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[Cover Feature] Korean SF is Always Korean

by Kim Bo-young Translated by Victoria Caudle June 3, 2024

A while back, I received a request from an American magazine to write an essay on the topic of “works that influenced me as an SF writer.” The first works that came to mind were Herman Hesse’s Demian, Korean manhwaga Go Yoo Sung’s Robot King, manhwaga Kim Jin’s Blue Phoenix and Kingdom of the Winds, Japanese mangaka Tezuka Osamu’s Astro Boy. However, the scholar who translated my essay said that it would be better if I chose works that American readers would be familiar with. I said that if that was the case, I would introduce “works that I like” rather than “works that influenced me,” and, with only Hesse’s Demian remaining from my initial list, I selected Tezuka Osamu’s Phoenix, Roger Zelazny’s Eye of Cat, Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.

     However, during the translation process, what I said about these being “not works that influenced me, but works I like” was removed and the list was ultimately labeled as books that influenced me. (A strange line was published saying that “these are all books I like, apart from Damien” which ended up making me look like a weirdo who was recommending Demian without even liking it!)

     Somehow, out of all the authors I mentioned, there seemed to be a strange fixation on Octavia Butler. It led to her ending up on the list of authors who influenced me on my English language Wikipedia page. When a book of mine was coming out in Taiwan, the cover had, “An author influenced by Octavia Butler” written on it (I asked for this to be redacted). and An Italian interviewer once said to me, “So I’ve heard you were influenced by Octavia Butler.” When I realized that essay was the cause of all these problems, I requested it be corrected.

     I mean, no matter how much I may respect Octavia Butler, I published my first SF story in 2002, so it would be impossible for an author who was only introduced to Korea in 2011 to have influenced me. None of the books I listed apart from Demian had been released in Korea before my debut.

     I made similar complaints in the introduction to that essay as I am making in this one. There is no way that I developed into an SF writer the same way as a Western SF writer would have. Why are they expecting me, a Korean SF writer, to have been influenced by writers “Western people know”?

     I once heard it said that, “Previous generations of Korean SF writers depicted all their protagonists as white men because they grew up watching SF with white male protagonists. Starting from the 2000s, Korean SF writers began to try and escape this framing.” I do not agree with this statement. There may have been writers like that, but no more than a handful of people in Korea could be said to have grown up seeing SF with only “white male protagonists.” Ultimately, the works most accessible to Koreans were Korean works.

     The first SF work I read in my life was Go Yoo Sung’s Robot King. It’s a series that began in 1977 and, of course, it was set in Korea and the protagonists were Korean. This manhwa even had a scene showing a Korean shamanic ritual and blessing being performed before the first time a robot is piloted.

     I have read many SF works and have seen countless SF movies. All of them will have influenced me. However, the influence of works I came across after growing up, no matter how world-famous or highly-regarded the works are, will never compare to the influence of those I consumed over and over again when I was a child who knew nothing of the genre.

 

A work written by a Korean is Korean. Always.

I don’t believe that saying Koreans create Korean writings means we are writing anything that comes from our identities as citizens under the country’s administration. I believe that Korean-ness exists on an elemental level beyond embodying premodern traditional religion, ritual, or dress. What Koreans put into their creative writing are things that have naturally formed from being born into and living in this society; they are universal sentiments that occur unconsciously and naturally. Things that are so familiar that I even catch myself asking, “Isn’t that a universal human thought?” But what seems strange and alien to people from other countries is our own uniqueness. Let me show you a few examples.

 

Ex. 1: 
Public Servants instead of Vigilantes

 

When the Marvel superhero movie series became incredibly popular even in Korea, I heard of an ambitious plan to make “Korea’s Marvel” or the “Korean Avengers.” Every time I heard this, I would say that the Western superhero structure wouldn’t work for Korea, and one time in a meeting I elaborated, “Vigilantes don’t suit Korea. A Korean superhero would become a public servant. Just look at the Hunter subgenre in Korean fantasy.”

     “What the hell are the police doing?” is a question that often comes to mind when watching superhero movies. Police are one thing, but how could the government just leave civilians to deal with massive disasters on their own? It’s bizarre even if you try to explain it away as a convention of the genre. The question arises in the Marvel movie, Captain America: Civil War. In this movie we see how registering and regulating superheroes creates conflict among the Avengers. Viewers from the United States see those on Ironman’s side, the side championing the registry, as the villains. Whereas in Korea, we can’t understand Captain America, who is against the registry. We see him as someone who can’t separate private and public issues due to his personal feelings of love for an old compatriot.

