An Evolutionary Myth by Bo-Young Kim

This entry is part 65 of 72 in the series SF in South Korea


I’m very happy to announce that a translation of Boyoung Kim’s “An Evolutionary Myth,” — co-translated by yours truly and Jihyun Park — has just been published in the current issue of Clarkesworld, issue #104 (May 2015), alongside a diverse selection of authors including Chinese author A Que, and the Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi, as well the American authors James Van Pelt, Matthew Kressel, Andrea Pawley, and Ian Muneshwar.

As for Jihyun and myself, this is our first published co-translation, and we’re pleased as punch. Hopefully it is only the first of many…

The original story contained some footnotes that didn’t make it into the online publication, as well as some references that might be missed by Western readers. I figured I might as well write a few annotations about those, and some information about Boyoung, here, for those interested in the easter eggs they might have missed.

Note: the story notes contain what might be very mild spoilers, so you should probably read the story first before checking them out.

First off, Boyoung is one of the best-known SF authors in South Korea. Both her first story (“The Experience of Touch,” 2002) and her first novel (Seven Executioners, 2013) won inaugural Korean SF awards. In 2010, HappySF published a two-volume collection of her short SF: volume 1 was titled The Story Goes That Far and the second volume was titled after this story, An Evolutionary Myth . Kim was one of the subjects of an article I mentioned about a year ago, though the link in that article has since died. Here’s a new link to “Descartes’s Descendants: The Novels of Bae Myung-hoon and Kim Bo-young.”

The cover of Volume II of Kim’s collected short fiction, titled “Jinhwa Shinhwa.” (The red text on the cover is that title, and is also the title of this story.)

In Korean, the title of “An Evolutionary Myth” is 진화신화 (Jinhwa Shinhwa). This rhyming sound in the title is a clever signal as to what Kim’s up to in the story, by juxtaposing evolutionary theory (albeit the falsified Lamarckian model of evolution) with Korean mythology, the text straddles and confounds both science fiction and fantasy. Further, the text plays with specifically Korean mythology and history, albeit in some cases with the Koreanized version of myths also familiar in other East Asian cultures. (Indeed, the material at the beginning of the story really is taken from the Goguryeo Annals of the Samguk Sagi, and Taejo and Chadae were both real, historical kings in the Goguryeo Dynasty, which sets the text somewhere in the vicinity of alternate-history. For the sake of exactitude, the beginning of the would be set in 146 C.E., and its ending in 165 C.E..)

PanguThere are many references to Sino-Korean mythology in the story. For example, the Ban-go mentioned is the Korean name for the Chinese deity Pangu, pictured to the right. However, Kim’s Ban-go doesn’t seem straightforwardly to be the original Ban-go: rather, he seems to be one of the last members of a race of Titan-like beings that have slipped from the Earth.

Likewise, several other creatures from Sino-Korean myth make appearances in the story. You can pick them out for yourself, armed with the information on Wikipedia regarding the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations, the creatures that were the emblems of the Celestial Emperor and the guardians of the four compass directions.

The Four Symbols, in traditional (Chinese) stylized form. One of them (the bird on the bottom left), doesn’t make an appearance in this story.

On the archaic measurements used in the story: modern Koreans use the metric system, but the measurements of the Goreyo period used will be unfamiliar to Western readers. Like the Biblical cubit, the cheok was an officialized measurement based on the length of a forearm, and similar to the imperial foot. A jang was equal to ten cheok, or approximately ten cubits long. (Another measurement, called a ja, is apparently the same as a jang.)

In the discussion of atmospheric pressure, Kim is cleverly playing with language–Chinese characters specifically, which is the form of writing used by literate Koreans at the time during which the story is set. In cultures within the Chinese sphere of influence, the composite character for spiritual energies, 氣 (in Korean, gi), contains within it the character for air or steam, 气. The connection between meteorology and life energy is implicit in the Chinese characters.

Oh, and regarding that conversation about atmospheric pressure, it takes place with a samu. From what I gather anecdotally (I can find no references to link online, sorry!), samu is an archaic term for the profession of ancient court astrologers; like anything religious in Korea, a strong shamanic influence reputedly was apparent in their ritual practice.

Mangbuseok is also mentioned in the story. Mangbuseok is actually a famous landmark near the eastern port of Busan. It is comprised of a large rock by the ocean, which is said once to have been a faithful wife, awaiting the return of her husband. The husband unfortunately had been captured and borne off to Japan against his will, and never returned. As the story goes, she was transformed into a stone during her endless waiting, and stands there still.

Mangbuseok. Click image for source.
Mangbuseok. Click image for source.

