This is the second of a two-part series on the work of Kim Bo-young. The first, on her collection I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories, is here.
“Speculative fiction” is in some quarters used as little more than a euphemistic label for science fiction, by readers hoping to preempt association with a stigmatized genre. But interpreted literally, the term covers a vast imaginative field encompassing horror stories, fantasy sagas, alternate history, and much else besides. Many writers specialize in one or two such subcategories of speculative fiction; few if any could be said to write speculative fiction itself, with the width of narrative and intellectual range that would demand. But if any current writer of my acquaintance does approach that ideal, it’s Kim Bo-young, whose collection I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories I covered last time here on the Korea Blog. That book, published in April by HarperVoyager, was her very first in English translation. And just last month Los Angeles’ Kaya Press put out another, On the Origin of Species and Other Stories.
“If we see a person in the distance and they seem to have breasts, we hastily assume that they must be a woman,” writes Kim in her introduction to the new collection. “Science seems to occupy a similar position in SF.” Though breasts may not in themselves make someone a woman, Kim — a woman — notes that her own body “came equipped with a set. I didn’t, for example, decide one day to install a pair myself. Similarly, many of the stories I’ve written came into being without me consciously trying to turn them into SF.” Still, they’ve been received and even acclaimed as such, though some of them include nothing that the casual reader of the genre would call science — or in any case, not the kind of science that manifests in pieces of advanced future technology like the spaceships flown in I’m Waiting for You.
The variety of science most consistently underlying On the Origin of Species is, unsurprisingly, biology, and evolutionary biology in particular. Several of its stories feature a humankind evolved, devolved, or obliterated only to evolve all over again. In “An Evolution Myth,” a fifteenth-century Korean crown prince undergoes a dramatic biological transformation by himself: as he flees the kingdom when a hostile cousin ascends to the throne, a process kicks in that aids his survival in isolated exile by granting him various animalistic features. Eventually the prince becomes a kind of all-powerful dragon, a type of creature that dominates the devastated future Seoul of the following tale, “Last of the Wolves.” Human beings still exist there, though they’ve taken on lupine characteristics and mostly been domesticated by dragon masters; the few who remain untamed squat in the “ancestral ruins” of Dongdaemun Station and forage for soybeans in the overgrown Gwanghwamun Square.
If you know Seoul as it is today, you know those are two well-trafficked places in the city, and if you don’t, the story’s footnotes do their bit to fill you in. Gwanghwamun Square, as one of them explains (at least to readers who missed my piece on The Square at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), is “one of Seoul’s most famous public spaces and the site of a surviving gate to Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty.” The footnotes don’t offer the information that the period of the Joseon Dynasty lasted nearly five centuries, from 1392 until 1897 — containing the life of that long-suffering prince-turned-dragon — and nor should they, since it would violate the text’s respectful assumption of a certain amount of familiarity on the reader’s part with Korea, if not with every detail of Korea’s history and mythology.
Still, those who live here will find it at least a little funny to see something as common as ddeokppokki spelled out. “Spicy rice cakes sold by street vendors or at cheap restaurants,” says the footnote. “A popular snack among school-age Koreans.” That definition comes embedded in “Between Zero and One,” which has nothing to do with biology but much to do time travel, a more conventional sci-fi subject and one not often satisfyingly handled. But as in the title story of I’m Waiting for You, Kim refrains from getting as fantastical with it as so many writers fatally have, and again she anchors the concept in everyday, even mundane Korean reality. The setting is populated by nagging, academics-obsessed, socially competitive moms and their exhausted, cramming-addled children, some of whom protest against “College Entrance Exam-Centered Education” — in extreme cases, by taking their own lives.
In discussing I’m Waiting for You, I mentioned that modern South Koreans have experienced a kind of time travel, so rapidly and dramatically has their homeland changed compared to other developed countries over the past half-century. Here Kim offers another explanation for the consequent generation gaps. “I don’t want to go to school,” complains the story’s central teenager Soo-ae. “The teachers are like people from another time.” But she means it literally: “Some took refuge here during the Korean War. They still despise communism and North Korea, even though we reunified ages ago. Some teachers even came from the colonial era or from the Joseon era.” Soo-ae’s mother pushes her to study English even though “computerized translation today covers one hundred and sixty languages in real time,” and what’s more, “it’s already been a long time since the decline of the United States and the importance of its language.”
