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Why SF Has Failed to Put Down Roots in Korea, Part I: To Start With, Questions…

This entry is part 4 of 70 in the series SF in South Korea

I had a post I was going to write, about fantasy, SF, and the demonstrations going on in Seoul these days, but I decided to pitch it as an article idea. The editor to whom I pitched it liked the concept, so I’m binning that post to keep the juice for my article. That leaves me with two things to write this summer about SF and Korea.

The article on the protests is a theme I’m putting off limits, but the paper on the general failure of the SF genre to take root in Korea in  is something I can, indeed, blog about. The final form will be quite different, after all — it will be an academic paper with references and so on — and blathering about it in an informal manner will likely be quite helpful to me. Since I’m about to launch myself into the research, just as soon as final exams are over, I’ll save some of the meatier stuff for further posts, and raise a few questions.

This is a continuation of what I wrote here, but I consider that a preamble, so this post is marked Part I. Still, you may wish to check out that earlier post.

SF has had its ups and downs in China, but at least since Lu Xun (whose treatment of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, was one of the first Chinese SF “translations,” or perhaps “adaptation” is a better word for it), it’s been viewed as “important” or in some sense beneficial, especially as a a form of literature for children that was at once didactic and entertaining. I’ve been given to understand that SF in China is no longer considered merely children’s entertainment, now, and that there is a major SF renaissance going on in China these days. (As has been documented on, and hopefully will contrinue to be documented, on this wonderful blog.)

I picked up a book I figured I can use in comparative study, Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction From Origins to Anime (edited by Christopher Bolton, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., and Takayuki Tatsumi), which is especially interesting as a good chunk of it deals with prose SF in Japan. According to the introduction (which is all I’ve read, having received the book this evening) Japan likewise has a vibrant body of prose SF dating back from about the beginning of the postwar period, though it traces further back to “mystery detective” novels in the 30s. Though most Westerners associate Japanese SF with monster movies and anime cartoons, there is a solid bedrock of prose SF in Japanese as well. (I haven’t read any yet, but I have a few books on the pile right now that promise to resolve that lack: two novels, a book of short SF & Fantasy, and some Japanese Lovecraft Mythos collections. That last one: can you imagine Korean Lovecraft Mythos stories? I’m sure they’d be cool, but can you imagine a Korean writing such a thing? See? This is why I am so interested in why that’s such an impossibility right now.)

Curiously, Korea seems influenced by foreign SF — at least the cinematic versions. Leaving aside the stuff I’ll be discussing in my beef protests-related article, tropes like flying cars and teleportation are familiar even to those who claim never to have seen an SF film. In recent years, the government has advanced proposals for such insane things as robotic nannies who could teach English to children — and even a goal to put one in every home by 2015, no less (here’s where The Economist mentions it)… which should alarm those worried about government surveillance and privacy, since the bots will doubtless be running on wireless networks and a virus-susceptible Windows BotX edition. They also are hoping to get robotic patrol-bots set up to guard the DMZ. Autonomous bots! As Michael humorously points out, we’d better hope they’re multilingual, or there will be a lot of dead hakwon teachers and immigrant factory workers. Actually, they don’t seem to be coming along too quickly anyway. And let’s not forget that Alvin Toffler, author of the famous Future Shock which, at one time, seems to have been a bit like a bible for many SF authors,

Yet all of my searching has turned up a very meager list of SF authors in Korea (located somewhere on this site, I think it was). Where Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke are  (or were, a few years ago) household names in North America, asking a Korean for the name of even one famous SF author is likely to being mention of someone like Lee Woo Hyuk, a Korea horror/fantasy author. The lines of distinction are, of course, blurred for many non-fans: many an English-language bookstore worldwide shelves fantasy and SF and horror together. However, even when you explain, “No, I mean something with… you know, robots! Laser guns! Space travel!” the usual result is a blank look and a shrug. “I don’t think any Korean SF writer exists,” I’ve heard many a time. Surely, there are a few. I’ve come across lists of Korean SF authors, actually — the one I found most recently was very short — though I haven’t yet found even one story in English translation. Not a one. And I’ve looked, believe me!

Translations into Korean of Western SF do exist, of course. I’ve picked up translations of some of my favorite novels for Lime, after all: some Connie Willis, some Bruce Sterling, and some Neil Stephenson. (I should have gotten Haldeman’s Forever War when I got the chance, and I’m still searching for a copy of the Korean translation of The Man in the High Castle, one of my all-time favorite Philip K. Dick books, for Lime to experience.) But they’re relatively rare, and my impression is they’re not doing so well in sales, as the rate of translation has declined in the last few years.

