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

This entry is part 37 of 72 in the series SF in South Korea

So, I recently recounted my observation that SF is a social phenomenon, which was (though somewhat buried) basically the point of a recent presentation I made.

I was thinking about this fact when I had a sudden realization, or what felt like one, anyway. It had to do with being asked what attracted me personally, to SF, but I noted that I was an unusual case, since I came to the genre as an adult. (That is, if we take SF to mean science fiction. If we consider SF in the sense of “speculative” fiction, ie. including fantasy and horror and weird fiction and that kind of thing, well, I was hooked young.

But there’s an interesting dynamic I started thinking about which is that SF is, as much as it is a literary or cultural phenomenon, is also a social one — especially, in some sense, a subcultural one.

Now, subcultures are interesting. Koreans I know believe that subcultures of a sense exist in Korea, too. They’re mostly wrong, at least for the English word “subculture.” In most of the English-speaking world, subcultures are, well… to understand that, we need to look at the West at the time when subcultures started popping up.

From what I can tell, this happens in America in around the 1930s, in places like New York City. Or maybe in the 1920s, if you’re counting the whole flapper culture thing. I’m not sure. But it’s certainly after World War I, and before World War II, that this sort of thing starts to emerge. And it emerges in a peculiar way that we don’t so much see in Korea, which is a useful observation.

When I first came to Korea, one of the first people I met was this very bright friend of a friend, a Korean guy. He was a huge fan of all kinds of stuff one would call “intellectual” like German opera (he retranslated libretti that he considered badly translated, for example) and French poetry (Baudelaire came up a few times) and, whaddaya know, he was also a fan of death metal. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, though: while most of the death metal fans I’ve met in the West were easier to pick out in a crowd, this guy blended in like a secret agent. That same year, I met a punk rocker who was as polite as any well-trained butler, and a rocker chick who, well, let’s just say that being overweight and wearing Coke-bottle-bottom glasses, she’d have never been in a single band in the West… but in Korea? Why not?

Which is to say, when one points out that SF fandom is small in Korea, it doesn’t exactly mean that nobody reads SF. I know Koreans who are SF people, but also know of more people who happen to read it, and enjoy it, but who are not SF people and who wouldn’t consider identifying themselves as SF fans per se. (In the sense of how Neal Stephenson differentiates, as so many more of us do implicitly — between “SF People” and “Mundanes” in this interesting lecture.) One of my students turned up at class with a copy of UBIK, and when I noticed and asked about it, she shrugged and said, “It looked interesting.” This individual is definitely a reader, but she’s not an SF fan. While this is something we see a lot abroad too, it seems more common in Korea that someone might read and like SF but not be an “SF person.”

(I also do know Koreans who are SF People, I should add. And like SF People anywhere, they’re self-consciously and happily willing to geek-out with other SF People. But it’s a relatively small group from what I’ve seen, and all the anxious discussions of why SF — or certain kinds of SF, or fandom, or whatever — isn’t more popular here all seem to point to this reality.)

The thing is, not so many people seem invested in their SFness as SF fans do in the West. And no, I’m not recalling the scene in The West Wing where Josh tells off a White House staffer for wearing a Star Trek pin on her jacket. I don’t wear Trek pins either, and indeed don’t much care for the whole Trek franchise. But I know enough about it to know how to (or how not to) talk to a Trek fan, and to recognize I have things in common with a number of Trek fans I know, and even occasionally to get a Trek-related in-joke. Most Trek fans I know are people I feel I have more in common with than I do people who’ve never heard of Trek or think it’s “weird and stupid” just because it’s set in the future and features aliens and droi

Well, this subculture is only one subculture of many. The specialness and particularity of SF are things we SF-lovers just ache to ramble on about, but in reality, similar subcultures exist. Otaku — which is the Japanese word Westerners seem to have adopted for fans of Japanese comics — are another geeky example; punk rockers may be thin on the ground now, but punks, potheads, and headbangers (aka metalheads) were all tribes that had a place in the schools where I was educated. (Potheads less so, but they were around.) Jocks, D&D nerds, band geeks, “slackers” (they were called that; I’m not sure in my schools they had a name for themselves, though they could be picked out as the people who cut class, went to Jello Biafra talks, and hung out on Broadway Avenue), lifestyle Christians… there were a vast number of tribes available and people basically chose which one they wanted to join.

