It’s Not Just the Lateness of Industrialization: How and Why Korean SF Doesn’t Quite Work

This entry is part 2 of 72 in the series SF in South Korea

I should be grading in-class essays, but my guilt at not yet having done so has been assuaged by the fact that another professor in the department, someone above me, confessed to not having graded her midterms either, and not feeling the slightest bit badly about it!

So among all the other insanity of the last week, I also spent some time working up a couple of abstracts for a conference that I think I have no realistic shot at, mostly because I’m not an “official” Korea studies scholar, but at least one of my abstracts was for an essay in my own field, and in one I may be perhaps best equipped of anyone to write. It’d be neat to present a paper in Fukuoka to a bunch of specialists, so why the hell not? If they take me, it’s an experience. If they don’t, I lose nothing. So I’m glad that James inspired me to give it a shot.

And as I say, I don’t believe there are many people who could fill in this area as I could. Well, there was this Korean guy I met least year who had done a Ph.D. in the US years ago in the field of SF literature, but the last I heard he was too busy trying to extort money out of childrens’ textbook publishers to actually do anything like real academic research.

In any case, I did up a couple of abstracts, and tried to upload them. The one I’d like for them to have taken is not the one they took, but ah well, publishing a paper on SF in Korea’s not so bad, is it?

The question, dear readers, is why Korea lacks a really vibrant SF-genre literature for adults, either in translation or in some native form. When you ask Koreans about this, they often answer with the same sophistication as your average bookseller in North America: that is, they conflate SF and fantasy and even, to some degree, horror. There is at least one major fantasy author worth noting, whom I’m told popularized the concept of the “zombie” here. (Lime’s a fan: she recently almost ordered second-hand copies of his whole series,퇴마록 (Toemarok), and bemoaned the fact that the film version was so horrible, since she thinks I would enjoy it if only I could.

No, Korea has a vibrant and rather entertaining — if somewhat derivative — literary and cinematic fantasy life. Fantasy tropes (including cutesy swords-and-idealized-history stuff) are common in video games, in daydream sequences in otherwise mainstream films (My Sassy Girl is a famous example among others), and in fantastical films ranging from Arahan (where chop-socky kung-fu mysticism meets modern-day Seoul) to the stupid but funny Sisily 2km (where gangsters and rural-types mix it up with ghosts). Fantasy and horror work adapt quite well to the Korean aesthetic, and to Korean narrative-styles, and to the politics and culture here. Horror, especially, seems to be a good fit: films like the Yeogo Gwedam (“High School Girl’s Ghost Story”) series evoke the horrors of the school system and of teenaged girls’ lives; the oldie-but-goodie 301/302 that explores the alienation inherent in apartment-block life, especially by women; Gidam (“Epitaph”) exploits the remaining (or renewed) Korean anxities about Japan and its colonial past in Korea to horrific effect; R-Point combines military drama/action with horror; Eolgul Eobneun Minyeo (“Faceless [Beauty]”) pushes the kind of “subjectless body” notion that James at Grand Narrative has been exploring to its extremes by exploring the eros/thanatos horror of a beautiful woman with Borderline Personality Disorder. The list could go on and on, but it’s unnecessary. Everyone who’s interested knows that Korean horror, even when it’s not brilliant — cinematic horror so rarely is — works like horror, functions, does what it needs to in order to get the job done. Likewise, fantasy works well enough to be recognizably functioning as fantasy does in other incarnations of fantasy abroad, whether it’s a film that is all-in-all fantasy, like Arahan or The Ginkgo Tree Bed, or just brief asides like the swordfight daydream scene in My Sassy Girl. Likewise, there is a native tradition of ghost-stories and fantastical mythology in Korea that, like fantasy anywhere, can be plugged into the plot-coupon structure so popular in fantasy, or the inevitable-doom plotline so universal in horror films, that even when they aren’t great, these kinds of genres can be viably handled in a Korean context. Even in historical or mainstream dramatic films, fantasy can be woven seamlessly into the action as it was in downright magical-realist scenes in Oasis and The Barber of Hyoja-dong.

I’ve come to the opinion that the same is not quite true of cinematic SF in Korea. All of the “SF” films I’m thinking of have come out since the turn of the century, and all of them are flawed in ways that go beyond the quality of the plot or storyline. Watching films like 2009: Lost Memories and Yesterday and Natural City, you get a sense that the kinds of things the filmmakers are trying to say are not actually SFnal, or indeed, that the stories themselves are on some level anti-SFnal in ways that cannot simply be attributed to the derivative nature of a lot of Korean cinematic SF.

