South Korea has one of the first populations who can claim to have collectively traveled through time. In a trivial sense, of course, we all travel through time, forward at a rate of one hour per hour, one day per day, one year per year. But this country, as no introduction fails to mention, underwent in the second half of the 20th century a transformation already seen in other societies — “development,” “modernization,” “Westernization,” call it what you like — but at an unprecedented speed. Aggressive industrialization compressed a century of history into just a few decades, and the aftereffects of that process account for much of the good, the bad, and the weird in Korean life today. Among other traces, it has left tragi-comically wide generation gaps: for many Koreans, interactions with their parents feel like Westerners’ interactions with their disoriented great-grandparents.
“My dad lived his whole life in his hometown,” says the narrator of the story “I’m Waiting for You.” But “by the time he passed away our hometown was a completely different place from where he was born. Buildings had been put up and roads laid, mountains flattened, and the courses of rivers diverted. Time moved him to somewhere completely different. Who could possibly say that he lived in one place his whole life?” The reflection comes in one of a series of letters to this narrator’s fiancée, whom he won’t be able to see for nearly five years. Both are aboard separate spaceships, she to emigrate to a distant solar system with her family, and he expressly — by way of light-speed travel’s dilation of time for the traveler — more quickly to pass the years her trip will require before they reunite for their wedding on Earth.
For his fiancée doesn’t intend to stay with her family, of whose meddling in her life she’s had enough. She wouldn’t be the first Korean to go to great lengths to get away from relatives, nor the first to engage in instrumental immigration: “anyone who travels to another solar system gets an outer planets residency permit,” she explains, and “there are loads of advantages when it comes to taxes and things like that.” The more things change, as many a literary vision of the future has meant to show us, the more they stay the same. But change is precisely what the narrator’s fellow emigrants in time went into the “Orbit of Waiting” hoping for: “Some people are traveling to the year their pension plan matures, others hope real estate taxes will come down while they’re away. There are artists too, who believe they were born in the wrong era.”
“I’m Waiting for You” is the title piece of the collection that marks the English-language debut of Kim Bo-young, who has been a respected and prolific science-fiction writer in Korea since the mid-2000s. Rather than presenting an assortment of short stories each of which imagines a different future, the book instead comprises what initially feel like two complex novellas, one split in half so as to bookend the other. While Kim tells “I’m Waiting for You,” the opener, entirely through the man’s letters to the woman, the closer “On My Way to You” consists only of the woman’s letters to the man. Upon first reading, the two seem to have been composed of a piece; only in a post-script essay does Kim reveal that she wrote “On My Way to You” years after “I’m Waiting for You,” which was itself the fulfillment of a one-off commission.
The request came from an unusual client: a man looking for a distinctive means of proposing to his girlfriend. It just so happened that he was an old friend of Kim’s, and his girlfriend counted Kim among her favorite writers. To that point Kim, who got her start plotting video games in the late 1990s, had “never once written a story where two people get together, let alone a romance,” but she took on the challenge anyway. The result drives this unwonted scenario toward what, if the rest of the material in I’m Waiting for You is anything to go by, must be one of the author’s themes of choice: things not going according to plan. A series of uncontrollable mishaps on both ends keeps delaying the fictional couple’s reunion by years at a time — and ultimately, back on a repeatedly devastated Earth, centuries or even millennia.
“The Prophet of Corruption,” which follows “I’m Waiting for You,” presents what seems like starkly different setting, and even conception of reality. The early appearance of the word bardo, recently popularized (to an extent) in the English-reading world by George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo, tells us we must be in the world of Buddhist myth, and specifically in the liminal space it places between death and rebirth. Those who don’t recall exactly what a bardo is can turn to the glossary at the back of the book, which explains that “disciples gather at their teacher’s bardo to discuss their previous life and plan their next one before they descend to the Lower Realm again.” The Lower Realm is Earth as we know it, occupied by humans, animals, and everything else; the teachers of these disciples include Prophets, entities “born from the division of the primordial universe.”
Most of the important characters in this long middle section are Prophets. Getting across to the reader the nature of their existence and the laws they must obey demands even more from Kim’s skills as a storyteller than conveying the mechanics of the spacefaring civilization in the first and last sections. Frequently and in many ways she stresses that none of these characters, nor the objects that surround them, are truly separate from one another, spun off as they all originally were from the single being that encompassed all existence. But division turns out to bring pleasures of its own: “By severing the connections between our minds, we gained the pleasure of devising new tools for communication. We preoccupied ourselves with making thousands of signs and symbols each day” — in other words, creating language itself. “Who knew limitations and inconveniences could be so joyful and fun?”