But this is not surprising. Even the simplest and most accessible form of SF in existence — the SF film — has essentially crapped out in Korea. Korean SF movies consistently don’t do well here. One explanation is that the films themselves simply aren’t good — that they’re lacking, which is something most non-Korean viewers, me included, seem to conclude — but one anecdote by Matt suggests that the perception among Korean producers is that Koreans simply aren’t into SF. (An opinion echoed by an older Korean SF fan I met recently.) This might explain why there has been precisely one Korean SF Con, and wh, like so many SF-devoted websites in Korea, the Con’s page is dead as a doornail, as are most of the links lovingly collected here.

There’s another interpretation that’s possible, though: that Korean filmmakers are trying to make SF do things that it’s not designed to do. Kind of like making a bicycle carry furniture: it’s possible, but not many people will make it across town with a bedroom suite strapped on unless the bike is redesigned for the purpose.

Then there’s the question of the Korean reception of foreign SF. While Star Wars (which, again, is really fantasy with SFnal trappings) and superhero genre films do well here, I don’t have the impression that strictly SF films do so well, unless they’re as watered down as, say, Transformers. Certainly the Star Trek movies have sustained very little attention, and none of the popular SF TV series of the past couple of decades (such as Battlestar Galactica’s current remake, which Michael thinks Koreans would love) have acquired much of a following, let alone classic Star Trek.

Which might seem like a strange thing to pick on, but note: when I was in Japan for three weeks last summer, I saw Japanese-dubbed reruns of Star Trek several times. I imagine your average Japanese person is at least vaguely aware of Star Trek. But in Korea, well… Michael posted about that here, and my experience resonates: despite very few exceptions, Koreans in general tend not to be very impressed with Trek at all.

However, Michael’s interpretation doesn’t satisfy me, because though he’s correct in highlighting the postmodernity, multiculturalism, angsty-dubiousness abouy history, and all that which we find in a lot of American pop-SF — like classic Star Trek, even — he doesn’t take into account the fact that lots of other American SF from earlier periods (and, discomfitingly, even more recent times) was produced in an America that was, relatively speaking, much closer to Korea’s modernity and premodernity than to the postmodernity of America today. Heck, Lovecraft’s fiction is about as multicultural as Poe’s, and the whiteness of SF persists so much, even today, that it’s recently been a topic of discussion online. A brief dip into the seminal, so-called “Golden Age” texts of SF reveals a marked melanin-deficiency, as well as a famously embarrassing shortage of women.

In addition, Michael’s picture of things presumptively universalizes Western history by mapping a premodern/modern/postmodern trajectory onto all societies. Would a Korean postmodernity even look familiar to a Westerner? Need a Korean imagine the future the way an American does? Granted, Korea is likely to import whatever generalized postmodernity actually succeeds here, as it has modernity, and as academics in some fields at least have been doing for some time, but would it necessarily have to do so? And, by the way, for all that Star Trek imagines a multicultural future, there are many SFnal visions of the future which aren’t multicultural, or particularly postmodern. I think a lot of that stuff kind of kicked in during the flood of stuff that came into SF in the 60s and 70s, from New Wave to feminist SF and so on.

Meanwhile, Alien Nation seems relatively familiar to me as a depiction of what life as a foreigner in Korea is like: we eat weird stuff, we look funny, some people hate us for no reason, but al in all, we’re here, most people deal with it, however awkwardly, and life simply goes on. One imagines it would similarly resonate for Koreans, though they would be sympathizing with the humans coping with their newfound alien neighbours. (If that doesn’t quite resonate yet, it will do so in a decade or two, the way Korean men are marrying Southeast Asian women these days.)

Likewise, just today Nick Mamatas pointed out to me that the 80s SF TV series V enjoyed great popularity in Korea, and apparently even some sort of relationship with the Korean Minjung (as Nick put it, “People Power”) movement here. (Who knew he’d helped translate a book about the Kwangju demonstrations/massacre? I mean, who knew besides Matt?) I’d noticed how many Koreans fondly (though shudderingly) remember V, and it really makes sense, given Korea’s fascination with its own unresolved colonial history, the popular view of non-Koreans essentially as “aliens,” and the Korean fascination with food. (The aliens eating live mice would have been even more of a shocker, and more horrifyingly resonant, here than it was for me and my North American friends, because of Koreans’ endless focus on food. Every Korean film I’ve ever seen has at least one scene depicting a meal, after all, but none of them involve the consumption of live mice.)

