Addendum to [Literary] SF: A Social Phenomenon (Plus Some Detours)

This entry is part 39 of 66 in the series SF in South Korea

Over at the Livejournal mirror of this site, I was asked, just now, to clarify something about my last post, titled “[Literary] SF: A Social Phenomenon (Plus Some Detours),” why in the point I called Access I placed so much emphasis on foreign works in translation. I thought I would clarify that, as well as adding a point or two from the recent paper I presented at WorldCon.

Note: I suggest you click that link, and see the original post first, before reading what follows.

First: I emphasize foreign works in translation as an important part of “Access” to SF because what’s going on in SF out there in the rest of the world is important… but most especially when so little of the stuff is being produced and published by locals. (I mean that there’s a scarcity of native Korean SF; presumably SF from abroad could fill the gap, except not so much of it is available, and readers cannot be expected to master English just to read for fun.)

I should have made it clearer that what I think is critical is access to a large, diverse canon of SF texts; I only focus on translation because there are too few SF fans/authors to produce this on their own at this point. This is not a criticism of my writer friends here — or those publishing translations, or translators, I should add: they’re doing the best they can, but the market is small, the renumeration is okay but nothing to live off, and, well, as someone I know claimed, it’s an admirable thing when someone translates SF novels, because they could be making way more money translating (much easier-to-translate) business crap or self-help books.

Still, it seems to me it’s easier to fill the void with translations than to hope a huge body of new authors appears in the next few years and are willing to write SF for an audience as hard to please as Korea’s. (I’d never heard anyone describe an SF book as having “too much science” till I came here… then again, the circles through which I moved loved Greg Egan’s work. Egan’s persona non grata around here, which is a shame.) It’d be different if local fandom were taking off: then I’d say we need to support them, launch semiprozines and rehabilitate the webzine, get workshops going, and so on. I think all those things would be good, by the way, but at the moment, I think a broad range of diversity could be better achieved by a lot big, diverse translation effort — which could hook in younger readers and bring them over into fandom, and then to authorship…

Of course, that too has problems — in that translations cost money, and need to make money too.

In any case, this is why I focused, for better or worse, on translation.

Sex and the City/Prison Break/Lost as SF

In his essay “SF as Hamlet” (in the essay-anthology on Japanese SF titled Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams), Azuma Hiroki argues that SF is, essentially, the last great holdout of “modernist philosophy” — that is, the Hegelian vision of a reigning totality, the yearning for a monolith tied to absolute truth, national identity, and so on. While the rest of the world paused and realized that such dreams and yearnings lead us to very bad places, American SF was one of the discourses within which this yearning was celebrated, maintained, and continued on.

(Hence, I suppose, Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream; I haven’t read it but the fit seems obvious.)

In any case, Azuma is writing from a Japanese point of view, where the same yearning for totality and for absolute truth (as defined from a Japanese elite perspective) drove the colonial project, and was later recognized (by most in Japan) as a horror.

But if you look at the essay through the lens of Korean historiography and propaganda post-Korean War, you see something very interesting. The same totalizing visions — discourses of mystical ethno-nationalism, claims of ancient heritage and blood-purity, claims of absolute unity of the people (of course, under dictatorial rule) — that Azuma Hiroki claims were going “obsolete” by this time in “the rest of the world” were actually just coming into vogue in Korea.

This presents an interesting question: is the lack of popularity of SF in Korea in part related to the fact that both SF and Korean society remain resistant strongholds for a particular philosophical Hegelianism (in Azuma Hiroki’s usage, not mine)?

American Pop Culture as SF in Korea

Also in my paper, I discuss how Darko Suvin and Charles Elkins construct an understanding of SF. Their argument is that all literature — including SF — maintains a kind of balanced struggle to maintain the tension between two energies: the “ideological” (ie. the just-so story qualifying and defending the status quo, justifying implicitly why any change would be for the worse — the bourgeois novel of the 19th century is an example of this) and the “radical” (which imagines radical alternity, the possibility of change or transformation of the status quo and presents it explicitly).

What is interesting is that in a lot of mainstream Korean literature — even the very angry, even the very leftist — I find a degree of the “ideological.” Not so much in that it justifies things as they are, but that rather than imagining radical alternity, it tends toward a kind of fatalism of the present, a resignation and the exhortation to simply bear with the world as it is. (This has, as I’ve noted elsewhere, affected the way at least some SF stories in Korean get told.)