(Hollywood SF, too, is often profoundly anti-SFnal, at least, for someone literate in the genre. SF in the media is often doing things that nobody could get away with doing in books anymore, because the territory Hollywood likes to hang around in was, in literary circles, all strip-mined barren fifty years ago.)

Yet SF itself — the SF pervasive in the Anglophone world, and in Western Europe — has permeated into Korean society. Some of the things in the news — from Dr. Hwang’s crazed promises to cure all illnesses, to the government’s unfortunately unrealistic, but openly-declared plan to put robots out on the DMZ as automated/autonomous guardians, and in homes as nannies and English tutors — are so unrealistic, so unreflective of real science, that one would expect them to be explicitly cribbed from Hollywood SF or Golden Age paperbacks.

But it likely isn’t from Golden Age paperbacks, at least. SF novels and short stories have been translated in Korea, but never in as great numbers as one might hope, and never so successfully that the genre has actually taken root here. For all the films made over the last ten years since Korean films “became good,” there hasn’t been one film that has embraced the underlying tenets of SF so completely as to succeed on the terms upon which SF internationally is judged. (Likewise, most SF films, with the exception of Bong Joon-ho’s recent blockbuster The Host, have performed weakly or even dismally at the box office, so it’s not as if these failings are necessarily lost on filmgoers here.)

Of course, Korea is not unique in lacking a deep-rooted SF tradition, as well as a functional literary SF scene. Literary critics interested in SF have long noted that outside of Britain and Britain’s onetime colonies, outside of Western Europe and Japan, SF just isn’t that popular, and not many people are writing SF. It is, perhaps, not surprising that SF is undergoing a boom in China these days, with literally millions of regular magazine subscribers and readers into the genre. China’s SF scene is vibrant in terms of consumption, at least — whether Chinese authors are making a living writing the stuff, I don’t know, but the history of SF in China has been one of booms and busts, not just neglect. Ironically, from what I’ve read, the place with the most analogous situation to Korea is Hong Kong — amateurism, lack of interest, a sense that it’s kid-stuff and not worth the effort.

SF has been enjoying booms in other places, too, from what I’ve read — India, some claim — yet in Korea, it’s still kind of stuck. I think the older explanation, based on the observation that industralization and modernization arrived too recently to have provided fertile ground for the genre, is outmoded. I think there are specific cultural, historical, and other reasons for this phenomenon, and that’s what I plan to explore this week in a few posts that will become the basis of my paper, should it be accepted for presentation.

(But even if it’s not, this is worth thinking about.)

Series Navigation<< My Thoughts on SF in Korea (How and Why They’ve Changed)Why SF Has Failed to Put Down Roots in Korea, Part I: To Start With, Questions… >>

16 thoughts on “It’s Not Just the Lateness of Industrialization: How and Why Korean SF Doesn’t Quite Work

  1. Hey Gord,
    Can you recommend some Korean films for me? Should I try to get all the stuff you recommend in this post?

    I’ll check back for your recommendations.

  2. Alexis,

    I’ll try type up a list in the next day or two and make a new post out of it. If you don’t comment on it, I’ll let you know it’s there.


    Well, as I say, I’ve hunted for some actual SF written by Koreans and found nothing. I suspect there must be some, and I would like to run across it, but frankly, it’s not like I’m going to be reading it in the original anytime soon, and there are definitely no translations. And the difficulty of finding anything in itself seems to support my argument.

    (There are a couple of websites in Korea devoted to SF, though most of them are dead links now. And there is a small trickle of SF-in-translation. I’m rather hoping I can find someone on campus here who is responsible for all those copies of American SF books I’ve come across in the library!)

    Anyway, I think I’ll mainly focus on film. And one big blank spot in my argument is manhwa, which I won’t be dealing with but which has more SF than we find in novels or films. (Though, again, much of what I’ve skimmed looked more like Star Warsy fantasy-as-SF; not truly “literature of change” stuff.)

    Do you know of any Korean SF authors you can recommend me? (The only one I ever get told about is Lee Woo Hyuk, the Toemarok guy.) If you know someone who could recommend more, I’m all ears!

  3. Has anyone ever written a “stages of SF” paper? Because it seems as if (or maybe the small amount of Hegel I was exposed, maybe about 8 rads, corrupted my braincells) it goes in a thesis, anthesis, synthesis order, and what Korea now calls for may be the antithesis stage when the thesis stage hasn’t fully matured. To make that a little clearer when I’m writing in a hurry…

    Stage 1: Rayguns, rocketships, robots, little green guys. Destination Moon.