Clearly the US, whose bankruptcy and dissolution is similarly referenced as a historical detail in “I’m Waiting for You,” doesn’t have a place in Kim’s futures. But then, in the title story of On the Origin of Species, the longest and most ambitious in the book, human civilization itself has long since collapsed. The cause seems to have been a change in the climate: as manmade factories “pumped out more and more carbon dioxide, the earth’s temperature began to rise, resulting in an extreme greenhouse effect. At some point, this process must have crossed a certain threshold beyond which nothing could be done to reverse the trend.” After the extinction of nearly all living things, this still-thickening industrial cloud “blocked the sunlight and lowered the earth’s temperature back down to its current state. Any organisms that had survived to that point perished in this latest temperature fluctuation.”
In this frozen desert of a world, only robots have survived. In fact they’ve thrived, having not just taken over the factories but established cities, universities, and even their own versions of history, philosophy, and religion. It is within this self-sustaining mechanical-and-digital society that one robot, an undergraduate student, posits a theory of organic life. Though dismissed at the time as a crackpot notion, the possibility of entities that can grow and decompose as if by themselves — without the aid of a factory, somehow — gradually finds its adherents among robotkind. Over the subsequent decades, or perhaps centuries or millennia, their clandestine research and experimentation makes its complicated and dangerous way to reproducing organic life, first simply and then in the diversity of forms in which we know it today. For robots, who have existential reason to fear even drops of water, this is an alarming prospect indeed.
For those robots who pursue the development of so-called “organic biology” all the way, however, the result is quasi-religious ecstasy. That their newly evolved Homo sapiens inspires them to blind devotion, even worship, stands to a kind of reason: what have they done if not re-created their creator in their own image, having been created in that image themselves in the first place? Kim’s descriptions of these robots’ components and means of interaction with their environment had me envisioning Johnny 5 from the Short Circuit movies, but in the end it came clear that they were meant to be close to humanoid. The protagonist is of a model series with a deluxe face covered by a soft skin-like material, “but that softness came with a price: the skin on Kay’s face, like that of all 1029s, was so fragile that it cracked upon exposure to the outside air.”
And so, “needless to say, cosmetic surgery was a booming industry among the 1029s, who had taken to covering their faces with gold plating that resembled that of the 700s.” Kim takes all the opportunities presented by this robot society and the various different models that constitute it to satirize aspects of human society, especially as instantiated in 21st-century South Korea. “Despite the claim of having abolished modelism, there was a limit to how quickly society could change,” she writes, “so it was exceedingly rare for 2000s to receive a higher education.” While most models communicate only through speech, their faces presumably remaining as static as a Sticky Monster‘s, the 2000s were designed to use facial expressions as well, and the resulting obviousness of their feelings puts them at a serious disadvantage in their personal and professional dealings.
This condition of inborn separation from the mainstream takes a variety of forms throughout On the Origin of Species. “Perhaps foremost among Kim’s thematic concerns,” as USC associate professor of Korean Studies and Gender Studies Sunyoung Park puts it in an afterword, “is the consideration of marginality, alterity, and radical difference.” That may sound stiltedly academic, but Kim executes these considerations with a playfulness as well as a comic instinct for reversal and recontextualization. “I have no desire to start treatment,” a woman writes to her brother in “Stars Shine in the Earth’s Sky.” “What chance of cure it promises is of no consequence to me.” In due time Kim reveals that this character suffers not from a terminal illness, but from her society’s inability to accept her daily need to “plummet into a state of total oblivion for a minimum of five to six hours.”
She has to sleep, in other words, but in her world most don’t. The majority insist that the minority “beat” their unorthodox habit, but “from where I stand, ‘beating’ what we have looks a lot like turning ourselves into someone we’re not.” Remaining conscious at all times “would mean abandoning myself. Throwing away every thing that is truly me.” Kim at first seems to be constructing an uncharacteristically blunt allegory for the angered incomprehension with which certain people or ways of life meet in reality. But then the real speculation begins: maybe on the distant planet of Earth, the narrator imagines, the sky isn’t always bright. If Earth moves like she thinks it does, “the light shining down on the planet would change with each hour.” Just imagine — “a world that alternates regularly between light and dark. A world where warmth and cold, activity and rest, change places every day.”
The fruit of labor by three different translation teams, mainly Joungmin Lee Comfort and Sora Kim-Russell but also Eunhae Jo and Melissa Mei-Lin Chan (“Between Zero and One”) and Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar (“An Evolutionary Myth”), The Origin of Species provides what Park describes as a representative selection of Kim’s earliest and most successful work published in Korea. To the uninitiated reader, the jarringly breast-themed disclaimer at the beginning also gives a sense of Kim’s attitude: her attitude as a writer and thinker, yes, but also toward the genre in which she has made her name, to an extent inadvertently or even reluctantly. Yet in English or Korean, most of the stories collected here do, neatly and at once, fulfill both of the broad goals of science fiction: the inferior, making us reconsider the nature of our society; and the superior, making us reconsider the nature of our reality.
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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.