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[Cover Feature] Korean SF Now

by Sang-Keun Yoo June 3, 2024

When Netflix was first launched, I was able to watch nearly every new science fiction movie and series it offered. These days, however, it has become impossible to keep up with all the new SF content emerging across various streaming services. Aside from Netflix’s offerings, staying current with the latest SF content and all its subgenres (including novels, webtoons, comics, etc.) can easily take up a whole lifetime.

      Regarding this sudden rise in popularity, seasoned writers and scholars of science fiction from both the US and South Korea now share a sense of excitement. They note how the genre has evolved from a marginalized, niche interest from just a few decades ago to its current status as a mainstream cultural force. However, there is a notable distinction between the Korean and American science fiction communities. In the US, the genre began its mainstream integration back in the 1960s and 1970s, propelled by blockbuster franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars, and has continued to evolve ever since. In contrast, South Korea experienced this shift more abruptly within the last decade, compressing a similar scale of cultural integration into a much shorter timeframe.

      No one doubts that Korea now plays a major role in global science fiction production. Anyone who has followed the latest popular Korean releases will remember notable SF hits from the recent past such as The Silent Sea (2021) or Space Sweepers (2021). As for literature, the preference for science fiction and fantasy over the traditionally beloved realist genre is more notable among young readers on digital platforms. Today, new web novels abound with science fiction and fantasy themes. According to Korean fans of these webtoons and web novels, works that deals with the so-called “R.I.R” (or “R.T.R”, acronyms for Regression, Isekai or Transmigration, Reincarnation) themes comprise more than ninety percent of the bestseller lists. In these works, characters either find themselves in a parallel universe, travel back in time, or reincarnate themselves in someone else’s body. The prevalence of these themes among web-based content underscores the dominance of science fiction and fantasy genres among younger readers, who are the major users of digital platforms.

      Most global audiences encounter South Korean SF through these kinds of visual media or web fiction for the first time. This often misleads them into thinking that South Korean science fiction is solely about film and webtoons, without any historical depth. However, the rise of science fiction in South Korea is not just a visual and digital phenomenon. Paying attention to the nation’s literary history reveals a different genealogy. For example, a glance at the annual bestseller lists shows titles such as Kim Choyeop’s The Greenhouse at the End of the Earth and If We Can’t Go at the Speed of Light, along with Cho Yeeun’s Cocktail, Love, Zombie among the top 25 bestsellers at Kyobo Books, the largest Korean online book retailer, for two consecutive years. SF works by other authors like Jeong You Jeong, Cheon Seonran, Serang Chung, and Bora Chung also grace these lists.

      In response to the increasing popularity of Korean science fiction, American book publishers have begun to show interest with many South Korean novels now being translated into English and introduced to global readers. Notable examples include the anthology Readymade Bodhisattva: The Kaya Anthology of South Korean Science Fiction, co-edited by Professor Sunyoung Park of the University of Southern California, a leading scholar in SF studies, and Park Sang Joon, director of the Seoul Science Fiction Archive. This collection includes a range of Korean authors, both young and prominent, from Bok Geo-il, Djuna, Soyeon Jeong, Kim Bo-young, Young-ha Kim, Park Min-gyu, and Park Seonghwan. Additionally, Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny was shortlisted for the National Book Award, with a commendable translation by Anton Hur. Hur has also brought two more science fiction stories to global readers: Serang Chung’s novella Take My Voice and Djuna’s novel Counterweight. Another of Djuna’s collections, Everything Good Dies Here, is anticipated to be published in English by Kaya Press. Other notable examples include Bae Myung-hoon’s Tower, Launch Something! and Dolki Min’s Walking Practice.

      These English translations hold particular importance for educators and researchers outside Korea. Before the publication of Readymade Bodhisattva, teaching South Korean science fiction literature in American colleges was challenging. Despite my eagerness to introduce these works and my awareness of the numerous high-quality SF stories from Korea, the absence of English translations made it impractical. Now, thanks to the availability of these translations, I can design an entire semester’s course dedicated solely to South Korean science fiction that includes literature, cinema, webtoons, and VR movies. Students initially express confusion when engaging with these texts due to cultural differences, but they soon adapt and become deeply interested in the unique perspectives that these foreign SF stories provide.

