Done, Fun, Thinking Some

This entry is part 16 of 66 in the series SF in South Korea


It was a week ago tomorrow that I presented my paper at the 4th International Congress of Korean Studies. The experience was my first — I’d never presented anything at any sort of conference before — but I was told that nobody could have guessed it. I suppose being a windbag has its benefits, but people (the English-speaking audience members, at any rate) seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. No evisceration, no dismemberment, just a couple of questions for which there was no time to offer answers, because I was on a panel that was way overbooked — four papers in the time normally allotted to three. (Not that I can complain — two of the other people drastically reduced their papers. I only took my full time because I was told I had 30 minutes.)

I got to see an old co-worker from Iksan, Paul, and met a whole bunch of cool people as well, including a few in Seoul. One person I know who was there actually went so far as to suggest I should go back to grad school and get myself a PhD, something I’ve been thinking about vaguely for a while now. We’ll see — I will have to do some applying around and see whether funding comes available, and also see whether I feel it’d be a direction I like. I know that grad school is a grind, but being around seriously academic-minded people was a hell of a refresher, in contrast with my daily work experience. (With normal Korean students, I mean; not that they’re bad, but they’re not functioning in English on the level of the people I was around. I was lucky, though, and ended up with an interesting bunch. Most of the bunch are among the people in these photos, for example…)

Anyway, we’ll see. In any case, the talk I gave, minus a few trajectories (some of which I’ve tried to weave in here) is in the extended section of this post. Are there holes? Oh yes, and as my Clarion West pal Shawn Scarber pointed out, one of the big ones is that American SF arguably went through the same thing I’m arguing Korean SF is going through today. I absolutely must check out Barry Malzberg’s book on the subject (which Shawn recommended, though the review on Librarything makes me wonder what I’ll think), and the Adam Roberts History of Science Fiction that remains on my desk while I dive into some editing and — gasp! — reading for fun. Which, yes, I’ve managed to do. Or, rather,which I’ve made a point of making room for, in the interests of maintaining my sanity.

And in the very same interests, I need to get some sleep. So here, without further ado, is the talk…

Good morning.‭ ‬My name is Gord Sellar,‭ ‬and I’m here to discuss what I think are the effects of culture on the reception and adaptation of the science fiction genre in South Korea.‭ B‬efore I begin,‭ ‬I’d like to set out a few caveats:

  • What I’ll be presenting today is a significantly abridged summary of my paper, because time constraints allow little more than that.‭ ‬If you find these ideas of interest,‭ or offensive ‬please consult my paper for a much more detailed discussion of them.‭
  • I’m a professional SF writer, not a professional Koreanist. That’s the capacity from which I speak today.
  • ‭Today’s talk will be focused on film. I’m curious about literary SF in Korea but my knowledge is very limited in the area, and my access to date has been relatively limited as well. Please share any insights you might have with me!

What is SF, and Why Is it So Marginal in Korea?

Before touching on the status of SF in Korea, it’s important to define what I mean by SF.

Two definitions will serve in this talk. One, formulated by James Gunn, is that SF is “a literature of change” — Gunn means, implicitly, science-fueled, technology-driven change that is ongoing and leads to an authentically alien future that in some sense is embraced as inevitable and explicable. Problems aside, this is a useful formulation for its focus on the notion of change.

A second definition, more useful still, was advanced by the theorist Darko Suvin, who, in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, argued that SF is a literature of “cognitive estrangement”. Estrangement, for Suvin, means the depiction of a world that is unreal — something common to SF, myths, fairy tales, epic fantasy, and horror genres which are often grouped together into the category of “speculative fiction.” What differentiates science fiction from these other popular genres is the cognitive mode — the fact that the imagined, estranging world resembles our own in its fundamental structure, explicable basis in physical laws, and so on. These narratives invite readers to a logical or even scientific reading, in other words, to be read in the cognitive mode. There are flaws with Suvin’s definition, as discussed in my paper, but it offers several advantages which will become clear, and especially, it helps isolate the genre from other subgenres of speculative fiction — again: epic fantasy, horror, fairy tales, and myths — Western forms of which have been much more successfully imported into Korea.

‭For SF remains marginal in Korea. The genre is undergoing a minor boom here now — more details on that are in my paper — but compared to other areas of Western pop culture, SF is downright puzzling in how poorly it has transplanted to Korean soil. Korea is, of course, far from the only society into which SF has made little headway. But the causes underlying the global distribution of SF are little understood. When they are discussed at all, some link is usually suggested between a nation’s state of industrialization and its likelihood to embrace SF. (See my paper for examples.)

