals the attitude of those contemporary translators towards science fiction. Other than the apparent goal of science fiction to act as a reform movement, translators were also concerned with the inherent purpose of entertaining to improve the circulation of the journal where the works were published. As a matter of fact, science fiction’s identity as a mass reform movement cannot be separated from its desire for popularity; in this sense, reform and popularity are two sides of the same coin. Thus, the origins of Korean science fiction are buried in complex relationships with Western culture shock, as well as enthusiastic reform and popular entertainment; these great forces regulated Korean science fiction throughout the 20th century.


Development: Stepping Stones in a Narrow Creek

Just as ever y path in life is dif ferent, the process of modernization and the development of literature in Korea is not completely analogous to the Western experience. The fact that the development of Korean science fiction was different from that of the Western world or that we were late comers should be no cause of disappointment as there is no such thing as a correct answer or a predefined direction to be taken in the current of history and literature.

After the initial enthusiasm for Korean science fiction, the movement was quieter after the publication of Kim Kyo-je’s Airship. In 1925, more than 10 years after Airship was published, sci-fi was reinvigorated again as a proletarian literature movement. This time, the movement again began with another translation: Pak Young-hee, a leader in the proletarian literature movement and a reporter for Gaebyeok magazine, translated and serially published Karel Capek’s play, Rossum’s Universal Robot (1920), with the title Artificial Laborer. Capek’s work marked the first-ever appearance of a robot character in science fiction. Again, Pak’s translation was also translated from a Japanese translation: Suzuki Zentaro’s Robotto (1924).

Since then, the genre of science fiction, which had been both a reform movement and a proletarian literature movement, became literature in its own right. The genre expanded to include publications in literary journals and experimentation by individual writers, though the development was sporadic, advancing like stepping stones.

Publication during Japanese colonization started with Shin Il-yong’s translation of A Trip to the Moon and continued with Kim Tongin’s experimental short story "Dr. K’s Experiment," Yi Won-mo’s translation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Heo Moon-il’s Dragon Boy of the Sky (1930), and Kim Ja-hye’s "Radium" (1933). In addition, a year after Pak Young-hee’s Artificial Laborer was published, Kim Woo-jin, the only Korean science fiction critic during Japanese colonization, published “Watching Artificial Laborer at Chookji Theater” in Gaebyeok in August 1926. With these little accomplishments, science fiction progressed slowly through time and history, but barely keeping pace, just like a narrow creek’s flow outside the history of Korean modern literature.


Progress: Economic Development and Science Fiction

In 1949, Korean science fiction was revived with Kim Nae-seong’s short story, "Secret Door" (1949), a mystery with the motifs and elements of sci-fi. In this new era, Korean science fiction finally left behind its reformist and pure translation roots; instead, it became genre literature in its own right, and both new original writing and translated texts coexisted in the field.

This movement began when Choi Sang-kwon published Dr. Handel in 1952, and the first Korean science fiction graphic novel, Kim San-ho’s Rayphie (1959–1962) followed, consisting of 32 books in four volumes that were serialized and attracted the attention of quite a few young adults. Additionally, in 1957, H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was translated by Kim Bok-soon with a subtitle describing the work as a science detective novel; after this, world renowned works in science fiction began to be introduced to the Korean public.

The genre became the literature primarily of the First World capitalists. It is not a coincidence that Korean science fiction began to develop as dictatorship-led industrialization and economic development did. In fact, the first Korean creative work of science fiction was Perfect Society written by Kim Jong-ahn, who was selected as the winner of the first detective novel competition sponsored by Weekly Hankook. In 1968, following the publication of Perfect Society, cultural figures established and led “The SF Writer’s Club,” such as the reporter Suh Kwang-woon of the Hankook Ilbo, cartoonist Shin Dong-woo, and Oh Min-young from the teen magazine Hakwonsa. Until the 1970s, the group also published approximately 10 different original works and translations.