But there’s been a boom in the last decade — and before that as well — of people consuming Western narrative media in Korea. One major example is Sex and the City, the TV series that features women living in what is, when compared with the world in which most Korean women live, something rather akin to a science fiction setting: women are broadly independent, and able not just to earn a living but to succeed tremendously in business; they are liberated in their sexual values (and this is taken for granted as normal); they are able to “extend” their youth well into their forties or fifties; and they are not pressured by their parents or society to follow a specific route to adulthood paved with marriage, child-rearing, and broken dreams. It’s little wonder that when misogynistic young Korean men began to criticize their female peers as “Soybean Paste Girls” a few years ago, they specifically complained about how they were watching Sex and the City, given the radical nature of these ideas in a Korean context.

Consider any American film involving normal children, side-by-side the average Korean kid’s experience, and you’ll find that it looks downright utopian: no teachers checking hair length at the school gates; when teachers are violent, they are clearly villains and usually don’t get away with it; kids have enough time to read comic books or date or engage in fueds (jock vs. nerd) in high school senior year — instead of sitting so long every day studying for the University Entrance Exams that they develop sores on their butts.

What about Lost? This was a program which of course was SFnal to all of us… but to Koreans, even moreso. A diverse group of people from around the world living in what ends up being an uneasy, but sustainable, respect and harmony? A group of people who, each flawed, somehow comes together randomly but forms a community — wherein race matters less than goodwill and mutual aid, where nobody asks, “How old are you” in an attempt to shut someone else up? Where it’s not about hierarchy, but about working together side-by-side for a bigger goal? Again, this seems to me a kind of radically utopian vision, one that can be held up in contrast with social norms in Korea — though, of course, there are people and groups in Korea who think this way, well… this particular alternity is not well-distributed here.

So I think there’s something to this: one reason SF is so marginal in a place like Korea is because to some degree many people are getting their fix of radical alternity — one of the great things we read SF to enjoy — from what are, for Westerners and for Korean SF people alike, simply mainstream contemporary American TV dramas. That is to say, the American self-presentation in film and TV seem to serve a function for a lot of Koreans that SF serves in a Western context.

I’d be very curious  to hear what Korean SF fans think of this theory, of course… I’m writing and theorizing from the outside, and nobody ever seems to correct me on my crazy theories…

Note: I’ve posted a second addendum here.

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2 thoughts on “Addendum to [Literary] SF: A Social Phenomenon (Plus Some Detours)

  1. That’s a pretty interesting point about American series–the distance is of course not as important, but I always have a sense of cognitive dissonance when watching those series. They’re depicting a universe and a way of life that are patently not mine and will not ever be (it’s not so much the liberation of women as some aspects of daily life, such as the particular American brand of racism, to take only one example. And as to schools, the whole system in France is quite different, so school dramas are also fairly escapist as far as I’m concerned. I can’t imagine they’ll ever concern the French people of my acquaintance).

    Not saying it’s anywhere near the culture shock it must be for the poor Koreans, but still–the American way of life is far from being that of the whole Western world.

  2. Aliette,

    Interesting point! There’s a degree to which I’m conflating “Western” and “American” here — I think in part because that’s a conflationg quite common in Korea. So it’s interesting to hear about how American dramas can also serve a comparable escapist (if not utopian) function for a French viewer as it might for a Korean one.

    I have some more thoughts brewing about how one might regard this issue — especially in the light of some comments on LJ about whether this is colonialist — and your comment about the American form of racism also deserves some thought. Certainly a TV show like Friends is immensely popular in Korea… but it’s my impression that viewers aren’t quite aware of the racism that saturates the program. (Or most other TV shows, where blacks may be orderlies or nurses, but never doctors; are the first to die in horror films; where Native Americans are presented in stereotypical ways that sadly are also common coinage here in Asia — ah, the cigar store Indians I’ve seen in bars in Asia! — and so on. About the only racism that actually seems to register for a lot of viewers is the overt kind against, say, blacks, or any criticism, in any form, of a Korean, Korean expat, or foreign born Korean.

    (The brouhaha that exploded during the beginning of the first season of Lost over the ostensibly especially negative portrayal of the character Jin in Lost is one example I’ve discussed elsewhere. Which as I said then, was a little laughable considering how dark most of the characters backgrounds were on the show. Personally, I was far more disturbed by the orientalmystification-sexualization-barbarization of that Thai woman Jack hooked up with on holidays in Pattaya. Or, well, Michael’s fate in the end.)

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