A Cartographer’s Dream

  • onNovember 15, 2014
  • Vol.24 Summer 2014
  • byBok Geo-il

My image of myself is as a shabby cartographer haunting the wharves of Lisbon or Amster-dam at the dawn of the Great Seafaring Age in the 16th century. This cartographer patiently fills up blanks and redraws contours on his map, guessing the shapes of distant continents with tips gleaned from sailors that have crossed the dangerous seas. Though he cannot compete with the official cartographers that are supported by the royal courts and he barely makes a living, haunted by unknown continents that slowly reveal their shapes, he has dedicated his life to making a map of the world. A shabby cartographer is an apt metaphor. From my childhood I was fascinated by knowledge and aspired to be an intellectual. As George Orwell said, the most prominent feature of an intellectual is the love of knowledge that has no practical use in everyday life. But such useless knowledge is essential to make a map of this world.

In the 19th century the high waves of European civilization suddenly arrived and overwhelmed East Asia. The encounter and merger of the two great civilizations was a fundamental force that shaped East Asia’s modern history. It was so vast a process that it couldn’t have been anything but all-encompassing and violent. Since the first Opium War between China and Britain erupted in 1839, all the wars in East Asia, including the civil wars of Japan, China, and Korea, came out of such encounters and syntheses of civilizations.

A technologically advanced Europe that had successfully carried out the scientific revolution and Industrial Revolution easily subjugated the traditional civilizations of East Asia. Such triumphs of European civilization were in fact the last step in its global dominance. In so many societies traditional social structures and value systems were rapidly replaced by those of Europe.

China was the center of East Asia and the written Chinese language was the lingua franca for the entire region. Korea, a relatively small country between China and Japan, had absorbed ancient Chinese civilization from early on and her culture came to have characteristics as a periphery of Chinese culture.

As civilizations throughout the world came to be synthesized around the dominant values of European civilization, Chinese civilization itself was relegated to the periphery of the emerging global civilization.

Unfortunately, Korea’s effort to modernize lagged behind and it became a colony of Japan early in the 20th century. Since Korea was forced to absorb modernity through the Japanese colonial system, its traditional culture became severely limited and warped. This colonial status added another layer to the already peripheral characteristics of Korea. Thus, Korean culture came to retain a triple layer of periphery.

The features of peripheral societies are idiosyncratic, quite different from those of core societies. This is especially prominent in the production, circulation, and consumption of knowledge. Since news of the latest developments on the forefront of knowledge from the core only slowly propagates outward, intellectuals on the periphery face great obstacles in their pursuit of creativity and often take the risk of reinvention. In addition, their creativity is seldom appreciated. Since peripheral societies rarely have their own criteria for evaluating creative work, they usually refer to the core for judgment. Naturally, even when a truly creative work comes out of the periphery, it cannot be instantly recognized as such. Only when its value is fortuitously recognized by the core, is it accepted in its own society. Since every civilization has a vast periphery and peripheral societies have common features, this is a matter of universal significance.

From early on, I was interested in this matter. Korea’s triple-layered periphery imposes fundamental limitations on its culture. In fact, I found that nearly all the features, especially the undesirable ones, of Korean society have been shaped by such a historical condition. It is obvious that to overcome such limitations Koreans should first recognize and reflect on this periphery. If it is very difficult to honestly recognize and patiently reflect on one’s own shortcomings, it is practically impossible for a society to do so. Nationalism permeates every facet of society and seldom permits calm social discussions, so I decided to deal with such peripheral features of Korean culture in my literary works.

One of the reasons why I am so sensitive to the peripheral characteristics of my society is that I have always pursued knowledge for its own sake. For a man who wished to be a cartographer of knowledge, the vast asymmetry between my heritage and European civilization was the most fundamental condition. And I wanted to understand how such a historical situation had come about. I defined myself as an intellectual on the periphery and from that vantage point surveyed and reflected on human history and civilization.

The fact that European civilization’s preeminence ultimately came out from the scientific revolution and the Industrial Revolution induced me to pay close attention to science and technology. While I studied how science and technology shaped and advanced our lives, I was also keen to observe how science and technology from Europe permeated and changed other civilizations, creating a global civilization in the process. And I tried to put the knowledge and insights thus gained into my literary works.

Such an attitude allows my works to retain the features of science fiction and I endeavor to offer “conceptual breakthroughs” that science fiction so felicitously permits. In Search of an Epitaph (1987), an alternative history, described a counterfactual contemporary Korean society still under colonial rule of the Japanese Empire. In it I tried to delineate the features in the actual Korean society that had been shaped through the experience of colonial rule. A Traveler in History (1991) is a time travel novel, in which a late 21st century chrononaut gets stranded in 16th century Korea and attempts to transform medieval society into a more developed and humane one, fully using his modern knowledge. Such a setting is good for illuminating how knowledge grows and affects social development. The Jovian Sayings (2014), set on the Jovian satellite Ganemede, speculates on the implications of well-developed artificial intelligence and searches for cooperation between humans and robots. Other works of mine also deal with scientific knowledge in the near or distant future.

I have written my literary works as the map of this world. All human knowledge takes the form of a story. We can perceive the world in no other way. Even a sentence is a miniature story. Literature is an apt means to delineate the shape of the world. And science fiction is the most relevant form of literature in a modern civilization primarily driven by science and technology. 

by Bok Geo-il









Author's Profile

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 withe 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 revers of history.