This explanation is clearly insufficient, especially considering the relatively less popular status [and, more importantly, less avid production] of SF in places like Germany and France. So is the claim that SF is, culturally, an Anglophone phenomenon, with cultural baggage is specifically English and American — thus the familiar tropes of space colonies, alien invasions, and spaceship captains. These facts have not, however, impeded the growth of SF in Japan [which, admittedly, shares a certain amount of this historical baggage] or in China, for example; indeed, China boasts the largest literary SF consumer population in the world!

‭ Clearly, a one-dimensional explanation focused on industrialization cannot explain the global distribution of SF or its status in Korea. For that, I believe we need to look to culture.

Challenge #1: “Mundanity” and Trope Salad

Why do some people think SF is so wonderful, while others just don’t “get it”?

‭One useful dichotomy recently used by Neal Stephenson differentiates between SF People — people who consume and create SF — and everyone else, termed The Mundanes. Looking in at SF from the outside, what Mundanes see first and most prominently is a mere rag-tag collection of SF tropes like robots, rocket ships, laser guns, and sexy Martian women in silver bikinis. But SF People see a deeper and more rigorous intellectual exploration of scientific and philosophical ideas through these classic tropes and iconic images that is invisible to many Mundanes, because to see it, one must acquire a degree of familiarity and fluency in the genre.

One problem that has plagued Hollywood, and almost certainly plagues Chungmuro [ie. the Korean film industry], is that while literary SF is thoroughly dominated by SF People, SF filmmaking still, even today, is often dominated by Mundanes. And when a Mundane becomes a filmmaker, the aforementioned rag-tag collection of SF tropes suddenly becomes a grab-bag of SF gimmicks to be tossed into the story randomly. The result is a jumbled collection of speculative conceits that neither are intellectually explored, nor coherently connected to one another or the narrative. I call this a “trope salad.”

Two films that fall particularly prey to Trope Salad Syndrome are Jang Sun-Woo’s Resurrection of the Little Match Girl and Jun Yeon-su’s Yesterday. While time constraints preclude me going into too much detail, I would like to highlight why I say this.

Resurrection… is an interesting example because it advertises itself as a Korean response to the American film The Matrix. Yet Resurrection… remembles, more than anything, what The Matrix might have looked like through the eyes of a Mundane: cyber-fantasy, jumbled action and comedy, ridiculous spectacle culminating in the apparently magical transformation of an AI into a dream girl. Where The Matrix insists on its own intellectuality — cracker-barrel postmodernity though it is — Resurrection… seems constantly to repudiate the idea of serious consideration of anything. The deeper philosophical questions raised by the “waking up” of machine intelligence form the whole basis of The Matrix; in Resurrection…, they afford a few cheap laughs, a little action, and an absurdly happy ending with the potentially fraught romance between a human being and piece software presented as straightforward resolution. No wonder the film bombed, so insulting is it to the audience’s intelligence.

Yesterday is a far more accomplished film, and it at least insists on being taken seriously, by using melodrama and a police narrative. But Yesterday, too, exhibits Trope Salad Syndrome, as becomes evident when one attempts to state the film’s SFnal conceit straightforwardly. Yesterday is about a biotech conspiracy to create super-spies by genetically altering kidnapped children. And then cloning them. And mutating them, sort of. And then erasing their memories when the experiment fails, and psychogenetically programming them. The science? Don’t ask: it’s all handwaved away completely by aphorisms that sound like they’re taken from ancient nature poetry. Whatever the real point of the story is, it’s trapped somewhere at the bottom of this trope salad.

To be fair, this is not a particularly Korean problem: Trope Salad happens anywhere Mundanes try to use SFnal materials without adequately understanding them. But probably in any society where SF has not yet gained critical mass, such missteps are more frequent [and can be expected to dominate in the early stages of nativizing SF].

Challenge #2: Anxieties of History,‭ ‬Postcoloniality,‭ ‬and Identity

The uses made so far in Korean cinema of time travel seem to reveal another challenge [or barrier] to the Koreanization of SF. Simply put, popular historiography and nationalist discourse pose considerable barriers to the consideration of the past and the future from within what Darko Suvin calls the cognitive mode. For in good SF, the bottom line is the SFnal conceit itself; when its implications are twisted, cast aside, or studiously ignored in favor of fantasy, then the cognitive is abandoned — and with it, the reality that the cognitive reflects. Thus it is that, ironically, sometimes good SF is more realistic than consensus reality.