In The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World, Thomas Disch points out plenty more examples of SF rooted in premodern or modern-era anxieties about race and nation that, though American, wouldn’t prove all that alien at all to Korean society. Hell, set Welcome To Dongmakgol on an alien planet, and it could very easily be an Ursula K. Le Guin novel. In fact, an SFnal First Contact story would probably be, for an American, the natural mode in which an American would tell such a story, with the Koreans only vaguely disguised as aliens by the addition of,  say, green skin or frills or a crest on their forehead. If one replaced the melo-tragic ending with a happy last-minute avoidance of disaster, Welcome to Dongmakgol could, in fact, very easily have been a episode of the original series of Star Trek, in which the Prime Directive is proven once again to be a good idea.)

The point here is that even if Korean society isn’t “postmodern” enough for Star Trek, SF doesn’t need to be postmodern; it doesn’t necessarily need to depict multicultural societies, or a future imagined American-style. Perhaps cultural barriers are what have held Star Trek back in Korea, but one has to wonder whether similar (though of course not identical) cultural barriers exist in Japanese society, or, at least, existed in post-WWII Japan. Trek has, after all, achieved some success there, as compared to Korea, where it is almost unknown.

As for the first question, I’m not exactly sure. What is claimed in the introduction of Robot Ghosts…, which is that hard SF, science fantasy, daikaiju, military/action SF, dystopian cautionary tales, and the rest all seem to have coexisted merrily instead of developing into disparate streams as in Western SF, seems also to apply in the [er, very little] Chinese SF I’ve read.

But whether the majority of extant tropes enter into a society’s SF-culture on acquisition, or some kind of winnowing process filters out the least culturally “applicable” tropes is an interesting question. On first blush, since cinematic SF is about spectacle and cinema tends to me more intensively imitative (and necessarily less intensive on introspective, culturally specific ideas), I suspect this is less the case in prose SF than in the cinematic stuff.

Another way of phrasing this question is to ask whether a society need adapt SF in prose form first before it becomes tenable for that society to produce successful native forms, or embrace foreign forms, of cinematic or other media forms of SF.

Certainly prose SF seems to have been taken up, in both China and Japan, prior to any ventures into SF filmmaking, but the influence of one on the other seems to be complex. In any case, Korea is an interesting case study of a society in which cinema and other visual media (like comic books) has begun to explore SF without much wider cultural influence or foundation of an extensive body of prose SF literature.

What’s doubly interesting here is the analogy with fantasy. While Northeast Asian culture does not have a traditional literature of change, it arguably does have a vast body of ur-fantasy. Korean, Chinese, and Japanese folktales are part of what is, really, a wider body of world mythology, and especially in a Eurasian cultural context, there’s been enough cross-fertilization of tropes, of specific narratives, and even of basic trappings to make Western “high fantasy” quite readily accessible to an East Asian.

It’s not so hard to understand “swords ‘n’ sorcery” when, after all, one’s own cultural tradition includes tales of warriors with swords, magical curses, shamans and gods, and the like. Heroic battles and dreadful ancient magic are something that are, at least across the full breadth of Eurasia, universal human culture. It’s much easier to integrate weird races — hobbits or elves, who are weird but have the cute-factor appeal that is so winning in East Asia — than it is to deal with bizarre concepts like, say, utopian spacefaring civilizations or invasive brain implants.

(UPDATE: By the way, I am aware of the existence of written Korean SF. There was a show last year I found out about too late, which put on “100 Years of Korean SF” and I’m kicking myself for having missed it, but I have two reservations about it. First, that a lot of the covers I’ve seen suggest a fair bit of it is “kid-lit” and I’m thinking adult-oriented prose, and secondly that whether or not the stuff exists, it is definitely unpopular now. Japan last year hosted the WorldCon, and has regional cons regularly, and there has been Japanese SF awards — the Seiun award for years and years; China had an SF conference in Chengdu last year, too (and another international con ten years before that), and has annual Galaxy awards like the one Robert Sawyer won last year. This kind of stuff just doesn’t exist in Korea. All of that is significant.

But I do intend to check out the Seoul SF Archive, if I can get access and find someone willing to give me an interview.)

This is the biggest and toughest question of all, and like it or not, I think here I’m banging against a dilemma similar to, but not the same as, the one Michael pointed out.