(Not every individual could join every tribe — I could not have become a jock or a headbanger, though I did briefly attempt the latter — but the various tribes were available for people  to choose from, generally selecting whatever fit their individual predilections and temperament.)

But Gerard Jones points out, in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, that SF was the original fandom, the original geek subculture.

This is particularly interesting when Jones clarifies Jerry Fine–a cousin of Jerry Siegelman, one of the creators of Superman–observes that in those days, there was no such word a “nerd” back in those days. But, Jones notes, the numebrs of such boys were growing, and they were uniquely situated in a historical and social environment not only where suddenly mass entertainment existed–offering “an alternate universe” where fantasy could be made reality with machines (like printing presses and movie cameras) and a little skill — a “generation of misfits who were given a choice other than complete withdrawal from the world or indentured service to it” by being offered “another place to go”: the world of SFnal fantasy.

Which brings us to one of the really crucial points made by Jones:

This Twenties generation was also the first to grow up in a developed consumer culture that encouraged people to definet heir identities  by what they bought. In an increasingly mobile and fluid society, Americans no longer wanted to be identified by class, ethnicity, or region. But to be a Cadillac driver or a Valentino worshipper or a science fiction reader gave a sense of self and community, especially to young people trying to draw black-ink borders around themselves in a world of runaway change.  The early science fiction fans were not a counterculture espousing values radically different from the mainstream. They believed in scientific progress and competitive individualism. Perhaps their own real critique of the greater society was their reverence for brains over emotion and brawn–but they liked spacemen who could fight-fight, too. What set them apart was a passion for a particular packaging of mainstream anxieties and aspirations and an openness to one another’s peculiarities so long as the unifying passion was there.

Setting them apart too was the loneliness and the pointlessness of modern childhood. For the modern middle class, daily life was cut off from what had always been the essentials of human existence: growing food, making clothes, children working beside their parents. For people from the already straitlaced cultures of northern Europe, the anomie of modern life, its mobility and anonnymity and essential loneliness, was exaggerated. And their kids were growing up in small nuclear families with unprecedented amounts of time alone and indoors. An ever growing number of young people were driven to seek connections and meanings that life had once provided more automatically. So a particular set of personality characteristics and individual agonies became the basis for a subculture. Once in the subculture, the boys fine-tuned one another’s identities around the self-definition “science fiction fan”–an indifference to clothes and appearance, a manic but unsentimental bonhomie to their meetings, an amused disdain for the drones who didn’t understand them. There was no word for it yet, but we can see this as the birth of geek culture. And from it every subsequent geek culture–comics, computers, video games, collectible figurines–has either grown directly or taken much of its form. (36-37)

There are plenty of parallels to point to, in terms of the situation in Korea. The internet facilitates the same kind of connection and community building that the postal system and Gernsback’s pulps did in the American 1920s. Korea certainly is as straitlaced as the “northern European cultures” mentioned by Jones, and consumerism here is seemingly swinging into high gear in a way comparable to the 1920s.

But there are some fascinating differences, but first I’ll give you the big-picture summary: if SF is a Social Phenomenon — and for a commercial genre to flourish, it seems it does need to become symbiotic with the society — then it seems to me the emptiness of childhood, the seeking-out of an alternative basis for identity was more profoundly felt, and serviced, by SF in the US (and later throughout the English-speaking world) than in other cultures, not because of anything about SF, but because of the cultures into which it was introduced.

There’s an acronym I came up with the other day, actually, that sums up several reasons why I think SF as a Social Phenomenon simply hasn’t yet taken hold, and still is failing to do so, in Korea today. That aconym is IDEA, and I’ll explore the four parts of it — Identity, Diversity, Education, and Access — individually, though as briefly as possible. Problem is, I need to go through the points out of order for my explanation to make sense. But I like the acronym, so I’ll leave it for now as IDEA, but start with the “E”:


One of major difference between the social environment where SF took hold in America, and Korea’s social environment today, of course, is mentioned right in the last paragraph quoted above, where Jones observes that American kids

were growing up in small nuclear families with unprecedented amounts of time alone and indoors. An ever growing number of young people were driven to seek connections and meanings that life had once provided more automatically.

