- The Curious Case of South Korean Science Fiction: A Hyper-Technological Society’s Call for Speculative Imagination
Since the summer of 2012, the patent war between Samsung and Apple has been raging in almost every media outlet in South Korea, reminding the public of their country’s status as the newly risen IT capital in the global community. This recognition indeed extends far beyond the Korean borders; in the recent film Cloud Atlas (2012), for instance, the Western gaze shifts its focus to (Neo-) Seoul as the site of our time’s techno-orientalist future-scape,1 instead of adhering to the classic imageries of Tokyo or Hong Kong as we have seen in Blade Runner (1982) or Ghost in the Shell (1995).2 Curiously, however, science fiction as a literary representation of the technologized science South Korea thrives on nowadays never appears to have gained traction in Korea’s own cultural imaginary. 3
The incongruity between the high level of technological immersion seen in South Korea’s contemporary lifestyle and its surprisingly sparse representation in the literary realm can [End Page 81] be traced back to the deeply engraved tradition of realism that held sway throughout the past century. The string of traumatic historical turns, beginning with colonization, followed by the Korean War and struggles for political liberalization and industrial progress, left little room for speculations that remain beyond the immediate grasp of reality. However, South Korea here and now is ready for a new set of inquiries that address the issue of technology as a crucial and legitimate component in our daily interactions and communication. In this light, the five works by vibrant young writers Azalea presents here are welcome forays down a new path of literature that expands the horizon of Korean realism, one that not only represents but also reflects, and inspires.
Kim Kyung-uk’s “Young Hearts Never Grow Old” faithfully adheres to the post-apocalyptic narrative tradition, describing the bleak maneuvers of an unnamed boy and girl who strive for solitary survival in the aftermath of societal collapse. Kim structures the story on a three-fold analogy: the recurring motif of dinosaurs in the boy’s sketches, their fossilized legacy (in the form of petroleum) as the source of sustenance for material infrastructure, and the desiccated remains of the boy’s grandfather whose memories of good-old-days nurtures the boy’s hope for a better future. This constellation of life and death formed by the defunct relics of nature and man becomes a cyclical pattern whereby the ultimate burden of human existence lays its weight upon a disillusioned Adam and Eve. The self-reliant child figure as the embodiment of the ethically pure yet rationally equipped homunculus is a familiar trope in the larger tradition of (post-)apocalyptic fiction. However, Kim goes a step further to inscribe post-human symbiosis into the formula of anthropocentric survivalism by inserting a wolf cub into the equation, which functions as an archetypical reference to the bestial (and therefore, in turn, untainted) instinct that lurks beneath the polished surface of civilization.
Kim Jung-hyuk presents readers with a microscopic version of a social apocalypse in “1F/B1.” In a narrative time frame of a [End Page 82] single night, Kim packs in a number of heavyweight themes such as the dangerous collusion between technocracy and corruptive desire, the misguided sense of disenchantment that permeates a hyper-technologized society, and the existential crisis that ensues when the epistemological delusion collapses. The story’s backdrop of tightly knit building clusters bears an uncanny resemblance to the telecommunications platforms we now inhabit; the dark subterranean maze the protagonists navigate in their attempt to regain control over the unfamiliar innards of the building complex is a purgatorial space of uncertainty, just like the invisible tangles of cables and codes that sustain our electronic networks. We acquaint ourselves with others and consume knowledge through systems we do not and most likely will never fully comprehend. The slash (/) between “1F” and “B1” is a tenuous semiotic divide that masks this inverted mode of cognition, as are the interfaces that literally “screen” the opaque operation mechanisms from the dazzling wonders on...