    Stage 1.5: Day the Earth Stood Still kind of stuff.

    Stage 2: Ironic handling of rayguns and rocketships. Attempts to include women. Critical things like (bad example perhaps but comes to mind) Toxie. Island of Dr Moreau. Spaceballs. etc. 1984. Clockwork Orange. (thinking contentwise not chronolog)

    Stage 3: Diversity or at least a pretense of diversity appears. SF set in a changed and invented past can happen. SF tackles social issues. Academics write about SF. Only happened in books yet, I think.

    That’s probably woefully inaccurrate and leaving things out, but maybe Korea needs a stage 2 or 3 and it isn’t ready yet and that’s why it’s not alive yet? But if a 2 or 3 novel shows up, it will take off like a, to pardon the simile, rocketship….

    Very sketchy, but maybe an idea?

    On the zombies front….I’ve noticed a lot of evocative horror involving dead people from Japan too (Kuchi-sake Onna seems to appear both in Korea and Japan afaik)…which makes me wonder if its a Pacific Rim thing, passed between countries? Maybe there’s a focus on comparing the past to the present more than the present to the future? This is a guess. As I said, I have no degree in Asian studies, I’ve just consumed a little bit of pop culture. I saw The Host, found it to be more about the folks fighting the monster off than the monster….more dramaedy or horroredy than sf.

    Ok, I digressed, but maybe some of what I said will be helpful.

  4. Actually, the stages that Val is talking about were well depicted in the science fiction museum in Seattle.

    I’d appreciate the Korean film list, Gord. I looked through the list you mentioned here, and it included a lot of horror. I can’t actually watch really scary horror (like the Ring), but can handle stuff like “The Host.”

  5. Val,

    I don’t know if anyone’s written a paper to that effect — I haven’t seen one, anyway — but then, Darko Suvin’s definition of SF as a “literature of cognitive estrangement” would add at least a stage 0, which is a period where expansion — early “globalization” — and scientific development leak into culture, including literature, in such a way that older assumptions start to give way and a new shared “imaginary” takes form. (Gulliver’s Travels, More’s Utopia, the novel Frankenstein, etc.)

    I think there are also many branches on the tree. Greg Egan’s stuff is distrustful of some of the very Stage 3 stuff it participates in — he’s thoughtful on gender and sexuality and identity, but some of his writing comes off as downright hostile to humanities-academic interest in science or SF (such as Teranesia for example).

    As I was lookign at this model, I was thinking that Stage 2 looked like “New Wave” — ironic use of stuff from older SF — but New Wave also includes Stage 3, and I can say that earlier hard SF — say, some of Clarke’s books — seem to veer off in a different stage 2, where actual science becomes important to the narrative, where FTL needs to be discarded or at least ornately justified, and so on. I think the branching-off may even come earlier; HG Wells and Jules Verne seem to present different aesthetics of believability and the purpose of extrapolation. (Wells was often preaching and poeticizing, where Verne was often trying to point at wow-cool scientific possibilities, or that’s how I understand it.)

    Ironically, in my 6 weeks in Seattle, I never did make it to the SF museum! (I was too busy writing!) I’ll have to stop in next time I’m there!

    The problem with Korea needing a stage 2 is that really, it doesn’t even have a popular stage 1 right now — though I can see why you’d class the films I mentioned as stage 1, these films mostly bombed horrifically. They were net losses in cash — with the possible exception of 2009: Lost Memories, Korean SF films, until The Host, were a consistent loss of revenue as far as I know. SFnal ideas are advocated by the government because they’re not approached as SFnal, but as “realistic.”

    Maybe I missed the boat, and Korea really is just missing a Stage 0. 50 years ago, this was all rice fields. Yet I think that’s true of China, too, and China’s had several SF booms in its history, and Japan’s stage 0 isn’t necessarily much longer than Korea’s, while Japan has active fandom and an SF scene. So maybe cultural elements really can impact on how long it takes for Stage 0 to move to Stage 1, 2, or beyond.

    As for The Host, I’ll save my comments on the film and its SFnal peculiarities till my post on my current interpretation of the film, except to say that I agree with you on the *-edy nature of it… there are strong reasons for that, I think.

    And yeah, East Asian countries seem to be significantly better at horror (and fantasy) than at SF. Ghosts, possessions, spooky reincarnations… Korean filmmakers sometimes make stinkers, but some of the spookiest films I’ve seen have been Korean ones. (Even if horror movies never really “scare” me.)