     This difference in interpretations comes from the historical and cultural differences of these two countries. The United States is a country of immigrants, established by settlers. In the US, no matter how much crime and gun violence occur, there are still many people who are oppose gun control and believe that they must own a gun to protect themselves and their families. It’s only natural in a country like this to imagine a vigilante group fighting criminals.

     But Korea is a country with a history of strong governance stretching back to ancient times.  All citizens have their fingerprints registered, and as soon as you are born you are issued a Resident Registration Number (RRN). Without an RRN almost everything in your life becomes impossible; you wouldn’t be able to attend school, to work, earn money, or open a bank account. Korea has become famous as a place where you can leave your wallet or other expensive items in the street and no one will take it since thieves are easily apprehended. And on top of that, even our ghosts can’t release their grudges on their own. Instead of going after the one who wronged them, they appear to the local governor and file a civil complaint to release them from their grudge, but handling these complaints runs the governor ragged.

     The Netflix anime series Solo Leveling (story by Chu Gong, illustrations by Jang Sung-rak) is an adaptation of one of the most representative and popular Korean webnovels in the Hunter genre. The Hunter genre was first developed in Korea and is seen as a genre rooted in Korea with Korean heroes. In this genre, monsters usually show up and normal people suddenly develop superhuman powers. These people are called “Hunters.” When a Hunter’s powers manifest, they usually seek out a Hunter’s Guild, take a skills test, and are given a level. The Guild will create teams based on the Hunters’ levels and send them to dungeons where monsters have been sighted. If a team is sent to a dungeon that doesn’t match their level and a tragedy occurs, it is seen as the responsibility of the mismanaged Guild. It’s as if Koreans have naturally made a genre that centers on the type of registry that Captain America stakes his life on fighting against in Civil War.

     If we suppose that superhero stories created by Koreans will always have a system regulating superpowers, then the main conflicts in these stories would arise, not from the appearance of a powerful enemy, but rather from the weaknesses or contradictions within the system.

     This propensity for Korean SF writers to imagine their heroes regulated within a system can be seen in the Korean superhero story anthology, Superhero Next-door. In Yi Seoyoung’s “Old Soldiers,” those with superpowers are affiliated with the government and fight against “the reds” with superpowers. But after they grow old and senile, they realize that “the reds” were laborers and union members just like them, and the differences between enemy and ally become indistinguishable. In Kim Ewhan’s Superhuman Now, superhumans are able to share their location in real-time with one another through the collective intelligence of the internet, and a vote takes place on a law which would give police powers to superhumans.

 

Ex. 2: 
Holding multiple beliefs instead of one

 

When I was on a publicity tour for my book in Italy, one attendee at an event saw me standing with my hands placed one in front of the other and asked, “Is this a Buddhist stance?” When I asked my interpreter, they told me that when people give lectures in Italy they don’t speak with their hands gathered in front of them. When I thought about it, I realized that I had been strictly taught at school to stand in the “Gongshou Position.” I was indoctrinated to believe that this is a “polite” stance, and I usually stand this way without thinking about it. But what is the origin of the Gongshou Position? Confucianism?

     Occasionally my works shared abroad are critiqued as being “Buddhist” in some sense. I’m not even Buddhist. But perhaps some aspect of my writing might appear Buddhist to Western eyes. This might be the case since, in my eyes, works written by Westerners seem very Christian even if the author says that they are not.

     What is our foundational faith? Westerners might believe that Buddhism is the major faith in Korea, but if you look at the statistics, the highest reported “faith” is Atheism (60% according to a 2021 Gallup Korea survey). Among those who follow a religion, Protestantism (17%) and Buddhism (16%) were nearly tied for second followed by Catholicism (6%). A mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Shamanism influences the culture at large. The way I look at it, there is no one predominant religion. I think this is a peculiarity of our culture. There aren’t that many countries with such a variety of faiths coexisting peacefully. When I visited Bali in Indonesia, the owner of the guesthouse I stayed at asked me what my religion was. As soon as I said I didn’t have one, the old man was utterly confused. “What do you mean? How can you have nothing you believe in when you could believe in anything?” This was apparently inconceivable in a place where you send offerings to countless gods every morning.