      It’s not just me; a growing number of scholars have begun to incorporate South Korean SF literature into American classrooms and academic publications. For example, the Korean Literature Association organized an academic conference on Korean science fiction at the University of Southern California in 2023. The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts released a special issue on South Korean science fiction in 2023. Another academic journal, Science Fiction Film and Television, published its first article on South Korean SF films in 2021. There’s also a noticeable increase in the number of graduate students in the United States focusing their dissertations on South Korean science fiction.

      While it is undeniable that the study of South Korean science fiction is expanding, significant gaps remain that researchers have yet to address. A particular concern is the emphasis on contemporary visual media, such as films and digital platforms, while the literary tradition of the genre is often overlooked. Only a few existing research publications on South Korean science fiction, both within Korean and overseas academic circles, focus on key historical texts, such as Kim Dong-in’s story “The Study of Dr. K,” published in 1929, and the works of prominent figures from the 1960s and 1970s like Han Nak-won and Moon Yun-sung. However, these studies primarily examine these works from a historical perspective, rather than through the lens of SF scholarship. Research on the 1980s and 1990s is also scarce, centering mainly on two key figures: Bok Geo-il and Djuna. 

      In recent years, a noticeable shift has emerged. Sungkyunkwan University has played a pivotal role in this development, hosting two major conferences in Seoul on science fiction as part of its Annual International Forum on Cultural Studies in 2021 and 2023. While still not abundant, more recent academic monographs and articles are bridging the gaps in scholarship in both Korea and the United States. 

      Will this recent popularity and growth in fictional production and academic research continue in the future, or will it be just a short-lived fad that eventually disappears? To support this ongoing development, it is crucial to cultivate a deep understanding of the genre’s place within its national and global history. As South Korean science fiction experiences rapid growth across all media without sufficient discussion about its unique form and history, the Korean SF community seems to lack an adequate understanding of it as a genre. Addressing the following key questions is essential: What defines science fiction, and how does it distinguish itself from other genres? Is it inherently a Western genre? When integrating this Western genre into the Korean context, what adaptations are necessary, and what are the gains and losses? How should Korean science fiction differentiate itself from its British and American counterparts? Despite its rapid growth, Korean science fiction has not yet fully engaged with these questions. 

      Then, what exactly is science fiction? Its definition and historical beginnings remain topics of active discussion among scholars, especially within the Western tradition. There appears to be a consensus around two primary theories: one positing that the genre began with Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, and the other tracing its roots to the early twentieth century with pioneering writers like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Either way, SF scholars generally agree that the genre emerged from Western Europe and then to America before making its way to Korea via Japan.

      This has led many recent Korean SF films to reproduce Western SF clichés and narrative frameworks, replacing Western characters and settings with Korean equivalents. The shortcomings of this method are evident in the underperformance of SF blockbusters like The Moon (2023), Jung_E (2023), and Black Knight (2023). Despite significant budgets and high expectations, these films failed to achieve financial or critical success. While deficiencies in creativity and imagination may have played a role, a deeper problem lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre itself. Science fiction, like any genre, has evolved and diversified over more than a century, making it impossible to pinpoint a fixed, timeless essence of the genre. However, it seems that in South Korean film industry there is a prevalent, narrow view as if “hard science fiction”—characterized by elements like alien invasions and AI robots fighting for control of Earth—embodies the “true” and “core” elements of science fiction. 

      The advent of the New Wave movement in the US and UK starting in 1964 saw writers like Ursula K. Le Guin challenge traditional hard science fiction motifs—such as alien warfare and AI robots—through her works, including The Dispossessed (1974) and Always Coming Home (1985). Similarly, Philip K. Dick, revered as the “Shakespeare of science fiction,” ventured into psychological and philosophical territory, exploring the nuances between reality and virtuality, and the nature of perception, thereby avoiding typical “hard SF” tropes. In response to these shifts, prominent SF scholar Darko Suvin suggested in 1977 that the definition of “science” in science fiction be broadened to include social sciences like anthropology and sociology, alongside the natural sciences and engineering. This led to proposals for new genre labels such as “speculative fiction,” “soft science fiction,” and “lifestyle science fiction” to better capture these broader themes. Today, SF communities often use terms like “speculative fiction” or “SFF” (science fiction and fantasy) as inclusive categories that encompass a wider spectrum of narratives.

