The SOAO Workshop @ Sobaeksan

This entry is part 21 of 67 in the series SF in South Korea

Well, I have some good news in terms of my SF-writing, but I can’t post that at the moment — I’m waiting for the news to go official — so I’ll post about something related, and which has been awaited.

In February, I was invited by Mr. Park Sang Joon to attend the SOAO Workshop hosted by KASI (The Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute), and while I posted photos at Flickr, and a few here on my site, I never really discussed the workshop. It’s been several weeks now, but I’ll do my best to reconstruct my experience, as it was a wonderful and invaluable one.

The experience actually began in early February, on the 6th of February to be precise, when we met at Yonsei University Campus and dropped by the observatory there. We got a chance to meet the astronomers who would be working with us at the workshop: Dr. Sung Eon Chang, Dr. Lee Myung-Hun, and Dr. Moon Heung Gyu.

(Please note, these –and all other name romanizations, are my best guesses. The individuals I’m talking about may use other romanizations as a matter of course, hence the links to articles containing pictures of them.)

While we were at Yonsei, it dawned on me that there was actually media interest in this workshop, which was cool. A photographer from the Gwahak Dong-a Magazine–the biggest science magazine in Korea, I’m told–was on hand to photograph all the participants of the workshop, on the roof of the offices attached to the observatory, and indeed there was someone from the media with us at all times: mostly science reporters, but also, toward the end, a reporter who normally covers literature.

Anyway, after that first meeting, we went off campus for dinner, and talked a lot. It was then that I realized how much trouble I was in linguistically. That is to say, I was reminded of the fact that my Korean ability is poor, and has been slipping for years now, simply because trying to follow the conversation of a bunch of really smart people chatting about things like black holes left me completely dumbfounded. This was something that also recurred throughout the workshop, though finally I relaxed into it, accepted that I wouldn’t understand everything, and just let that go. (At which point things became a bit easier to follow, in fact, but more on that later.)

That first night, at the preliminary meeting, we ended up splitting into two groups: those who wanted to go home, and those who wanted to stay and talk. What I remember most vividly from that discussion was the impression that Yu Gwang-soo made upon me — he’s a lively character and speaks in a very impassioned way–and the very interesting talk about contemporary SF that I had with Kim Chang-gyu, a novelist who also participated in the workshop. (He’s crazy about Stross and Doctorow and Egan, and other recent SF, and he told me about some of his own writing that sounded something like a cyberpunk/horror crossover.)

Unfortunately, between the time and the need to get home to Bucheon, and my language ability, I had to leave at what I have the impression was a bit of an early hour, and missed out on lots of fun, but just a week later, the group was to convene again. Early the morning of Wednesday the 11th of February, we met in Seoul and caught a bus down to Mt. Sobaek, where Korea’s biggest optical telescope is located.

Like Kim Chang Gyu, who sat in the back with me, I was tired and ended up sleeping for much of the trip down. We stopped on the way and had a very nice lunch, and then went on to the mountain. When we arrived, we split into two groups, with the first group heading up the mountain and being dropped off partway up (with the expectation that the rest of the way would be covered on foot). Unusually for me, I felt up for a little adventure and also felt like trying out my new mountain boots, so I volunteered to go with that first team.

The drive up the mountain seemed like a drive through the seasons of the year — at the foot of the mountain, it was cool but sunny and bright. As we drove up, it began to look more like fall, and then we drove into snow and it was suddenly more like winter than I have seen in all the time I’ve been in Korea. It was a Saskatchewan-grade winter, deep snow and some wind and lovely cold. I found that absolutely invigorating, which is funny since I hate the cold when I am in Canada. But this was just stunning. Anyway, the walk up wasn’t really very tough, but most of the group I was with didn’t stop for pictures as much as I did, and so I ended up talking with another scientists who’d caught a lift up with us, and had previously simply been hiking alone up the mountain. (Her area had something to do with GPS systems, though she was working on something related to tracking objects in space, I think it was.)

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When we reached the observatory at the top of the mountain, she asked me what I thought it looked like, and I told her immediately, “Like the place where an astronomer-vampire would live! This is like an old castle!” I was looking at the older, defunct observatory when I said that:

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We all went inside to warm up, and had ourselves some coffee while we waited for the other participants to arrive. Soon they did, and we ended up going for a hike to have a look around the mountain, as well as to receive a brief tour of the observatory’s older and newer facilities. The landscape was stunning, and the whole area was covered in what are, in Korea, called “snow flowers”: trees covered in frozen snow in such a way that they look stunningly beautiful, a sight which is, now, relatively less common in the lowlands.

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Finally, we went inside and got a little more tour, having some of the equipment explained to us. (I made a total fool of myself by misunderstanding that I was looking at a remote-controlled observatory in Arizona (I think it was?) and guessing that the light blotch on the display was the sun, not the moon.) We also checked out the main optical telescope, some of the beautiful photos adorning the walls of the observatory, the log books, and finally, the dining facilities, where a wonderful dinner awaited us, followed by a trip outside to look at the night sky.

