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[Cover Feature] Every Possible Thing Bar One: Four Keywords for Recent Korean SF

by Yang Yun-eui Translated by Sunnie Chae June 3, 2024

Externally Tangent

 

Korean SF has come of age, outgrowing the confines of its genre and spearheading narrative fiction. The Korea Publishing Marketing Research Institute identified the “SF surge” as an industry keyword of 2019, and the trend has only accelerated. How does one explain this Korean-style SF? To ask at the risk of simplification, does Korean SF form a regional, localized subset of SF, or does it carry unique traits as a variant?

     In the former case, Korean SF would constitute a subcategory of larger SF history. The genre’s evolution—spanning odes to science and technology, speculative fiction, and Donna J. Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985)—has yielded key works at each juncture. Korean SF achievements could count as one of those turning points inscribed within the larger category of SF. The diagram would appear as follows:

     Literary critic Sherryl Vint characterizes SF by the accumulation, repetition, resonance, allusion, differentiation, and transformation of myriad works. This universal set serves as the individual work’s prototype—the “megatext.” As a set of recurring backdrops, metaphors, conventions, settings, images, and devices, the SF megatext imparts its DNA to all textual offspring. The genealogical metaphor implies that all aspects of the individual text are already found in the megatext. If a text happens to present an entirely new element, the megatext incorporates the newness, turning creation into rediscovery. Megatext is the larger “one” from which all texts emanate—the One.

     I do not consider Korean SF to be a megatext child. Korean authors may have referenced SF elements, but instead of being inscribed within, their works stay externally tangent. As two separate categories, SF and Korean SF meet without subsuming the other:

     Recent Korean SF, linked to the “feminism reboot” of 2015, diverges from traditional SF. Major authors of Korean SF are mostly female, as evidenced by names on the 2022 SF sales list: Kim Choyeop in first and third places, Cheon Seonran in second place, and Kim Bo-young in sixth place. (Fourth and fifth places went to foreign authors.) Readers of Korean SF are mostly female as well: 66.1 percent.[1] Korean SF stays externally tangent to SF on one side, feminist/queer discourse on the other, an interdependent circle expanding its interface. It bears emphasis that feminist/queer imagination is not internal to Korean SF, nor is Korean SF internal to SF.

 

 

Parallel Universe

 

In SF narration, a “novum”—literary critic Darko Suvin’s term for novelty or innovation—typically acts as a nexus between the reader’s empirical world and the textual world. Suvin also defines SF as “literature of cognitive estrangement,” pointing to the novum as the genre’s differentia specifica—a portal into the textual world. By passing through the portal, readers internalize the logic intrinsic to that fictional domain. In recent Korean SF, however, the novum fades in importance. Though placed at the narrative gateway, it hardly represents an object of identification in the Imaginary or a translation of signs in the Symbolic; nor is it the Real prompting moments of anamorphosis.

     As mentioned above, Korean SF stays externally tangent to the feminism reboot ongoing since 2015. SF traces its lineage to the white male elite, the masculine knowledge production underpinning science as a whole. Hence the SF staple of the “mad scientist”—but not so in recent Korean SF. Korean SF in the spotlight rarely indulges in the male hero narrative or the masculine trope of tyrannical mad science. Instead, it engages with a new epistemology that recognizes the inherent deficiency, disability, intermediacy, and vulnerability of beings.

     In Kim Choyeop’s short story “Laura” from The World I Just Left Behind, the eponymous heroine suffers from phantom pain in a third arm. She tells her lover, “See, even now I feel as though that arm is touching you. When we hug, I use my third hand to caress your cheek. But whenever I realize it doesn’t materially exist, I feel like an interstitial being.”[2] Typical phantom pain—perceptions of a limb that should have been there—would express a deficiency or disability. What about a limb that no one has, a limb that should not be there? Perhaps that is the insight—“presence of absence” (existent sense of a nonexistent third arm) as the nature of being.

     This world could be termed a parallel universe, a counterpart world placed elsewhere due to some spatiotemporal rift. The novum in Korean SF serves as a guide to this parallel realm, indicating not difference but sameness.

 

 

Undone Science

 

Sociologist David J. Hess problematizes “undone science,” referring to scientific research that is absent. Deprioritized and unfunded, undone science nevertheless holds value for civil society. Hess states that the jostling among political, industrial, and social-movement leaders results in “the systematic nonexistence of selected fields of research”—in short, intentional lacunae of knowledge.[3]

     SF stands on the optimistic ground of “not-yet-done” science. When Sherryl Vint defines the genre as one that “has the power to literalize metaphor, to build worlds that capture something true yet unrepresentable in the literary mode of realism,”[4] the trueness in question exists in potentiality, a not-yet space of the future. Science thus comprises three domains: the already done, the not-yet-done (which will be done), and the undone. The second pertains to SF, the third to Korean SF.

     Korean SF imagination, conjoined with feminist/queer ontology, establishes itself on the ground of undone science. This science, neglected for being unnecessary, contributes little to communal prosperity and fails to restore individuals to normality. Yet by shedding light on zones of indistinction (where individuals are excluded from the communities they inhabit), this science alone presents those beings in and of themselves without resorting to the logic of selection and exclusion (i.e., normal/abnormal, standard/nonstandard, internal/external).