     Exhuma directed by Jang Jae-hyun is an occult film dealing with Korean shamanism that is attracting interest all around the world. Musok, Korean Shamanism, is our indigenous faith and a uniquely Korean practice impossible to find in any other country. However, the most Korean thing about Exhuma to me was the protagonists’ differing faiths, and that this difference among them felt natural. In one scene, while the mudang (Korean shaman) performs an exorcism, the undertaker stands next to her and reads passages from the Bible. Lee U-hyeok’s wildly popular serialized occult novel, Exorcism Diaries, which began in 1993, has similar scenes. Of the four protagonists, one has powers based in the martial art of taijutsu, one is a mudang, one is a Catholic priest, and one is a reincarnation of the Buddhist deity Rāgarāja. Qigong, the power of spirits, the Holy Ghost, and divine power are all mixed together, but this is perfectly acceptable in Korean culture.

     Rather, a world where only one faith dominates feels weird. Let’s take a look at Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel, The Man in the High Tower. This novel tells the story of a parallel world where Japan and Germany have won the Second World War. Half of the world is steeped in Japanese culture. But when I read this novel, the strangest part for me was that these people used the I Ching to tell fortunes as a regular part of their everyday lives. Not only that, but when a big decision needs to be made, the I Ching is routinely consulted and treated as a significant indicator of the choice. There are people who study the I Ching in Korea too, but most people don’t use it. Even if you were considered an expert in the I Ching it is unlikely that you’d read its answers as definitive. There are a lot of fortune tellers in Korea and they have a variety of fortune telling methods.

     The concept of there being one definitive answer is a Western one. It’s the perspective of a monotheistic culture. When Sang-deok, the geomancer in Exhuma, says “Well, not everything facing South is good!” we don’t know exactly what he means, but we know it has something to do with Feng Shui. There is no definite good and no definite bad. Koreans get their fortunes read with Saju and Tojeong Book of Secrets, yet hardly anyone believes that their predictions are absolute. When your Saju tells you you’ve got bad luck in store, you can get rid of it by going to the public baths, or if you’re told that you were born with itchy feet, you can play an online travel game. Taking action like this shows we Koreans don’t presume there’s only one singular sign in the world.

 

Whatever Koreans write is Korean

Whenever people look for something “Korean” they often think of legends, clothing, myths, food, and traditional rituals that have only been passed down in Korea. But I believe that something more meaningful than that is the philosophy that comes from the culture embodied within us. Instead of mimicking other works, good writers will take a close look at their real lives and experiences and use their imagination to draw upon what they find. These are the stories that come naturally only to us.

     When I was speaking on national tragedies at the Utopiales SF convention in France, someone from the audience asked, “How can reflections on colonialism be addressed in SF literature?” Very proudly, I replied, “Korea is a country that can only speak on the subject of colonialism from the position of the colonized. Therefore, Korea must tell more Korean stories.” These are stories that can never be created in Japan, which Westerners tend to imagine as representative of East Asia. I have sometimes heard that SF is the literature of Empire. They say that SF tells the stories of powerful nations who dominate the world, who have a sense of adventure and pioneering spirit, and usually center elite white male protagonists who conquer space as they conquered the world, fighting wars and settling on new planets. I have also heard that there may be limitations to what can be imagined in Korean SF literature because Korea does not have that colonizing history. I do not agree. Fortunately, since we have not taken part in the horrors of imperialism, we can write stories that those who do have that history would never be able to write. How amazing is that?

     Sometimes I hear people lament that space opera isn’t popular in Korea. It’s a complaint that seems to miss the point. From the start, space operas are not a story we can understand. The stories that Korean people can write well are not the stories of imperialists who conquer space. They are the stories of aliens who must fight back against earthlings who have suddenly appeared on their planet saying they will claim it as their own. We can write those kinds of stories. Because our history comes from an entirely different position.

 

Translated by Victoria Caudle

 

     KOREAN WORKS MENTIONED:

•     Robot King (Wolgan-Udeungseng, 1977)

      『로보트 킹』 (월간 우등생, 1977)

•     Blue Phoenix (Manhwa Wangguk, 1988)

      『푸른 포에닉스』 (만화왕국, 1988)

•     Kingdom of the Winds (Daenggi, 1992) 1

      『바람의 나라』 (댕기, 1992)

•     Solo Leveling (Papyrus, 2016) 2

      『나 혼자만 레벨업』 (파피루스, 2016)

•     “Old Soldiers,” Superhero Next-door (Golden Bough, 2015) 3

      「노병들」, 『이웃집 슈퍼히어로』 (황금가지, 2015)

•     Superhuman Now (Saeparan Sangsang, 2017) 4

      『초인은 지금』 (새파란상상, 2017)

•     Exorcism Diaries (Dulnyouk, 1994)

      『퇴마록』 (들녘, 1994)

 

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