For the next 30 years, science fiction was sustained mainly through comic books, translations, and young adult literature. This had been the case for the 30 years until the appearance of Bok Koh-ill, who, in the late 1980s, opened a new world for Korean sci-fi. While Korea was a developing nation, science fiction was only written for young audiences. The major writers and works of the time were Hahn Nak-won’s Adventures in Venus (1957) and Suh Kwang-woon’s War of the Fourth Dimension (1978). Hahn, a writer who was a former television anchor, wrote both children’s literature and science fiction, and Suh, who had previously worked for the Hankook Ilbo as a reporter and head of the science section and for the Seoul Shinmun as head of their culture section, dealt with science fiction translations and articles related to science. Suh eventually debuted as a science fiction writer and published a steady stream of major works, including War of the Fourth DimensionBlow Up the Control Tower, and The Last Day of the Spaceship, all of which were published by Idea Hweokwan, which specialized in children’s science fiction. In addition, Ahn Dong-min, who had studied Korean literature at Seoul National University, also worked both as a popular science fiction translator and writer. He was responsible for the novel 2064, Three Boy Musketeers in Space (1972), and the critical essay “The Wonder of Science Fiction” (1968).

The history of Korean science fiction made its way out of translated and children’s literature and entered genre literature when Bok Koh-ill’s alternate history novels began to be published. The works included In Search of an Epitaph (1987), A Vagabond in History (1991), and Under the Blue Moon (1992). Owing to Bok’s effort, from the beginning of the 1990s a newspaper that sought to capitalize on science fiction’s popularity and marketability started a sci-fi contest; in subsequent years many notable works were produced through the contests. As a result, Kim Do-hyeon’s Login (1996), a well-written socially conscious piece of science fiction, was published in 1996, though the work did not attract much attention from readers or critics.

Perhaps the greatest impact on Korean science fiction in over 100 years would have been Djuna. With such works as Battle of the Butterflies (1997), Duty Free Zone (2000), and The Pacific Continental Express (2002), Korean science fiction gained traction as an important genre in literature. Djuna was, indeed, well-received both in and out of the literary world due to outstanding storytelling and a well thought out composition. Additionally, as original science fiction continued to develop and grow into itself, remarkable works were created through research and critical articles in the field, including Park Sangjoon’s Key Person, Key Book, What Is Science Fiction? published by Popular Literature Research Association; Lim Jong-ki’s New Literary Revolutions of SF Tribes: The Birth and Leap of Science Fiction; Ko Jang-won’s The History of World’s Science Fiction; and Kim Jong-bang’s A Study on the Process of Establishing Korean Science Fiction. Furthermore, Happy SF, a magazine specializing in science fiction, began publication and circulation.


The Future

It is never easy to predict or foresee the future of Korean science fiction.

One technique employed by science fiction in order to narrate thoughts about the future is extrapolation. The use of an alternate history is based on a drastic subjunctive mood, whereas extrapolation, another technique used to write about the future, originates from hermeneutics and takes its cues by inferring or predicting gaps and parts of the unfolding future by using given data.

Korean science fiction originally started as a reform movement, and the majority of the genre consisted of translations and children’s literature. Similarly, in North Korea, their experiences with science fiction were not quite that different either. North Korea had begun creating science fiction for the purpose of educating and reforming children in the 1950s; during the 1960s many works from the former Soviet Union, such as the works of Ivan A. Yefremov were translated. Hwang Jeong-sang was a renowned writer during the 1980s and 1990s, and he took an active part in both creative writing and literary criticism, including publishing a volume of critical articles, Science Fantasy Literature Writing (1993).

Recently, publishers specializing in genre fiction have begun translating major Western canonical science fiction works that had not been introduced to Korean audiences. Although it still remains a small field, young science fiction writers have emerged, such as Bae Myung-hoon, Kim Bo-young, and Bae Mi-ju. Their presence strengthens science fiction’s position in genre literature and provides foundation for further growth. Additionally, writers of so-called "pure literature" like Park Min-gyu have started partially extending the boundaries of science fiction by using settings and motifs from science fiction, strengthening science fiction’s identity in genre fiction.

For the time being, it seems that Korean science fiction will continue to expand with translations of foreign canonical works from specialized publishers. The genre will also work to diversify their means of communication and promotion through online publications and e-books using web portals and blogs. However, it is not likely that science fiction in Korean literature will soon become prominent. The history of Korean sci-fi is not marked with strong achievement (not enough to create an individual anthology, at least), and it would be difficult to produce such a brilliant history. It is most probable that only a few brilliant works will emerge from time to time while much of the genre is still carried on by works that are average or mediocre.

In spite of these realities, however, Korean science fiction will surely continue to amuse audiences with its wild fantasies and continue to make groundbreaking journeys in language with imaginative experiments that cross into different worlds.