      As a result, the issue of defining science is intricately linked to the understanding of the genre. Looking back, classic English science fiction, once celebrated as exemplary, often appears unscientific to contemporary readers. For instance, H.G. Wells’s seminal work, The Time Machine (1895), provides no explanation as to how the machine enabled travel to the distant future and back, thus appearing magical to contemporary readers. As we delve further back into the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, authors often embraced commonly accepted scientific beliefs of the times such as alchemy, telepathy, geocentrism, or even flat earth theory. This illustrates how the notion of “science” has shifted and expanded, consequently complicating the task of genre classification.

      This issue becomes particularly salient in the context of Korean science fiction. If novels by Wells and Verne, which utilized now outdated or pseudo-scientific theories, are still considered exemplary science fiction works, we must then consider how to classify Korean novels from bygone eras. Such works might incorporate neo-Confucian concepts like Li and Qi to explain natural phenomena, or explore traditional Korean practices like herbal medicine, acupuncture, pungsu jiri (feng shui), or geomancy. Grace Dillon, a scholar of Native American studies, contends in the introduction to Walking the Clouds (2012) that indigenous peoples possess distinct concepts of science. She argues that indigenous practices, from herbal medicine to storytelling and star reading should be viewed as legitimate forms of science, which she terms “indigenous science.” Re-evaluating South Korea’s literary history through this lens can clarify numerous works that, while not traditionally recognized as science fiction, warrant such classification. This approach has the potential to bridge divisions and enrich our understanding by linking science fiction with other narrative forms like fantasy, mythology, religion, and folklore.

      The future of Korean science fiction should focus on embedding its narratives within the philosophical, cultural, and mythological fabric of Korea. This approach moves beyond simply transplanting Korean characters and settings into Western narratives. As director Bong Joon-ho articulated during the Oscars in 2020, “The most personal is the most creative.” This ethos encourages Korean writers to craft narratives that are distinctly Korean, breaking away from Western SF structures and conventions. This requires a redefinition of “science” and “science fiction” that aligns with Korean sensibilities and challenges a Western conceptual framework. By applying this new perspective to the past of Korean literature, we can uncover a rich lineage of science fiction, spanning from pre-modern myths and folk tales to feminist comics of the 1980s and occult and fantasy novels of the 90s, and set the stage for an ever-evolving future for Korean science fiction. 

 

      Korean Works Mentioned:

•     Readymade Bodhisattva: The Kaya Anthology of South Korean Science Fiction (tr. Sunyoung Park, Dagmar van Engen et al., Kaya Press, 2019) 1

•     Cursed Bunny (tr. Anton Hur, Honford Star, 2021) 2

    『저주 토끼』 (아작, 2021)

•     Take My Voice (tr. Anton Hur, Stranger Press, 2023) 3

    『목소리를 드릴게요』 (아작, 2020)

•     Counterweight (tr. Anton Hur, Pantheon, 2023) 4

    『평형추』 (알마, 2021)

•     Everything Good Dies Here (tr. Adrian Thieret, Kaya Press, 2024) 5

•     Tower (tr. Sung Ryu, Honford Star, 2020) 6

    『타워』 (문학과지성사, 2020)

•     Launch Something! (tr. Stella Kim, Honford Star, 2022) 7

    『빙글빙글 우주군』 (자이언트북스, 2020)

•     Walking Practice (tr. Victoria Caudle, HarperVia, 2023) 8

    『보행연습』 (은행나무, 2022)

•     The Greenhouse at the End of the Earth (Giant Books, 2021) 9

    『지구 끝의 온실』 (자이언트북스, 2021)

•     If We Can’t Go at the Speed of Light (Hubble, 2019) 10

    『우리가 빛의 속도로 갈 수 없다면』 (허블, 2019)

•     Cocktail, Love, Zombie (Safe House, 2020) 11

    『칵테일, 러브, 좀비』 (안전가옥, 2020)

•     The Study of Dr. K (Shinsoseol December 1929)

    『K 박사의 연구』 (신소설 12월호, 1929)

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