It is curious then that South Korea, heralded as one of the most technologically innovative countries in the 21st century, has yet to find its foundation in the genre. While neighboring countries China and Japan have seen their sci-fi cultures flourish, South Korea’s reception of the genre has been relatively sparse.
In 2014, a one-man publishing operation called Bulsae went bankrupt as a trilogy of Korean sci-fi works it was offering only sold 300 copies. While China boasts widely popular print sci-fi magazines with circulations of 300,000-500,000 per issue, South Korea has no such base.
According to Jin Young-gyun of Kyobo Bookstore, foreign sci-fi writers such as Ted Chiang and Bernard Weber have been primarily responsible for boosting sales of the works in their bookstores.
The question then becomes, where is the Korean answer to the American “Star Wars,” Japan’s “Akira” or the Chinese “The Three Body Problem” -- Works that have shaped technological imaginations around the world?
Turns out, it’s still in the makings.
A new wave of Korean sci-fi authors, emboldened by rapid developments in technological advancement and new mediums in which to share their work, are seeking to add their literary mark not only to the Korean cultural scene, but on a broader global audience as well.
Task of reality
According to Park Sun-young, a professor of East Asian languages and cultures and gender and sexuality studies at University of Southern California, sci-fi as a genre languished in Korea’s recent past for various reasons, converging into a cultural and political space that resisted its production. She cites government-regulated censorship as one initial hindrance to the creation of Korean sci-fi.
“The culture was burdened with the task of representing reality as it was, in the absence of the freedom of speech in the media,” says Park. “This censorship obliged fiction writers to carry the burden that journalists have. It was through this that Koreans were able to access their suppressed realities.”
In a country fraught with the turbulence and fragmentation of a post-colonial state, literature served the role of truth-making and remained close to critical, realistic social commentary, rather than serving the role of a sci-fi imaginary or speculative future.
“When you talk to Koreans about the future, it’s often quite nebulous. However, when you talk to Koreans about the past, it’s much more present in their discussions” says Gord Sellar, a sci-fi writer, translator and academic. However, once this state-run censorship was lifted, “the rules of the game changed.”
Advent of new medium
Parallel to the lifting of censorship in the mid-1980s was the opening of the internet. It was in this fecund ecosystem that Koreans were able to find audiences for their works as well as the opportunity to tap into the larger, global sci-fi fandom. In addition, the advent of new online literary mediums, such as the hyper-popular Webtoon, allowed for the genre to “really explode,” says Sellar.
In addition to the literary elements of sci-fi, the genre has begun to make its mark in other cultural productions, such as in movies and on TV. According to Sellar and Park, box office flops such as the “Little Match Girl” initially hindered studio productions of mainstream science fiction films.
“Media is really expensive and with the complete failure of ‘Little Match Girl,’ companies turned away from the genre. That movie, among others, is credited with setting back the industry for years, as all of the capital investment dried up,” says Sellar.
However, the blockbuster “Snowpiercer,” directed by Bong Joon-ho, both a critical and commercial success at the box office, began to open doors for Korean sci-fi to enter the mainstream. Korean TV dramas have picked up on this trend as well. Drama series such as “Are You Human Too?” and “Memories of the Alhambra” center their narratives around science fiction elements of augmented reality, artificial intelligence and robots.
As Jung Sun-yeong, who also serves as president of the South Korean Science Fiction Writers Association, describes, “I find that recently Korean movie markets are discovering Korean literary SF and fantasy. ... I know that many screenwriters here are trying to write SF these days. And in the market, nowadays, Korean SF writers are meeting agencies or buyers interested in Korean literary SF works. Also, many works are quite easy to bring to life on-screen, because the majority of Korean SF works tend to be more realistic.”
In addition to sci-fi’s entrance on the Korean big screen, the genre has broken ground in global markets as well.
In March, Kaya Press published “Readymade Bodhisattva: The Kaya Anthology of South Korean Science Fiction,” heralded as the “first book-length English language translation of science and speculative fiction from South Korea.”
The project was edited by Park Sun-young along with Park Sang-joon, a prolific South Korean translator and writer of the genre himself, and completed in collaboration with Jong So-yeon, Gord Sellar and others. The project can be seen as an indicator of Korea’s flourishing science fiction scene, emblematic of its entrance into the larger global demand for sci-fi.
“For those of us whose exposure to the contemporary Korean imagination has been mostly limited to the inescapable (K-pop) and the quirkily innovative (films and TV like Snowpiercer, The Host, Train to Busan, Kingdom), it’s something of a revelation, since as far as I can tell, few of these writers have appeared in English before.” writes Gary K. Wolfe in whole in Locus magazine.
The stories in this anthology tell narratives from “the re-imagining of an Asimovian robot inside the walls of a Buddhist temple, a post-apocalyptic face-off between South and North Korean refugees on a distant planet, to a disabled woman’s fight to join an international space mission,” according to the publisher, demonstrating the complexity and diversity of topics covered by the works.
Not too ‘far, far away’ from reality
A key feature of contemporary Korean science fiction is its ability to traffic in critical societal reflection.
Professor Park described how, “I think I can even say that all Korean contemporary SF are social science fictions at the moment.”
Bringing voices to the marginalized and oppressed in society has long been a seminal feature of the genre due to its unique ability to imagine an alternative to present society, either through positing a dystopic future or a reimagination of the past.
“A speculative fiction allows the imagination of an alternative reality. It compels you to do so, forcing you to imagine something beyond the status quo. Korean writers seized upon the potential of this, and as far as I can see, are actively utilizing it to comment on Korean society,” said the professor.
This genre is, therefore, well suited for the technologically saturated present of South Korea, as well as for the future of the country’s development, as more and more technological innovations become readily assimilated into society, the experts say.
Jin of Kyobo Bookstores cited 265.4 percent and 134.4 percent increases in science fiction book sales in 2018 and 2019, respectively, indicating that even if specifically Korean sci-fi has not broken into mainstream popularity, sci-fi as a broader genre has begun to catch on with the imaginations of the Korean public.
According to professor Sellar, “Technology has fueled so much social dislocation here. I think it (science fiction) has a lot to say about how the technologies that we have are going to change the way we look at ourselves, how we look at each other, how we live.”
It is in this world that the latest wave of contemporary South Korean sci-fi writers hope to bring forth their work in order to better examine technological change in their rapidly changing country.
By Timothy Im