For one thing, I’d like to discard the universalized “postmodern” and “pre/modern” that are used in Michael’s dichotomy and speak in specific cultural terms. Japan and China, interestingly, both share something specifically with the Anglophone West that Korea does not, which is an awkward colonialist history. China and Japan are at different stages in their colonial histories, of course: China is still occupying lands where the natives are not wiped out, and who see themselves as unjustly subject to an empire. Japan, on the other hand, is now a has-been empire, a failed empire as it were. Japanophile SF author William Gibson’s long-ago Guardian article “Modern boys and moble girls” comes to mind:

The techno-cultural suppleness that gives us Mobile Girls today, is the result of a traumatic and ongoing temporal dislocation that began when the Japanese, emerging in the 1860s from a very long period of deep cultural isolation, sent a posse of bright young noblemen off to England. These young men returned bearing word of an alien technological culture they must have found as marvellous, as disconcerting, as we might find the products of reverse-engineered Roswell space junk. These Modern Boys, as the techno-cult they spawned came popularly to be known, somehow induced the nation of Japan to swallow whole the entirety of the Industrial Revolution. The resulting spasms were violent, painful, and probably inconceivably disorienting. The Japanese bought the entire train-set: clock-time, steam railroads, electric telegraphy, Western medical advances. Set it all up and yanked the lever to full on. Went mad. Hallucinated. Babbled wildly. Ran in circles. Were destroyed. Were reborn.

Were reborn, in fact, as the first industrialised nation in Asia. Which got them, not too many decades later, into empire-building expansionist mode, which eventually got them two of their larger cities vaporised, blown away by an enemy wielding a technology that might as well have come from a distant galaxy.

And then that enemy, their conquerors, the Americans, turned up in person, smilingly intent on an astonishingly ambitious programme of cultural re-engineering. The Americans, bent on restructuring the national psyche from the roots up, inadvertently plunged the Japanese several clicks further along the time line. And then left, their grand project hanging fire, and went off to fight Communism instead.

The result of this stupendous triple-whammy (catastrophic industrialisation, the war, the American occupation) is the Japan that delights, disturbs and fascinates us today: a mirror world, an alien planet we can actually do business with, a future.

But had this happened to any other Asian country, I doubt the result would have been the same. Japanese culture is ‘coded’, in some wonderfully peculiar way that finds its nearest equivalent, I think, in English culture. And that is why the Japanese are subject to various kinds of Anglophilia, and vice versa. It accounts for the totemic significance, to the Japanese, of Burberry plaid, and for the number of Paul Smith outlets in Japan, and for much else besides. Both nations display a sort of fractal coherence of sign and symbol, all the way down into the weave of history. And Tokyo is very nearly, in its own way, as ‘echoic’ (to borrow Peter Ackroyd’s term) a city as London.

I’ve always felt that London is somehow the best place from which to observe Tokyo, perhaps because the British appreciation of things Japanese is the most entertaining. There is a certain tradition of ‘Orientalia’, of the faux-Oriental, that has been present here for a long time, and truly, there is something in the quality of a good translation that can never be captured in the original.

It would be silly to ask, “Well, then, what is the European analogue of Korea?” except insofar as it may well be instructive to note that SF seems to have thrived (as much as anything did) in Communist Bloc states, and done well in technocratic capitalist democracies like England and America; but though there are SF-reading populations in Italy, and in Germany, they are relatively limited — and those nations’ contributions to the genre are much more limited — compared to America, England, and even France.

Though Italy, Germany, and Japan were allies in the Second World War, Japan was still a monarchy of sorts, though maybe it was really some kind of weird fusion of dictatorship, fascist state, and monarchy. But anyway, it is Korea that shares with Italy and Germany (and, for that matter, many Latin American states, where a native tradition of SF is similarly lacking) a recent, significant, and culturally impactful experience of authoritarian nationalist dictatorship prior to (ostensible) democratization. (Though one wonders whether, when East Germany was behind the Iron Curtain, there was a significant amount of SF being written here. A number of articles I cannot seem to access suggest there were; the one article I can access, by Frederick Jameson, is quite interesting, if a bit full-on.)

I’m not quite sure what to make of that at the moment, but it’s interesting. What’s more interesting is that fantastical literature seems to be the accepted route of fabulism in those societies. Perhaps it has something to do with the way that nationality and mythic, past-oriented formulations of “race” were constructed and conflated in authoritarian regimes? I recently had a fascinating talk with an anthropologist friend (hi Bradley!) who has described very interesting cases of this in several places in Latin America.

And I’m running out of steam, and growing nervous about whether there’s much difference between Japanese monarchy — and indeed any monarchy — and an authoritarian nationalist dictatorship; this gives me pause, even in the light of the whole postwar American occupation and “cultural re-engineering” project in Japan that was mentioned in the Gibson passage above.

So anyway, given pause, and out of steam, here’s where I stop for now. More later… probably after midterms are over, as I have a couple of deadlines this Sunday and tests and grading next week!

Series Navigation<< It’s Not Just the Lateness of Industrialization: How and Why Korean SF Doesn’t Quite WorkK-Raelians plus <i>The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World</i> by Thomas M. Disch, and <i>The Men Who Stare At Goats</i> by Jon Ronson >>
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