As anyone who has been in Korea for a week or so can tell you, this is not the lives of most middle-class children here. In most families that can afford it, kids are bombarded with supplemental education in the form of either private tutors or cram schools (known as hakwon in Korean). Korean kids, on the contrary, are growing up with an unprecedented lack of free time, which I’d suggest is not just–as people have countless times noted–inhibitive of the formation of individual character, but also, as a direct result, inhibitive of the formation of particularized personal interests.

I’ve mentioned before how psychologist Robert Epstein argues that children are subject to up to ten times as many rules as normal adults (and twice as many as prison inmates or active-duty Marines), but that’s to speak of the West. Little kids are actually freer to act out in Korea–any trip to a restaurant here will serve as a demonstration of that–but once they’re school ages, kids have about as little free time as their parents, which is, as everyone knows by now, less free time for working adults than anyone else working in the first world. It’s far from unusual for kids to spend ten to twelve hours–or considerably more–at school. It’s not that kids are actually studying all day long, of course; as one co-worker put it years ago, “They’re just learning how to waste their time sitting at their desk all day: it’s training for working in a company.” This is not true just at high-achieving schools, either: I was once hired by my university back in Jeonju to provide evening English courses at an affiliated high school. It was one of those technical schools for girls, the sort of place kids go when they’re not planning on going to university, or at least not to a “good” university. I was teaching from, if I recall this right, 7-8pm. And when I left, most of the students shuffled off to study hall, not going home even though it was already dark and long after dinnertime.

Kids in the English-speaking world are, of course, under pressure to do well in school, at least well enough to get into university because without some basic Bachelor’s degree, one is essentially unemployable. But they retain possession of large amounts of free time alone, and retain the need to find people to group with. North American kids, particularly, find little use in trying to define themselves purely along the lines of class, ethnicity, or region. Korean kids, on the other hand, have so little time to experience that anomie between studies and more studies and the pressures of trying to get into a good school (be it a middle school, high school, or university) that it’s hardly surprising that, unsatisfying as some might find it, it’s unusual for more than a few kids to reach out beyond the  “connections and meanings” that are still, on the whole, provided automatically for them. Kids go to school; then they grow up, go to university (in the “best program” they can get into, in a depressing number of cases regardless of their interest or lack of interest in the subject; then they graduate, get a job, get married by a certain age, have kids by a certain age, and so on.

In other words: the way education works in Korea — not just public education, and not just the supplemental education system of hakwons and tutors, but also its centrality in the life of kids in Korea–as something rather like a child’s full-time-job–is vastly and massively different from the experience of education in the English-speaking world.

(And while the social experience of outcast kids in Korean society today is likely comparable to the outcasts of American middle and high schools in the 1920s, I suspect important differences existed. For example, there is a much more deep-seated anti-academic/anti-intellectual sentiment in the English-speaking world. Kids in Korean schools who do well aren’t normally made outcasts for it, unless it makes them arrogant. My impression is that “outcasts” in Korea are more often kids who have problems socializing, or even who seem to have some kind of undiagnosed mental problem–the kids who don’t bathe, or may have suffered from abuse or are just extremely, cripplingly shy. From what I gather, being very bright and/or not being overly physical is not, in Korean childhood, a social death sentence in the way is sometimes is in the West.)

This is all important because, as someone somewhere put it, and which Thomas Disch recounts in The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, one funny-but-true saw about SF fandom is that “the Golden Age of SF is twelve”: that is, that most people who do become committed SF fans, or authors, or filmmakers, or whatever, are people who developed an interest in SF around the time they entered puberty and/or middle school. American kids in the 1920s, as today, have oodles of free time, and tend to fill it up with whatever interests them: sports, perhaps, or otherwise media, games, literature, drugs, or whatever. And today, as in the 1920s, a minority of them fill up that space with SF. Frankly, I think the main difference is here: Korean kids don’t have time to fill up, at least, not in the amounts or to the degree that Western kids do. That is, I believe, one important part of why SF simply isn’t taking hold here like it did in the West.


Education, of course, is part of a larger system of identity-formation that works differently in Korea than in North America, or at least the North America I grew up in.

