“Excitement and Dynamism”: South Korean Science Fiction: Readymade Bodhisattva by Park Seonghwan, Mun Yunseong, et al.
- onMarch 26, 2019
- Vol.43 Spring 2019
- byYoon Ha Lee
- Readymade Bodhisattva
Tr. Jihyun Park 2019430pp.
Readymade Bodhisattva brings to readers something that I have been at once close to and far from: the first book-length anthology of South Korean science fiction translated into English. I spent half my childhood in South Korea. There I scrabbled in the school library for science fiction in English, reading Margaret Weis and Roger Zelazny and Analog Science Fiction and Fact without being aware of a tradition of Korean science fiction due to my lack of fluency in the language.
An introductory essay by Park Sunyoung places South Korean science fiction in general, as well as the anthology’s selections in particular, context. I welcome this; the world is a big place, and it’s impossible to be knowledgeable about all of it. Park explains that Korean SF has been influenced by Western science fiction through the translation of authors such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Karel Čapek, and later by Japanese animation. Each piece is accompanied by an introduction to its author, including notes on his or her oeuvre and notes on the individual story or excerpt. South Korea is more familiar to Westerners today than it was when my mother came to live in Texas and no one had heard of it, but the notes discuss everything from translation considerations to Korean events or cultural habits that might be mysterious to the reader.
The stories in this collection will be both familiar and unfamiliar to Western readers. Many common tropes appear, from time travel to parallel universes, from all-woman societies (like the one depicted in an excerpt from Mun Yunseong’s Perfect Society) to alien invasions. At the same time, the focus is not Western; Korea is at the center of events. This is logical in fiction written for a Korean audience! After a lifetime of reading science fiction where the center of gravity is somewhere in the West, it felt refreshing, for instance, to read a story where the culmination of a world-spanning alien coming-of-age ritual takes place in Incheon (Lim Taewoon’s subversive, whimsical “Storm Between My Teeth”), or a chilling alternate history in which a Japanese ex-Governor General comments on the weaknesses of North and South Korea in 1967 and their suitability as prey for the Japanese empire (Choi In-hun’s “Empire Radio, Live Transmission”), or even a gruesome survivalist tale in which North Korean refugees are treated sympathetically, in contrast to the monstrous violence of the South Korean character who is hunting them (Djuna’s “Bloody Battles of the Broccoli Plain”).
All the same, as Park explains, this anthology is not meant to be a canonizing instrument. It does not claim to be “definitive.” Rather, Park suggests that “the volume is like one of those photos one might find on Instagram: intentionally rough at the edges and out-of-focus in certain spots, all the better for conveying the excitement and the dynamism of the subject matter.”
Still, the selection is wide-ranging and gives a genuine sense of Korean SF’s range. The title story, Park Seonghwan’s "Readymade Bodhisattva," examines the question of machine sentience through the lens of Buddhism, a major religion in South Korea. An assistive robot appears to have achieved enlightenment. This triggers a philosophical crisis that extends beyond the robot’s monastery.
Other works include Jeong Soyeon’s “Cosmic Go,” which looks at a disabled woman’s desire to explore space. The game of Go (known as baduk in Korea) is used as a motif throughout this work, just as chess might be in a Western story. Bok Geo-il’s “Along the Fragments of My Body” explores the future of art from the viewpoint of a naive young robot, and ponders what we might recognize as the Ship of Theseus paradox. Kim Boyoung’s “Between Zero and One” not only extrapolates a world in which quantum uncertainty has taken over, but also presents a scathing critique of the extremes of South Korean “education fever.” Kim Changgyu’s “Our Banished World” is a political piece that comments on the 2014 Sewol Ferry Disaster even as it examines the simulation hypothesis through the eyes of three precocious teenagers.
Taken as a whole, Readymade Bodhisattva is a stunning showcase for South Korean science fiction. There is enough variety of topics and treatments that there should be something for everybody. It should also reward those curious about what science fiction looks like when written from an Asian perspective. I recommend it highly and hope that, in the future, we will see more South Korean science fiction in English translation.