There’s also an in-joke in the conversation with the white tiger, regarding how people were in the past shaped like bears and tigers, among other creatures. The reference here is to the Dangun myth, where a tiger and a bear attempt to become transformed to human beings. (Only the bear succeeds.) You can read more about the Dangun myth here. (Those who know Chinese mythology will recognize Dangun as a kind of Yellow Emperor-like figure, a deity who essentially founds civilization.) But what’s interesting here is that the reference to bears and tigers folds a very famous Korean myth into the Lamarckian genetics of the story very neatly and cleverly.

There’s another quotation taken directly from the Samguk Sagi that appears in the story, this time in dialogue:

“If it’s unpropitious, just tell me that. Or if it is propitious, then tell me that. Telling me it’s an ill omen, but then claiming it could be a good one… what sort of a lie is that?”

Apparently the real historical Cha-Daewang (however fantastical some of the records were, the Cha-Daewang was the 7th king in ancient Geoguryeo Dynasty), actually said these words in reference to explanations of his sighting of a white fox. This fact is duly noted in a footnote by the author in the original Korean version of the story.

This also brings up a fact worth noting: Korean SF authors are much more free with footnotes in their fiction than English-language SF authors. For example, throughout the story, when Kim uses Larmarckian genetics terminology, she uses Sino-Korean (ie. “Chinese”) characters, and footnotes them in Korean (written in alphabetical Hangeul) for readers unfamiliar with those characters. Depending on a given reader’s literacy in Chinese characters used in science texts, the footnotes may or may not be necessary, and the appearance of modern scientific terminology in the dialog of a story set thousands of years in the past will be either less, or more, jarring… but probably less for many younger readers. This effect is difficult to translate: to simply use Latin equivalents would lose some of the effect, since most modern English science terminology is latinate anyway. (We opted for a mix of literal translations and transliteration of the Sino-Korean to approximate the effect.)

There is a reference to holy water toward the end of the story. This is not holy water in the Christian sense, but rather a reference to an archaic Korean belief. In the Goguryeo era, water drawn from wells at daybreak was apparently regarded as holy and used in prayer and rituals. (I’m not sure where Jihyun Park dug up that tidbit of information, so I don’t have a reference for it.)

I think that’s pretty much everything. A footnote of my own: many people believed that this story was untranslatable. I’m not exactly sure why, though my guess is that it’s a mix of things: a lot of the cultural and mythological references above would fly over most Western readers’ heads, plus the difficulty of translating old-fashioned courtly speech, plus the (very hard to bring across) tricks that Boyoung Kim plays with language in the story. But I do hope our rendering does the story justice. In any case, it is the first, hopefully of many projects with Jihyun.

Oh, finally, here is a picture of Boyoung Kim:


That’s about everything I could possibly say about this story. Jihyun Park and I, and Boyoung also, hope you enjoyed the story!

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7 thoughts on “An Evolutionary Myth by Bo-Young Kim

  1. Hi, I’m a writer – I just wrote a novel called All My Colors – and I’m a huge, if ignorant, fan of Korean scifi writers. I just came across this story after discovering Bo-Young Kim in an anthology. I’m writing to ask several questions, if that’s OK. 1) is there more of Ms Kim’s work in English out there? 2) does Clarkesworld take unsolicited submissions and 3) I’ve written a K-Pop slipstream novel and wondered if anyone would like to see it (I have an agent sending it out in the UK)?
    all the best and please excuse the epic email, David

    1. Hi David,

      I’ll try answer your questions:

      1. There’s a Boyoung Kim story in the anthology Readymade Bodhisattva, published by Kaya Press. I’m guessing that’s the anthology you’re talking about? (We have a few translations in that volume, but someone else did her story.) So far, I think that and “An Evolutionary Myth” are the only things by her that have been published in English, though I believe there’s a collection of her short stories forthcoming from Kaya Press sometime in the not-too-terribly-distant future. (We’re working on getting another of Boyoung’s more Korean SF translation lineup this year, too.)

      2. Clarkesworld does take unsolicited submissions. The guidelines are here. It’s an excellent—and thus also competitive—market, so resist any discouragement you may experience if submissions don’t sell there!

      3. Has the Kpop novel been published? Publishers here would be more interested with something already out and published in English, and especially if it were acclaimed… though even then, it might be a harder sell in Korea than abroad, because while Kpop is sort of new and surprising and odd in the West, over here it’s really just the same corporate extruded product that everyone’s grown up with the past generation or two. That difference in perception—and I guess maybe some of the nuances of the storyline, and how they line up with how Kpop and the so-called “Korean Wave” have come to figure into Korean nationalist identity—might affect how much it appeals to a Korean audience or publisher (or, importantly, translator), in the same way a Korean writing a magical realist story about a road trip across America in the 1950s or, I don’t know, a fantasy novel about the Rolling Stones by a Korean author might be a harder sell to Westerners than to other Koreans? But… eh, what do I know?

      If you’re asking about publishers in the West, I imagine your agent knows more than I do about where that might sell. (Though Small Beer Press comes to mind, probably because of the “slipstream” part.)

      Best of luck with it!

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