It’s not as if North American kids are also “expected” to do these things: graduate from high school, go to university, get a job, marry or hook up with someone, have kids, and so on. The difference, however, is the pressure of time-limitations and scheduling. My having taken an extra year to finish my BA was not a big deal, beyond the question of funding. But I’ve known Koreans who described great amounts of anxiety about returning to their studies after serving their military duty or going abroad to study English for a year (or both). The age difference is a big deal to many. And probably the most apparent clash for a Westerner who arrives in Korea and makes friends here is the question of marriage, which goes something like this:

Korean Acquaintance: Say, are you married?

Westerner: No, I’m not.

Korean Acquaintance: When are you going to get married?

Westerner: Huh? What do you mean?

Korean Acquaintance: I mean, what age? I’m going to get married before I’m 29. I don’t want to get married too late.

Westerner: Huh. But what if you don’t meet the right person until you’re 30? How can you know now? And you’re only 23.

Korean Acquaintance: Oh, no, I’ll find someone. It’s much harder if you don’t find someone by age 30.

Westerner: Hmmm. Interesting.

I don’t mean to suggest all Koreans think this way, but it is a conversation I’ve had many, many times… so many times, indeed, that it no longer surprises me.

Again, I don’t mean to generalize. Not all Koreans are the same–though that mythic idea does seem to have some currency among Koreans themselves, something to which I’ll turn below–but I think in Korean society, there are more aspects of identity that are provided automatically for people. One example is when I talk about nationality with people. I comment on how being proud of one’s nationality baffles me: it’s an administrative label, after all. Had one been born somewhere else, one would have a different label. Nation-states are complex things, but to love a nation-state above all others just because I’m a citizen of it seems about as rational and sensible as loving a hair color or skin color above all others because I was born with it.

“Wow, you’re such an anarchist!” is the response I’ve gotten from people–some of them very intelligent–and this point of view has always seemed bizarre to many. After all, as Mark Russell put it somewhere in Pop Goes Korea, this is “the most nationalist of nations.” While more and more young people I know seem skeptical of this sort of ready-made life plan–rejecting the idea of finding a big company to work for, of marrying on someone else’s schedule (or at all), of the necessity of having kids, it’s telling that there is, really, no explicit counterculture yet in Korea. When you strip away the costume, the punk rockers, the college kids sleeping their around Hongdae as a hobby, the increasing numbers of young people eager to move away from this society, they primarily still see themselves as Korean in a way that, even held up against the nationalism we see in Americans their age, seems to hyperdetermine much more about how they are expected to (and often choose to) live.

One special case of this is the mandatory military service that (nearly) all young Korean men go through. This is important for a couple of reasons. Whatever the diversity of SF fandom today, it’s difficult to argue with the fact that it was a boys’ literature in the West. It was about male fantasies of the world, and I suspect a lot of that still informs the genre. I’m not saying SF shouldn’t or couldn’t be fundamentally shaped by women in Korea, unlike in America: but in Korea as in America (in the 1920s, and now too) mainstream entertainment culture tends to default to male-oriented entertainments. If you disagree, go and think about the Bechdel Test for a while.

This is a parallel with the situation Jones mentions, with a few exceptions: while Korean society is, I’d argue, as strait-laced as those Northern Europrean cultures from which most early SF fans came, it has a few specific inbuilt systems which help to the laces straitened: one of them is the education system, and the nationalist propaganda that saturates it; another is the extreme hierarchy-consciousness that saturates Korean society from table manners and layout of offices to the language itself. But a third, and important one, is the mandatory military service system. Take all of the young men in a society and put them into the army for a couple of years, in the middle of their university education. Force most of them to do menial work, and don’t pay them more than a pittance. Control their access to friends, family, girlfriends, and so on. What do you get?

Well, for one thing, you ruin their education. Guys come back from the army not only exhibiting signs of culture shock (and in some cases emotional trauma), but also having forgotten much of what they studied. It’s routine for me to have male students return as seniors after two years of military, having regressed in their reading, writing, and speaking ability to somewhere much closer to the level of their freshman classmates, a fact that frustrates them to no end. The point being not just that the process anti-intellectualizes these guys–frustrating them with school, but also instilling a sense in many that school is, after all, just a hoop to jump to be promoted to “worker” in Korean society–that seems, to me, to reinforce the same distrust of “childishness” and “unfettered imagination” that Jones describes.

Which, in turn, suggests to me a link between the reasons that, say, SF is unpopular here with the reasons that other forms of marginal pop culture are uncommon here: RPG and LARP gaming, playing in a garage band, doing manga cosplay (in a society that consumes Japanese comics like mad), and so on: because going to the military is widely seen as an explicit coming-of-age experience, after which one “becomes a man.”