Without getting into even the depth of discussion present in my paper, I will note that in Cheon Gun (Heaven’s Soldiers, 2005) and 2009: Lost Memories (2002) nationalist fantasy overwhelms the SFnal conceit. In the former, a group of North and South Korean soldiers stranded in time (and worshipped by cartoon-like Joseon peasants as “Heavenly Soldiers”) manage to train a young Admiral Yi Sun Shin out of his own fatalistic mediocrity. The film quite seriously steamrolls history (and the cognitive mode) in the interests of articulating what is, in the end, a pretty pedestrian opinion on contemporary inter-Korean politics, casting Yi essentially as a modern reunificationist. When Yi declares North and South Koreans to be members of a “gateun minjok,” a stunning anachronism since the word did not exist in Korean in Yi’s time, the truth is obfuscated that modern time travelers to the Joseon Dynasty would probably be mistaken for foreigners and enslaved or killed.

The notion of minjok is likewise everpresent in 2009: Lost Memories, which begins as an excellent alternate history film. The estrangement of seeing Korea still ruled by Japan in the early 21st century is profound, and its exploration of colonial Korean identity is likewise fascinating.

But that credibility is shattered when it is revealed that all this a result of meddling Japanese time-travelers. Even setting aside the handling of issues like paradox — see my paper for a bit more on that — the film’s plot hinges, anti-cognitively, on ignoring how real human beings would likely make use of time travel.

The unseen Japanese villains, inexplicably, focus on the goal of recolonizing Korea — and not, as any sensible time-traveling villains would do, using an army to colonize all of human history. (Despite the historical significance of Itō Hirobumi’s assassination to Koreans,‭ I cannot imagine Japanese nationalists choosing it as the moment from which to reboot world history‬.)

Meanwhile, the question of what Korean nationalist extremists might do with a time machine is completely ignored. What butterfly effects might result from Korean time travelers eliminating the angst and horror of historical Japanese rule? What would Asia look like under time-travel facilitated Korean colonial rule? ‭These exciting and dangerous questions, and their potentially discomfiting answers, are studiously avoided.

Whatever one makes of all of this, it ‭is apparent that, in both films, interrogation of history and of time travel within the cognitive mode takes a backseat to identity politics and the necessity of lending primacy to the contemporary Korean state and to the minjok ideology. The reasons why the latter win out over the former constitute a barrier to the establishment of credible Korean SF, demanding instead fantasy as an alternative.

Challenge #3: Of Influence and Other Anxieties‭

The relationship of non-Anglophone SF creators to a genre so profoundly Aanglophone, and at present, as the late Thomas Disch noted, so profoundly American, can be quite precarious. On this subject, Elisabeth Vonarburg writes that‭ l‬ike all non-Anglophones SF writers,‭ she writes “‬both‭ ‬with and‭ ‬against that‭ [‬ie.‭ ‬Anglophone‭] ‬SF…” Besides historical and cultural baggage I previously mentioned ‭—”‬space‭ ‬colonies,‭ ‬alien‭ ‬invasions,‭ space c‬aptains‭”—SF is also rooted in ‬the national experience of colonial or hegemonic superpowers.‭ ‬For Korean SF, these anxieties may be doubly problematic,‭ because the sources of much foreign SF in Korea — Japan and America — are precisely those nations about which ‬anxieties haunt the South Korean postcolonial identity.

One film in which this is dramatically played out is Natural City. Understandably interpreted by many as a Korean remake of the 1982 American cyberpunk classic Blade Runner, and while it would be a mistake to read the film simply as a remake — it isn’t just that — the number of similarities and degree of indebtedness that Natural City has to Blade Runner suggests comparison to be worthwhile. The Korean film differs in a number of interesting ways from the American one, though I only have time to discuss two.

The first is almost tangential, and regards the anxious and exotic omnipresence of Japan in Blade Runner is almost completely erased in Natural City, an excision that is especially curious in a film that so closely imitates Blade Runner, since Japan’s presence in the latter is often very striking to Korean viewers. Yet at the same time, the film depends so profoundly on Japanese anime-styled technobabble, which is so alien to Western SF that, outside of the context of animation, it sounds ridiculous, and the film’s English subtitles, originally directly translated, had to be adapted to make it conform reasonably to Western SF consumers’ expectations. (See my paper [linked above] for a more in-depth discussion of this.)

[Though I didn’t mention this at the conference, I have a very big footnote for this which is that the Japanese cross-pollination into Western SF, as obvious in, for example, Charles Stross’s Saturn’s Children, adds a funny nuance to this — Western SF is, in its way, also adapting similar Japanese-anime-sounding technobabble (Stross uses the term “soul chips” to describe personality/memory backups for a given mecha, amidst other bows and nods to Japanese SF and culture, like “bishojo” robots being dominant in his post-human extinction mecha society). Be that as it may, nothing like the L-molecule of the film appears in the Stross — the technobabble is imported only when it can fit the established Western SFnal aesthetic, including a certain appearance of primacy granted to the science involved.]

