My Thoughts on SF in Korea (How and Why They’ve Changed)

Anyone who’s reading this series from the beginning will note that this post was written much later than the second post in the series. My thoughts on SF in Korea have changed somewhat, and I think it’s important to frame that.

A few months ago, when I began looking into SF here, all I really had access to was a couple of websites, and the shelves of every bookstore I walked past. You see, everytime I saw a bookstore, I would hurry into it and look around for the SF section. Not the SF section in English, but the Korean SF bookshelf.

This was frustrating for a few reasons. One of them is that some chains don’t differentiate between Korean SF and mainstream Korean lit. Some shops differentiate between foreign  SF (which is classed as SF) but put SF books by Korean authors into the “Korean fiction” section. Others put all the SF — Korean and otherwise — together.

My attempts to find things out from students were similarly frustrating. Whereas, in North America, one would usually find a few people in any class who were, if not SF fans, at least marginally knowledgeable about it: able, for example, to name three famous SF authors, able to make the Vulcan sign of greeting with an “Oh my God, this is so cheeseball!” grin on their faces. Maybe it’s because boys are more into SF than girls — a large majority of my studens are female — or maybe I was asking the wrong people, but I found nobody. Whole classes had never seen a single episode of Star Trek, and classroom discussions of movies like The Fifth Element and Blade Runner always had to go through the whole, “Even if this isn’t ‘realistic’ we can talk about it and it’s worth talking about,” discussion.

(Which is not to say everyone was stuck at that point, just that a few students manifestly wanted always to point out how childish and silly it is to talk about imaginary things. Others often argued for the worth of imaginary things, and pointed out — after I noted it early on in the semester — how SF often pinpoints areas of anxiety or self-contradiction in a society that are not up for public discussion in a more “respectable” arena.)

Add to that comments I’d heard from other Westerners here, such as — but not just — Michael’s comments on the unpopularity of Star Trek here, and you can see why I had the sense that SF simply had made few to no major inroads here.

As I write this, my impression is a little different. If you’re interested in that, my (upcoming) post on the 2nd Annual Seoul SF&F Festival (held August 15-16th 2008) is likely to be of interest — especially for my observations of the development of fan culture here, and way that modern media have created interesting differences from the development of fan culture in other societies, which occurred when different media dominated. I will note that though this is the 2nd annual major event, there are supposedly monthly get-togethers for SF fans, and also that a perhaps bigger “Con” was held sometime around the turn of the century, before the group that organized it split up into smaller groups and formed various clubs.

In terms of written SF, I am now of the opinion that there’s been a kind of groundswell of literary SF — especially translations from English-language and Japanese work — for years now. (And this industry has existed longer than I ever suspected — almost a century, apparently — though its history is something I need to look into further.) In more recent years, a couple of webzines (the ones I know about are JoySF — which is also Korea’s biggest SF fansite, with apparently something like 20,000 members — and Crossroads) have been supporting the publication of Korean authors and translators of SF, especially shorter SF, and in some cases seemingly paved the way for these people to secure book publication deals. [The most famous example, I think, is a movie critic and SF author who uses the penname 듀나 (Djuna).] And in May 2007, a speculative fiction magazine titled Fantastique was launched, with a strong focus not just on original Korean fiction and translations of foreign SF, but also features on other aspects of fan culture. (I’m grateful to Dale Lefevre, who contacted me after reading one of my stories, for bringing Fantastique to my attention in time for me to know what I was looing at when I saw an almost-complete set of issues at the PIFan booksale.)

I am not sure whether it’s a shortage of Korean SF authors, or greater interest in foreign work, but the SF-in-Korean market seems dominated by translations of Western work. That said, anthologies have been released every few years containing Korean work, and the trend seems to be picking up across genre lines, as well: recently, major Korean horror and fantasy anthologies were also released.

What I wrote during my initial, frustrated investigations was that Korean SF had “failed to put down roots in Korea,” and in fact, I’m not completely disavowing it: Korean society is a society in which SF is not a major genre, and it has yet to spring to life as a native literature, as a cornerstone for understanding the world even to people who have never read an SF novel.

But there is something about this phrase, about the word “failed,” that seems negative, dismissive of what has been achieved, so I think I would perhaps like to amend those words to read, “Is still in the process of putting down roots in Korea.” Indeed I would change those words, but I feel it would be dishonest. This series is, as much as it is anything, a record of my discoveries but also the process of those discoveries. If you’d like to see why I thought what I thought, and why I changed by mind, the rest of the series should interest you, so now that you’re at the bottom of this post, go ahead and click on “read next” and you can work your way through my observations as I made them. But when you do so, remember: these were (and remain) piecemeal impressions, subject to change, clarification, falsification. I’m still learning a lot, but it’s fascinating to see a fan culture being developed right now. Fascinating, exciting, and fun.

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

7 thoughts on “My Thoughts on SF in Korea (How and Why They’ve Changed)

  1. Hellow!
    I’m 장수제(Jang su je)one of the JoySF club staff.
    And I’m one of guys who talked in SF festival. (I’m the smaller one ^^;)

    After finished up the festival, and took some delicious sleep in last night, I’ve remembered your name card in my wallet. So I visit your website. ^^

    It’s very pleasant to meet somebody have interest in SF.

    I have many things I wanna talk to you, but my English is very poor, especailly in writing. So I’ll email to you as I said.

    This is just greeting massage. ^^

    bye~~~

  2. Hi Su Je!

    I’m glad to know you’ve recovered… I imagine the Festival was a lot of work, and you deserve that sleep!

    It was very cool to meet you, and don’t say your English is poor — your English is great. (Sadly, much better than my Korean ability, sigh, but I will try speak in Korean with you a sometimes, too, if you can be patient with me.)

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to talking about those things you mentioned, over some good beer or whatever! I’ll keep my eyes open for your email!

    그리고… 혹시… insu는 누구세요? I’m a little confused. :) I left a comment at your site, too. :)

  3. I’ve read your comment ^^

    Thank for your concerned. ^^
    Yes, I’ve lacked of sleep last week(and all of the staffs too), I recovered half by long sleeping in Sunday.

    And I’m glad to help to improve your Korean. Don’t be afraid. Just speak to me. Maybe that will be funny situation that you speak in Korean, but I speak in English. I think we can help each other for improving lingual skill. ^^

    Oh, it’s confing that I’ve use two names. 장수제 is my nickname(or pen name maybe), I’ve use that name on internet for long time.
    홍인수 is my real name, but I prefer to use 장수제 on internet.

  4. Okay, I’ll call you Suje here, then. :) Would you like me to delete the question and your answer? Is it an internet security thing?

    I’m very happy to try speak in one another’s languages. I used to be better at Korean, but I stopped studying and practicing for a while when I moved to Bucheon and got busy. The real key for me is to study more as well as practice. Out comes my textbook… but yes, let’s speak without shyness about linguistic impediments. There’s the shared language of SF, right? :)

    1. Thanks Giacomo. For some reason your comment was flagged as spam, so I didn’t see it until now.

      Another K-SF story that blends SF and LGBT is 듀나’s 대리전: there’s a not-great translation available over at Crossroads, but before reading that I’ll recommend the film adaptation of the story that my wife directed, which she recently uploaded to Youtube, here:

      Her other films also are pretty crunchy and interestingly genre-narrative (and include Korea’s first Lovecraftian film, as far as we could figure out), but from among her short films, so far only Daerijeon: The Proxy War includes anything specifically LGBT.

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