Of course, there are many ways to become a man… but there are more in some societies than in others, which brings us to the next point:


In Korean society, diversity exists, as in any society. But diversity is more underground here, for all kinds of reasons that probably deserve to be discussed in a post on their own. I’ll simplify it to this: the top-down process of education and identity-formation here slows the blooming of diversity; the long period of dictatorships made diversity difficult to sustain, and widespread social norms (such as the idea one ought to gather in large-ish groups and only do social things that suit the whole group) lead people away from unusual interests and hobbies, and toward the same few forms of social interaction that dominate.

(It’s hard to become an SF fan when all your friends think “robots are dumb” and would rather go do what everyone else their age is doing, and when, if you don’t join them, you’re being a jerk.)

But the real point is that diversity begets greater diversity, but also, as in the way Jewish youth and other ethnic minorities were involved in the fandom from which modern SF sprung, diversity breeds a hunger for alternate constructions of identity.

There are examples of this in Korean youth culture, of course, like the “lesbian clubs” of high schools going back at least a decade or so, and their homemade yaoi projects. But in a society where young men are forced, en masse, through the cultural, social, and ideological bottleneck of the military, it’s not surprising that when they return as “men” they focus on “adult things” like finishing school, getting a job, and finding a wife. Meanwhile, the world my female students describe to me as their world is one dominated by pop-cultural images of women, where many feel the need for plastic surgery, and are pestered by parents to hurry up and find a spouse before their junk goes bad.

I am saying that there are natural, as well as many artificial, contributors to a poverty of diversity in Korean society. When diversity flourishes, then interest in alternate viewpoints — and the need for a unifying tribal identity — can develop for, say, smart kids. But when the majority of smart and dumb kids alike spend years in school being brainwashed that conformity is not just preferable, but necessary, it’s hard to nurture the diversity that is necessary for a health, growing discourse of the fantastical.


At some point, Bruce Sterling made a comment about how everyone on the Hugos nomination list was something approved by mom and dad. While I am not criticizing the editorial choices of translators and publishers of SF in Korea today — some of them are good friends of mine — I will say that the circumstances of the economy, and of the small reading public for the genre, seem to conspire to limit the kinds of SF available to Koreans in translation. (And the local creators aren’t producing enough of their own fiction to fill the gap.)

One small example: most of the authors through whom I was introduced to (and drawn towards) SF are unavailable in Korean translation: Maureen McHugh isn’t available at all; Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix is his only novel available in Korean translation (and one or two stories are available out there too, I think); I’ve never seen anything of David Brin’s or John Brunner’s in Korean translation, either. Only a couple of Connie Willis novels are available (though The Doomsday Book, at least, is well-done) and the same is true of Neal Stephenson’s work.

The range of what’s available is widening, of course — kudos to Omelas and to Park Sangjoon for putting out a number of Olaf Stapledon novels in very high-quality translations and beautiful editions to boot, for example. I am happy that Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and much of Lovecraft’s writing are both available here. But there is so much, and so much wonderful stuff, that simply is not. SF is, after all, a firehose of good books. For those who don’t dig space opera, I can toss a book of Paolo Bacigalupi’s or something by Patricia Anthony or John Brunner. But in Korean, there’s just much less available.

While the process of forming a canon-of-SF-in-translation in Korea is a complex and interesting process deserving of a more thoroughgoing analysis, for now and in this context, I’m willing to simplify it to noting that I would likely not have been so interested in SF in English if it had been as small a canon of texts as it now is in Korea. Access, in other words, is a problem, period, and while good people are making strong efforts to counter that, it’s hard to catch and translate a firehose’s worth of good books. There will always be a selection process, and the selection process will always entail exclusions of a kind — which means the share of the genre will find certain interesting limits, in Korea today as much as in America in the 1940s.

Well, I think that pretty much sums up what I wanted to say, so I’m going to sign off and leave this topic alone for a while. But if anyone out there has any comments, observations, or corrections to offer me, I’m all ears, and willing to be told I’m wrong, or missed the point, or something.


Note: There’s an addendum to this post which I’ve just posted today. It clarifies some points, and adds some new ones. Please do check it out if you’re interested.

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