Boyran, a novel by “World’s Youngest Fantasy Writer Wonje Song”

This entry is part 33 of 72 in the series SF in South Korea

UPDATE (9 Feb 2010): Yeah, I know he’s not really the world’s youngest fantasy writer. The book was marketed this way, though, and I wanted to include that in the title of the post. It’s exactly the kind of hyperbole one sees in Korea all the time, absolutely not fact-checked or anything. Anyway…

ORIGINAL POST: On Friday last, my friend Nick and dropped by that jazz festival I mentioned. I’ll post more about that soon — I have some pics I want to add to the post, but it’s already written up.

On the way back to the subway station, I pointed out a bookshop where I’d waited for him to arrive — and where I’d managed to find a collection of writings by Deng Xiaoping, again something to post about later — the defense of Mao is quite stunningly familiar for anyone who’s talked about Park Chung-Hee with the average older Korean — but anyway, as we passed by the shop, a paperback in the W1000 stand caught my eye.

It was, of course, the book by the same title as this post:

Front and Back Cover for Boyran.
Boyran’s front and back cover. Clicking will take you to Flickr, where you can see it at different sizes…

“Boyran” by Wonje Song was published in 1995 by the Joong-ang Daily News. The bit in the middle — “a novel by World’s Youngest Fantasy Writer” is factually inaccurate, of course: he tied with Jim Theis, author of The Eye of Argon, which Nick mentioned as soon as we started reading through the text.

Well, if you know anything about that latter novel, you know that it’s famously baaaaaaaaaad, famously awful indeed —  David Langford puts it thus (as quoted in the Wikipedia page on the text): “”a malaprop genius, a McGonagall of prose with an eerie gift for choosing the wrong word and then misapplying it”– and that it has been circulated mercilessly among SF fans who use it as part of a party game. Thies was also 16 when he wrote The Eye of Argon, and that was a full twenty-five years before Song’s book was published. (More on Thies’ book here.)

And while  risk pissing off a guy who apparently now is a lawyer, I have to say: Boyran is Korea’s answer to The Eye of Argon. For example, the beginning of Chapter 2:

The ‘City Beneath’ had been totally dark for many thousands of years, for it was nothing more than a shelter, but as time had gone by humans had learned to adjust to the darkness, and with their intelligence they expanded their city until it was large enough for the entire human race to live in. Stores opened, money was used and notable magicians had created an artificial eternal light which let the city smile with joy. Of course the lights were dimmed when it was bedtime.

Actually, to be honest, it’s not quite as bad as The Eye of Argon, but it is just off enough that Nick and I were howling as we read bits of it aloud in the  subway. (I’m sure a few people were puzzled why these two white guys were laughing at this book — until two guys started trying to start a fight with one another right next to us, and we went quiet and edged away.)

I’ll be honest: I have an urge to track down as many copies as I can and give/send them to SF-writer/fandom friends. (Especially Nick, who really wanted a copy. The only ones I see online are at eBay (where it only looks cheap till you see the shipping cost!) and at some shop in France (where the cost is a killer).

And when I say it’s bad, let me be fair: it’s probably as good as, or maybe better than, anything I was writing at age 16. Teenagers are very rarely brilliant writers, and while he had grown up outside of Korea, Song was still a multilingual kid and so it’s even more impressive he could write a book by himself. (If indeed it was by himself: I don’t see an editor credited, but the line about the magical light in the city being dimmed when it was bedtime suggests a clarification added after receiving critical feedback from a parent or teacher — “But how can they sleep if there’s a magical light filling the city?”)

Alone or not, writing a book is not a negligible achievement, even if I think this article at the Guardian hits the nail on the head: teen authors should be encouraged, but they shouldn’t always be published. It’s interesting that this book did get published, and not just that — there was even a Korean translation published by the Joongang Ilbo. I wonder if the (adult?) translator (Jeon Hyesung is the name credited here) took liberties to improve on the original?