     Kim Choyeop’s Planetarian Bookshop provides a case in point with “Swamp Boy,” a story in which beings connect to a mycelia network. The beings form a collective network of “we”; they function as members (the “ones among us”) of this “we”; they serve as components of both Owen, who retains his neural network of consciousness, and the boy, who consumes the mycelia. They also form the boy-mycelia and neural-mycelial complex (Owen-mycelia). As it turns out, the boy happens to be a clone created to “replace the dying bodies of humans,” and as such, is not a representative human entity. From a scientific point of view, the beings defy logic as they are neither object nor subject of cogito. Therein lies the power of undone science, the new imagination that undermines the theoretical framework of mainstream science differentiating “I” from “you,” “I” from “we.”

 

 

Nonsubstantiality

 

Exploring the point of contact between SF and non-SF requires a presupposed concept of reality. This reality, however, varies in meaning. In SF, reality refers to the reader’s empirical world in contrast to the textual world conjured by scientific imagination. In non-SF, reality refers to the world which fiction aims to represent. The former equates to the universe sans novum; the latter, the original universe represented by way of literary convention. These differences notwithstanding, the term reflects a belief in this world as an actuality, not a fantasy. Both realms accept the unconscious premise of verisimilitude underlying literary realism. Yet SF and non-SF should explore the opposite notion that the world does not exist—is that not the theme calling for variation? Consider these examples. The world as propagated by the ruling class (mere ideology) does not exist. The world as described by romantics (mere passion) does not exist. The world as shaped by capitalism (mere illusion) does not exist. The possibilities go on.

     What reality represents and forges by that term is a one and only world—simply One. Korean SF features “every possible thing” (à la Gu Byeong-mo in her story “Every Possible Thing”) bar One. Reality, and the world founded upon reality, ceases to exist in Korean SF. Though readers assume the verisimilitude of fictional entities, their substantiality as such remains questionable.

     Cheon Seonran’s “Some Shape of Love” follows Rahyeon, a navel-less alien child who falls in love. “Now that you love Minhyeok, you’ll be a boy,” says Rahyeon’s mother. Upon falling in love a second time with a female upperclassman, Rahyeon develops the physical traits of a girl. When under the assumption of reality, all beings take on substance. Boys as boys, girls as girls. Not so in recent Korean SF. Cheon’s protagonist will be a boy while loving a boy, a girl while loving a girl. Note that the bodily transformation does not comply with heterosexuality. Transformation within a cross-sex framework would still presuppose a certain substantiality. The “I” may be mutable, but the other provides the immutable constant. In “Some Shape of Love,” “I” transforms not in relation to a loved one but by virtue of being in love. The “I” leads a nonsubstantial existence.

 

Viewing recent Korean SF as a tributary of the grand SF narrative or of feminist/queer fiction would offer at best a partial picture. Korean SF stays externally tangent to the three categories of SF, feminist/queer fiction, and Korean non-SF. Korean SF rejects both utopian outlook and dystopian eschatology, using the novum not as a genre converter but as a steering device leading to a parallel universe.[5] Not an alternate life, be it optimistic or pessimistic, but an alternate realm. While SF focuses on executable science, recent Korean SF focuses on systematically unexecuted science, probing into that undone domain. Lastly, Korean SF builds on nonsubstantiality. Gone is the vision of a one world that exists or should exist. For in that One lies Mad Adam’s fanatical belief that stifles SF imagination, suppresses feminist/queer plurality, and reinforces literary authoritarianism. Korean SF offers “every possible thing” bar One.

 

Translated by Sunnie Chae

 

     KOREAN WORKS MENTIONED:

•     “Laura,” The World I Just Left Behind (Hankyoreh, 2021) 1

      「로라」, 『방금 떠나온 세계』 (한겨례출판, 2021)

•     “Swamp Boy,” Planetarian Bookshop (Maumsanchaek, 2021) 2

      「늪지의 소년」, 『행성어 시점』 (마음산책, 2021)

•     “Every Possible Thing,” Every Possible Thing (Munhakdongne, 2023) 3

      「있을 법한 모든 것」, 『있을 법한 모든 것』 (문학동네, 2023)

•     “Some Shape of Love,” Some Shape of Love (Arzak Livres, 2020) 4

      「어떤 물질의 사랑」, 『어떤 물질의 사랑』 (아작, 2020)

 


 

[1]       Kim Yongchul, “In Search of Hope amid Anxious Reality, ‘We Head toward the Surreal World,’” Segye Ilbo, May 7, 2022, https://segye.com/view/20220505512377.

 

[2]       Kim Choyeop, “Laura,” trans. Sukyoung Sukie Kim, Asymptote (January 2023). https://www.asymptotejournal.com/special-feature/laura-kim-cho-yeop/

 

[3]       David J. Hess, Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 22.

 

[4]       Sherryl Vint, Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 5.

 

[5]       Author’s note: the SF-related term cybernetics derives from the Greek κυβερνήτης, meaning “steersman.”

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