It’s not hard to understand the appeal such ideas hold out to a translator — nor, for anyone with a little knowledge of the Korean, what challenges a story like this poses to a translator. When not descended to the Lower Realm in human form, the denizens of the “Dark Realm” have no human attributes, and especially not gender. Once could argue for the superiority of the Korean language when it comes to dealing with figures possessed (like Pengsoo) of neither maleness nor femaleness, since even where human beings are concerned it doesn’t force its speakers to make a choice between the two with every pronoun. In her own accompanying notes, co-translator Sophie Bowman writes of sending Kim “a list of minor characters and asking her which gender each of them was,” apologizing all the while for what she optimistically calls “current expectations in the English language.”
In “The Prophet of Corruption” and its companion piece “The Other Me,” Bowman’s translation partner Sung Ryu (she of Tower by Bae Myung-hoon, a writer often mentioned alongside Kim) opts to use the plural pronoun “they” in reference to groups and individuals alike. Though this never quite comes to feel natural (I kept losing track of whether I was supposed to be picturing one or many, another distinction the Korean language doesn’t always make clear to begin with), that’s surely part of the idea, reminding us as it constantly does that these characters we see conversing, interacting, and even attacking one another could easily merge back together again or divide up further still. Not that it would occur without controversy, Kim’s idea for this Dark Realm being, as she explains it, that of “a world in which ‘division versus merging’ was hotly debated.”
Because nobody in the Dark Realm is human, nobody in the Dark Realm can be Korean. Still, in Kim’s depiction their attitudes are at times reminiscent of the old jokes about Koreans’ readiness to draw hard ideological dividing lines among themselves no matter the circumstances. “The hardliners prepared for war; the moderates prepared gifts and a diplomatic delegation,” the narrator of “On My Way to You” writes of her shipmates during the days of preparation for meeting another spacecraft. “By the time we were ready to land, it was so bad that they had almost gone ahead and formed political parties.” In this story Kim does make the characters explicitly Korean. When they speak of going home, in the larger sense, they speak of returning to Earth; but whenever they do return to Earth, they never touch down anywhere but Korea, unrecognizable though time and trouble may have rendered it.
“The Other Me” also sends its narrator-Prophet Naban into a Seoul of the future, abandoned and overgrown: “I considered visiting the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu or Seokguram Grotto, but decided on Lotte World Tower for the irony.” That building, at the moment the tallest in South Korea, has become an Ozymandian ruin, albeit a moist one, containing as its submerged basement does “three types of mushrooms and five new species of fish.” The name Naban comes from Korean mythology, the glossary notes, as does much else in Kim’s tales of the Dark and Lower Realms. Ryu and Bowman are to be praised for simply transliterating these and other concepts in the main text; not every Western reader will know a dopo from a dokkaebi, but better to gather a mental image from the context than to rely on misleadingly familiar approximations like “cloak” or “goblin.”
At the same time, other of these stories’ roots run to Western antiquity: Kim writes of beginning with the proposition that “the world of the living was a school for enlightenment and the world of the dead a forum where various schools of thought debated teaching methods, in a similar fashion to the agoras of ancient Athens.” She pulls off the subsequent coalescence of science, technology, religion, and myth with a rare assurance; as Ryu writes, “I doubt I’ll ever translate another book singlehandedly leading me down rabbit holes of general relativity, genetics, Buddhist philosophy, and world mythology” — as well as superstring and evolutionary theory, not to mention space-based maritime law. Korean science fiction, even the small sample of which has so far been published in English translation, has demonstrated an intellectual capaciousness, and Kim’s imagination clearly has an even greater such capacity than most.
As represented in I’m Waiting for You, Kim’s work also expresses an emotion seldom popularly associated with science fiction: longing. The title story and “On My Way to You,” with their lovers separated by ever more difficult-to-conceive distances over an ever more difficult-to-conceive span of time, hardly obscure the source of that emotion. Division occurs and reunion must follow, a tension that also animates much of “The Prophet of Corruption” and “The Other Me.” There another variety of longing emerges among Prophets and disciples who grow corrupted: that is, too attached to the fragile and disordered human life they’ve allowed to come into being. Though the book’s halves never converge in any obvious way, some readers will speculate about the Prophets to which the man-and-wife-to-be must belong. Other readers, those accustomed to a more conventional kind of sci-fi, will at least be pleased to hear that both narratives feature spaceships.
This is the first of a two-part series on the work of Kim Bo-young. The second, on her collection On the Origin of Species and Other Stories, will appear here on the Korea Blog on June 20th.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.