    It might because a widespread belief in the dead is still alive and well? You’d be surprised how many Koreans were leery about vacationing in Thailand after the tsunami… and about how many who “don’t believe in ghosts” are, well, not sure enough to laugh when you call out to a tomb, at night, “Hey! You there? Come out and see us!” (I did that once with a couple of friends, out in the middle of nowhere, and was surprised at how terrified they were.) If you ask around, a surprising number of people believe they’ve seen ghosts or cite experiences of loved ones interacting with the dead. And sometimes they’ll warn you not to go to this or that place, train station or town or whatever, because of some horrible mass death that happened there at some point in the past.

    (I’ve even had multiple university students tell me, in all seriousness, of experiences that in the West are called “succubus” experiences, and widely known to be a result hynagogic states. Yet they’ve all insisted it was “real” and a “ghost.”)


    I’ll clearly mark the horror movies. There aren’t too many on my list… but you might find some of the non-horror films more harrowing, actually. I’ll try to make that clear, too!

  6. Unfortunately, I can’t recommend any authors other than you one you’ve already mentioned. SF is not my field of study, and outside of the world of manhwa I really haven’t come across much. There’s quite a bit of surreal fiction out there (the kind that makes you want to stab the author in the face), but no SF as far as I can see (which admittedly isn’t that far).

    I think you’re probably right to start with film, though.

    And in your previous comment, at the end there, are you talking about 가위눌림? Where you think you’re awake but can’t move? That’s what it sounds like. Definitely real. Definitely *not* a ghost. :)

  7. Charles,

    Yeah, see what I mean? There might be a few SF authors out there, but it hardly counts for a living, breathing native form of the genre, whereas in China, you have magazines with thousands of readers, and in Taiwan an intergenerational tradition of SF writers.

    I’d like to branch into manhwa, but the last time I tried that, I found everything utterly unreadable, and many of the puzzling words weren’t in the dictionary. Lime’s explanation was that a kind of “futuristic saturi” was being used. What frustration!

    As for “가위눌림” — well, that’s just sleep paralysis, right? (And, yeah, real!) The “succubus experience” incorporates a sensation of being crushed by a demonic or malevolent being — usually female — astride the sleeper, sometimes sexually abusing the sleeper, hallucinated during a hypnagogic state. Interestingly, it seems like traditions exist for naming this perceived being in a lot of Asian countries, including China and Japan, but not Korea! (At least, there’s nothing in Wikipedia, and Lime has never heard of the hallucinatory component in “가위눌림” manifesting consistently as an imaginary being. But the whole idea was so off-putting to her she didn’t want to hear about it.) I should clarify that when my students insisted it was “real,” they meant their perception of an evil, invisible being was literally true. I agreed with them they’s experienced something, but suggested that scientific evidence exists to suggest it’s hallucinatory. They insisted this wasn’t the case, that they knew it was “real.”

    To be fair, I’m sure some Westerners would assert the same thing based on the same experience.

  8. Yeah, I guess it is just sleep paralysis. I was not familiar with the succubus experience–that’s definitely never happened to me. I was familiar with the succubus as a mythical creature, I just never knew it came from that sort of thing (although I suppose it makes sense).

  9. Well, there’s probably a degree to which the idea influences how people interpret the experience, too. It’s probably a mix of deep-rooted stuff and enculturated interpretation, I’d guess.

    When I was googling around after your question, I ran across an odd claim: that African-Americans are more prone to it than Caucasian-Americans. I’m guessing social/cultural influences might have a lot to do with how common it is, therefore, as well as just plain interpretation. Odd stuff!

    (Update 14 June 2008: Did I write that? I meant:I’m guessing genetics has a lot to do with how common the experience itself is, while culture probably is more involved in interpretation. After all, we can see that my Korean students, whose language seems to not have a word for this — or so it seems: I checked the other night in class with a decent sample of people — but that didn’t stop them having the experience. They just had no shorthand term to describe it, the way it’s called “the Hag” in some African-American communities or was called “the succubus” in Medieval Europe.)

  10. Sung Hwan!

    Of course I remember meeting you and your wife on Friday! I’m so pleased to be able to read this novella — and so happy I didn’t start trying to translate it myself. Thank you very much!

    PS: Do you have a website? And is “레디메이드 보살” still online? I tried to search (in Korean) but the site that everyone linked didn’t work on my PC. I should try again in Windows… Though I guess it’s also in here?

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