In any case, I’m not going to mock publicly — though I will be laughing aloud as I read it, I’m sure — but I just thought I’d mention that something like this actually exists. It’s even weirder (though not particularly surprising) that an establishment like the Joong-ang Ilbo — one of the major daily newspapers in Korea — actually published it. There’s a strange perfect storm of connections behind that, I’m sure.

By the way, I found someone whom I suspect is the author of Boyran on Facebook, and  sent him a message, but I haven’t heard back. The reason I think it’s the right guy is because he’s a lawyer in Seoul, and in the author’s bio, he mentions a desire to become a lawyer. There’s a slight resemblance, too. I wonder how he feels about it now. I know I’d likely look back on it with laughter, but Jim Thies resented the mockery of his own juvenilia.

Also: I seem to remember a Canadian SF novel back in the 1980s that had been published by someone — I can’t remember whom, or the title — but it had a brownish cover, with maybe  a dragon or monster coming out of a doorway? And I remember the author was a teenager. But that’s all I have. Anyone remember that? I know I signed it out of the library about three times, but never read it.

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8 thoughts on “Boyran, a novel by “World’s Youngest Fantasy Writer Wonje Song”

  1. You’re maybe thinking of Eragon, by Christopher Paolini? According to Wikipedia, he started work on it at age 15…though maybe didn’t finish until he was 19. But that was in 2002, not the ’80s.

    1. Matt,

      Nope, not Eragon. (Which I haven’t read.) This was back in the 1980s. I remember picking up the book and looking at it after it was mentioned on TV or something. I’d picked it up and been uninterested, and remained so, though I think I signed it out and gave it a try before I realized I was still uninterested. I’ve looked around for any mention of the author online, but I can’t find it. Ah well…

  2. Age-wise, Amelia Atwater-Rhodes has them both beat… and her first book was vaguely decent. Readable, certainly.

  3. Matt,

    Huh, I haven’t read anything by her. Of course, the claim about Boyran was made a decade and a half ago…

    But now I am once again wondering who in the world was that Canadian teenager who wrote that fantasy with a humanoid dragon on the cover… argh!

    Also, is this a pattern? Teens writing fantasy now seem easy enough to find. Teens writing SF, not so much. Is it social/cultural (fantasy being more popular now), or is it because of the specifics of the genre — many subgenres of SF requiring more research and so on, where fantasy tends to be more amenable to free play of imagination and fabulation?

  4. Atwater-Rhodes’ first book was published in ’99, when she was 14, so Boyran may well have held the record at the time, I suppose.

    That’s a really interesting question. Of the 64 child writers listed on wikipedia, 9 write fantasy and 3 science fiction, with at least one of those publishing both before the age of 20. However, another of them writes political nonfiction, one writes historical nonfiction, and another was praised for the accuracy of their historical fiction, so clearly teen writers can manage works that demand complex research. The most common categories written in, however, seem to be poetry, child actor autobiographies, and above all else diaries about traumatic experiences (particularly the Holocaust).

  5. Matt,

    Wow, that’s some really interesting results. The diaries both does and does not surprise me. Hmmm.

    Also, given the readability of Boyran — it’s not a very good book, child author or no child author, unless you read it for laughs — and the fact it was “published” by a local newspaper company (ie. with a feel something akin to a national vanity press), I’m dubious about its status as “published” except in the broadest sense.

    I am very curious to see how big the print run was, as well as to what degree the Korean translation was actually a “rewriting” — I’ve not found a copy of tgyhe Korean edition at all, and nobody I’ve asked has heard about it…

  6. Just to let you know, Justus Stewart started work on his first book at 8, and he published it at 9. He’s now published two sequels and all three books are fantasy. Christopher Beale published a non-fiction book when he was 6.

  7. John,

    Thanks, you’re probably the twentieth person to point out that Song wasn’t the world’s youngest fantasy writer, so I’m aware of that. The title of the post is just what’s written on the cover of the book, though, so I guess I should put a note at the beginning of the post so people will stop telling me that. :)

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