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The stars shone brilliantly. It was freezing, of course, but I haven’t seen the sky so dark, so spangled with stars, since I left Saskatchewan, except one night on a beach in Thailand, and a few weeks’ worth of nights in Dharamsala. A big telescope was set up for us, and we took turns looking at the face of the moon–as close as a lover’s face, it looked, as bright and as detailed, every pore laid bare before us–and at a few constellations.

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Finally, we retreated back inside, shivering but happy, where the cook staff had prepared an amazing spread of “anju” (side dishes to be had while drinking). The food that night was bo-ssam, a kind of steamed pork with leaves for wrapping it up, and it was heavenly. I tried the Sobaek Mountain Makkeoli, which is a rather unique form of this rice liquor that was both smooth and darker than other makkeoli I’ve had before. That night, I had a fascinating talk (in English, bless her generous soul) with the writer/translator Jeong So Yeon about SF in Korea, specifically its thematic content, the economics (and reputational economics) of translation, of gender and fandom, and much more. I learned a great deal from her, and have ideas for at least one or two academic papers I’m considering writing. Then we all retreated to bed, or rather, some of us did, and some (not me) stayed up for more drinking and talking.

The next day, people gathered in the large common room and hung out. We were supposed to go out for a hike, because the weather was good and the view was stunning, but we all ended up staying inside and relaxing. I am still kicking myself for not taking any pictures of the ocean of clouds that spread out beneath the mountaintop — it really did look like gazing out at sea — but anyway, we relaxed while Kim Bo-Young, a writer and publisher, gave Tarot readings and everyone checked their email and so on.

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In the afternoon, there were some presentations by Drs. Lee and Moon, about… well, I remember one presentation was about the involvement of military funding and projects in astronomy and astrophysics and SETI, and that the other was about… er, wait, maybe my notes are garbled, but I do know that the discussions were tantalizing enough for the bits I understood to prompt me to write notes about the Fermi Paradox, the necessity of tracking asteroids in the vicinity of the Earth, the problems involved in the visual representation of radio telescope data, SETI and steganography, astrochemistry, the role of amateur astronomers [and [email protected]] in data collection/analysis, and more. In all, it was an afternoon of brilliantly interesting discussion and I kicked myself many times for being so unstudied that I understood far too little of it to participate or to savour it as I might have.

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After a much needed break, we retreated downstairs, took more photos (if I remember right — there were a lot of photo ops) and had dinner followed by a brainstorming session. The brainstorming session was, again, mostly over my head through there was a lively discussion going on, with the astronomers among us surely holding their own, citing literary references and scientific ideas left and right. Even the very quiet (but very friendly) Park Sung Hwan raised what seemed like an interesting question, and I kicked myself for being so out of the loop that I couldn’t understand it. I’m sure more than a couple of interesting stories will come of that discussion, which is a good thing: all of the (author) participants of the workshop are supposed to contribute a story to be included in an anthology later this year. Me included, and I bet you can guess what my take on the Fermi Paradox will be in it, given how I spent that workshop pushing up against a language barrier.

Then, again, there followed a wonderful spread of food–this time the anju was yuk-hwae, or in other words, raw beef. The stuff was gloriously oily (in sesame oil) and we all had something to drink. I spent much of that evening chatting with Kim Chang-gyu again, talking about the Korean SF scene and also just getting to know one another. I ended up with the late-night squad that night, though I think I retired earlier than most of the squad, and then I went to get a little sleep.

The next day, it was raining, and the ice on the mountain had begun to melt, but we didn’t head out into all that right away. Rather, while we waited to hear about the truck’s progress up the mountain, while the very thoughtful and friendly Kim Bo-young gave Tarot readings. (At least, I think she was doing this the next morning, maybe it was the evening before… I’m not sure.) I finally worked up the guts to ask for one — I would normally have done so before, but I knew how hard it would be to give a reading in simplified Korea, so I asked Jeong So Yeon to translate, which she graciously did. Most of those who received one reported that it was quite accurate, and I must say I’m no exception, though Ms. Kim’s reading assumed I was thinking of one thing, and mine assumed I was thinking about another. Even so, it was almost disturbing how exactly she answered my very ambiguously phrased question.) One historic reading was made about the future of the Omelas SF publication imprint, but I will divulge no more than to say it was very positive, and that the photographic evidence makes that clear:

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Eventually, we headed down the mountain on foot, because the slick melting ice was so bad that the truck couldn’t go all the way back up the mountain again. A few people slipped and fell, and a few more ended up soaked on the way down, but finally the first group–the group I was with–reached the truck and was driven to a ranger station most of the way down the mountain.

