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Vol.20 Summer 2013 (Page 1)
Science Fiction in Korea
by Bok Dohoon
New kinds of novels are emerging in Korea amid a deep-seated tradition and history that has strongly favored literary novels based on realism. These works are hybrids of genres—almost mutants—and resist being grasped by the familiar perspective and language of realism. In other words, so-called genre literature, such as science fiction, fantasy, Chinese martial arts literature, detective novels, and others, are emerging as a new force in the literary scene going head and head with traditional realism. Additionally, the tendency to blur the division between realistic literature and genre literature has grown stronger. Moreover, the number of works that are comparable in quality to mainstream realistic novels continue to increase. The fact that science fiction has become prominent among the genres employed in these hybrid novels deserves special attention.
      Generally, the term science fiction refers to a literary genre that reveals a vision of another world through an estrangement from the current world, based on scientific imagination, method, and vision, and that takes a new approach to the criticism and satire of the current reality. Thus far in the history of Korean literature, the space occupied by science fiction has been marginal at best. Be that as it may, it does not mean that Korean science fiction has been irrelevant or absent. In 1907, during the early stages of modern literature in Korea, a group of reformists who had formerly studied abroad in Japan translated Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a science fiction novel by Jules Verne.
      Although science fiction in Korea had started only as reformist literature, as a part of the greater project of modernizing the nation, interest in science fiction among Koreans did not arrive too late at all. The works of science fiction, both translations and original works that were published during the colonial period, symbolized the characteristics of modernity in Korea; it was a transplanted modernity. After liberation and the civil war, science fiction in Korea was shaped by the fear of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War and genuine curiosity about technology and civilization.
      However, many of these works were frequently children's books. In 1966, Moon Yun-seong wrote the science fiction novel Perfect Society. This work depicts the adventure of a man whose time travel brings him to a utopian society in the future where all inhabitants are women. The world described in Perfect Society is occupied only by androgynous women, and the inhabitants barely need to work. Moreover, all diseases have been cured, and health is maintained by the combination of medical science and a maintenance regimen that are taken from the best of Western and Eastern knowledge; it is indeed a “perfect society.” The description of the technologically advanced future is both impressive and abundant in detail.
      The wave of original creative work arrived in Korea around 1990. The alternate history novel In Search of an Epitaph (1987) by Bok Koh-ill surpasses, in literary achievement, The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick, a masterpiece of the genre. Bok’s novel asks the question of "what-if," given a hypothetical situation where Japan is not defeated in the Second World War and, thus, Korea continues to be its colony. In Search of an Epitaph is an exemplary Korean sci-fi novel, with extraordinary insights into modern Korea where the vestiges of colonization are still present, even years after liberation. The 1990s saw an increase in the number of writers and works of both translations and original works of science fiction. This increase was in large part due to the proliferation of online bulletin board system communities, which were centered around common interests in subcultures in Korea. A similar trend has been continuing in the new millennia as well. The new generation of writers, born in the 1970s and raised on children's book versions of Western science fiction, are actively producing works crossing the boundaries and the hierarchies of genres—realism, fantasy, and others. Science fiction has come to be the future of Korean literature.
      The summer issue of list contains a special feature with an overview of and an analysis on the state of science fiction in Korea, the future of Korean literature, and the future literature of Korea, by respectively examining the history of Korean science fiction: the exemplary authors and works in different periods, defining authors and works from the 1990s and the 2000s, and science fiction children's books. I sincerely hope that readers outside of Korea have the pleasure of encountering the unique and alien imagination of Korean literature through the unfamiliar worlds created by Korean science fiction.