Likewise, the primary philosophical conceit of Blade Runner is also excised from Natural City. In Blade Runner it is strongly hinted that the hunter of the “replicants” (essentially androids), unknowingly, is also a replicant himself. All the other SFnal tropes in the film serve to blur the line between the “real” and the “artificial” so that, by the end, when the bounty hunter Deckard (whose name invokes Descartes) embraces his replicant lover and flees into the closing credits, the viewer is left haunted by the uneasy question, Cogito ergo homo sum? Can a machine that thinks be considered human? Blade Runner completely destabilizes our sense of reality. Natural City ends precisely oppositely: the cop is emphatically human, his sex-robot girlfriend “dies,” and a human-centric reality is reasserted. One cannot help but wonder to what degree this urgent return to the “real” is related to anxious fluidities and boundary-destruction of foreign generic influence.

So What Happens When SF‭ “‬Goes Native‭” ‬in Korea

After so much criticism, it’s important to note that these barriers are indeed surmountable. Several wonderful films successfully grapple with and overcome these various challenges, such as Nabi, Wonderful Days, Gwoemul‭ (‬The Host‭)‬ and‭ ‬Jigureul Jikyeora‭ (‬Save the Green Planet‭). The latter two examples, especially, share several interesting characteristics, of which time permits mention of only a few.

Both films are set not in the future‭ (‬or past‭)‬,‭ ‬but instead in familiar,‭ ‬modern-day Korea, and their handling of SFnal tropes is ironic or playful. Both narratives deal with recent history, consistently as experienced by lower-class people. The monster in The Host particularly, with its underground wanderings and voracious consumption of human beings, can be read as symbolic of the hidden, suppressed dark side of the ‭”‬Miracle on the Han River.”‭ Indeed, ‬it becomes difficult not to see both these films in political/historical terms quite different from the other movies discussed so far—specifically,‭ in terms of ‬Sin Ch’aeho’s concept of‭ “‬minjung revolution,‭” ‬with lines drawn not between Korea and the rest of the world but instead between the‭ “‬wretched majority—exploited,‭ ‬beaten,‭ ‬starved,‭ ‬lulled into subservience and obedience‭” (‬as quoted by Henry H. Em‭ ‬[see the paper for the citation]) ‬and their natural enemies, the repressive,‭ ‬exploitative elites.

Perhaps the philosophical notion of minjung revolution, or some concept like it, will fuel the Korean New Wave, just as liberalism and anti-war/anti-hegemonic/anti-conservativism fueled the Anglo SF New Wave movement in the 1970s.

In any case, the various cultural barriers to the successful Koreanization of SF are far from insurmountable.‭ I eagerly await more examples of Korean SF creators who will find new ways to overcome these cultural barriers and further integrate SF into the Korean imagination.


The question I remember being asked was whether there are hints of a Korean SFnal New Wave proper going on now. I had to plead ignorance on the grounds that any such thing would be much likelier to show up first in literary SF than in the cinematic form, as the cinematic form seems to lag far behind. (Literary SF in Korea has been growing, perhaps even exploding, in recent years, but I don’t know to what degree a New Wave is going on. I do hope to find out.)

The follow-up question was whether I thought that The Host was an example of this, to which I attempted, very briefly, to answer that yes, I thought it was to some degree, but not necessarily in a sustainable form — that it would be difficult to say whether other forthcoming SF works will return to the older (and mostly unsuccessful) turgid SF formula or not.

I was asked a question I cannot remember, though I think it had something to do with the mass appeal of The Host, and why it worked so much more successfully than, say, Natural City or 2009: Lost Memories. I didn’t have any time to answer, as we agreed to adjourn to make time for the last paper, but my answer, expressed a bit later during a subway ride, was that The Host had made the central characters people who could be said to fit into the minjung — regular folks — rather than authority figures like the detectives or cops who seem to dominate more conservative- (that is, elitist minjok-nationalism-) driven SF like Natural City, 2009: Lost Memories, or Cheon Gun. (And I think this is likewise what gives Save the Green Planet an appeal vaguely similar to the one Western audiences of a certain class (ie. the middle/lower classes) feel watching Fight Club; not the manly beat-one-another-up parts, I mean, but the image of the banks exploding and the world’s credit records being wiped clean in one awful, wonderful destructive moment.)

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