While we were there, Kim Bo-Young, Kim Chang-gyu, and Yoon Lee-Hyung as well as a reporter and a photographer all hung out and chatted together with me in the ranger’s station. The one Korean word I learned while we waited was kkweong (꿩) which means “pheasant,” which I learned because there was a stuffed pheasant in the ranger’s office. The ranger claimed people still hunt wild pheasant around mountains, too, though I’ve never seen one running around wild myself, and I have wandered around mountains from time to time. Maybe the pheasants don’t hang around the touristy areas, though, like temples and such?

When everyone had finally reached the foot of the mountain, we drove into town and had some (wonderful) Japanese food for lunch. I especially got to know Kim Bo Young and Bae Myung Hoon better, as we discussed the function and purpose of school systems and Korean schooling and I somehow discovered their love of Bollywood films. (Bae published a short story titled “Koi Mil Gaya”, named after the first Indian SF film, in a collection of stories that was published by Kim, and titled the Korean translation of the title “Koi Mil Gaya.”)

Next, we hit the KASI offices in Daejeon for a tour and saw several interesting things, including the space weather tracking center, the radio telescope, and the GPS center, each explained to us by an expert.

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By this point, my ability to follow much had slipped, but I did find one thing basically at my level: a series comics for children on various aspects of astronomy and science, which I intend to read once my office hours get quiet enough for me to have spare time for Korean study. At the end of our visit, we were led to an office where an the individual I assumed was the President of the KASI presented us each with an individually inscribed book of his own authorship, and spoke to us for a brief time about I have no idea what. (My Korean-comprehension circuits were pretty much burned out by then.)

Finally, it was time to return to Seoul, and once again, on the drive back, I did a little sleeping, though I also worked on a couple of stories I’d been wanting to finish off. When we reached Seoul, we parted ways, some of us on the subway and some of us not. That was the experience, in a nutshell.

Overall, my impression and experience was very positive. Despite the fact I have bemoaned my pathetic grasp on the Korean language here many times, I left the workshop feeling invigorated, and immediately applied for the Launch Pad Workshop, which is essentially a week-long version of the same thing, but hosted in Wyoming and, pivotally, in English. There’s something energizing about being around a group of really smart people, people who are extremely bright, extremely thoughtful, and who regard science and SF as interesting, serious, and important. I couldn’t help but feel, despite my own anxiety at the problems I had in communicating, like I was among kinfolk, or rather, the way I imagine a German or Brazilian Catholic priest would feel visiting a Catholic rectory in China or Uzbekistan, or the way an American turkey-hunter would feel among some New Guineans armed with spears chasing a crazed water buffalo: like a man among his kind of people, all differences meaning less than this fundamental commonality.

(I also resolved to study Korean harder, so that I can better connect to this community of authors and SF-people.)

As for the stories that will come of this–each of the fiction writers who attended will be contributing one for a themed anthology to come out later this year–I desperately want to read them all, so I suppose I shall have to study hard. In mine, I’ll definitely be doing something with the (so-called) Fermi paradox, SETI, communication barriers, and, I think, the mending of a broken heart. (Because those things are all of a kind, and belong together in a story, just like women, fire and dangerous things in whatever language it was Lakoff claimed that category exists in.)

For more information, you can check out the news coverage in Hankyoreh, the Joongang Ilbo, and the Hankook Ilbo. and there should be an article in the upcoming (or is it out now?) Gwahak Dong-a, unless I’m suffering a memory error. And finally, there is my photoset from the event at Flickr here. I’ve been sent a number of pictures by other participants, but I haven’t had much of a chance to sort through them, so I may update this post with a particularly choice shot. But for now, to put some faces to names, here’s the picture from the Hankyoreh article, and I’ll name off the writers beneath the pic:

Photo by Kim Il Ja: click to see source. From left to right, the author participants are:
Photo by Kim Il Ja: click to see source. From left to right, the SF-author participants are: Park Sung Hwan, me, Yoon I Hyoung, Kim Bo Young, Jeong So Yeon, Bae Myoung Hoon, Kim Chang Gyu, and Yu Gwang Soo.

That’s it for now. (We’ll be having a meeting again sometime, I think, so I may have something to add to this, especially if I forgot to mention something. Miss Jeong specifically pointed out that I hadn’t posted about it yet, and that she was waiting to see what I had to say about the workshop.)

As for upcoming posts, I also attended the opening of the Seoul SF & Fantasy Library, and will be posting about that as soon as I can get myself a picture from the SF fan known as Stonevirus (Bae Yoon Ho, whose blog link in my sidebar is not his real blog, he tells me). Trust me, the picture will be worth the wait, as it blends SF fandom with traditional Korean culture in a way that blew my mind! Next, I’ll be posting about a very exciting academic project involving Korean SF that I’ve been invited to participate in. Lots of cool things going on these days!

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