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Introducing Korean Sci-Fi!

 

2021.03.08

 

 

Beginning of Sci-Fi in Korea

 

To pick the genre that the public has actively consumed in Korea for the past several years, it would be "Science Fiction." However, considering the massive fandom and cultural influence of Sci-Fi in other countries such as the United States, it has not been long since the public in Korea has highlighted the genre. This is why some people think that the Sci-Fi syndrome in Korea is a sudden phenomenon. However, Korea's Sci-Fi genre has been shaped to become what it is today from about 100 years ago, creating the foundation for today's Sci-Fi to be at the center of people's attention. Then, learning the history of Korean Sci-Fi will be a good way to understand it better and get a clearer glimpse of its future outlook.
The beginning of Sci-Fi in Korea goes back to 1907. The first Sci-Fi work recorded in history isserialized in the journal Taegukhakbo- a journal for Koreans studying in Japan, which was a translation of Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1818) written by Jules Verne. Since then, translated works have been continuously introduced to Koreans; Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum (1879) by Jules Verne was translated with the title The Iron World in 1908 and a part of Detective Nick Carter Series by Diem Novel in the US was translated with the title Airship in 1910. Also, in 1924, play R.U.R (1920) by Karel Capek, a Czech writer who coined the word "robot" was serialized in journal Gaebyeok (meaning "the dawn of civilization" in Korean) with the title A.I. Laborer

 

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Underwater Travel Log

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The Iron World

 

The first Sci-Fi title written by a Korean is known to be The Study of Doctor K (1929) by Kim Dong-In. Featuring the story where feces is used to resolve the food crisis, this book has a Sci-Fi characteristic in that solutions through scientific imagination are offered for social issues. Since then, as Korean society underwent liberalization and war, the publication of Sci-Fi has been hesitant for a while, but then in the 1960s, it once again gained momentum through books for children and teens. Writer Han Nak-Won was at the center of the trend where he steadily serialized works such as Venus Expedition (1964) in journals. In 1965, Perfect Society by Moon Yoon-Sung won the "1st Mystery Fiction Contest" hosted by Weekly Hangook. This story featuring the 22nd century where only females survive on the Earth was published in 1967. After it was republished in 1985 with the title The Republic of Women, it returned to its original title in 2019.

 

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Venus Expedition

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Perfect Society

 

 

Entering the 1990s, Sci-Fi in Korea ushers in a new era with the advent of a new medium called PC.

 

In 1968, the "Korean Sci-Fi Writers' Club" was established with by Seo Gwang-Woon. They published their works in 1975 as a collection titled "Korea Sci-Fi Complete Collection," and in 1978, it was included in the "World SF Masterpiece" organized by Idea Hall. However, even until then, Sci-Fi in Korea wasn't that loved by the public. The main Sci-Fi works consumed by people were translated works from Western countries or those that were written for kids and teens. They were mostly used as a supplement for understanding science. What's more, as the genre was perceived to be reserved for a few fanatics, Sci-Fi was regarded as a genre that talks about difficult things related to science – professional knowledge for people of science and engineering or a low-grade story that talks about absurd things. However, entering the 1970s and 80s, more Sci-Fi subjects and stories were produced through videos, comics, and animations, and in the 1990s, the Sci-Fi genre met the new tide in history with the advent of a new medium called "PC."

 

Today and Tomorrow of Sci-Fi in Korea

 

It is not an exaggeration to say that elements that had a direct influence on Korea's Sci-Fi began with the emergence of PC in the 1990s. During that period, "SF clubs" were born in each of the PC communication services, and the so-called "SF fandoms" began to be created in earnest. And thanks to the nature of the new technology, writing a story no longer required help from the publishing market. This led to the increased number of Sci-Fi writers centered on their fandoms. Writers that emerged around this time had a strong tendency to regard themselves as a Sci-Fi writers. This was a phenomenon that was hardly found in the traditional publishing market, excluding writer Bok Geo-Il who published Searching for the Epitaph (Munji Books), calling himself a Sci-Fi writer in 1989 (He also serialized his next title Under the Blue Moon (Munji Books) on a PC platform before publishing it as a book).
The writers and fans that had been the major players on the PC platform around that period continue to influence the Sci-Fi genre today. The best example is DJUNA, who began writing Sci-Fi during that time and is still an active Sci-Fi writer. In particular, DJUNA is like the representation of Korea's Sci-Fi genre itself as the writer has introduced about 120 stories during the past 27 years since the 1990s. In particular, various attempts for "Sci-Fi written in Korean" have been made beginning with Proxy War (Igaseo) (2006), Pacific Express (Munji Books) (2002), and Bloody Battle on the Broccoli Field (Every Book) (2011), and works that show diverse indicators of Korean scientific imagination are being announced today including the recent works Not Yet a God (Changbi) (2013) and I Existed in Arcadia as Well (Hyundae Munhak) (2020).

 

The characteristic of Korea's Sci-Fi works is that they are based on Korean sentiment and experiences separate from the Western-centered world view.

 

Following the PC platform came the era of the "Webzine." The webzine, the medium with the most "Korean" characteristic like "webtoon" and "webnovel," has been the foundation for various authors to write stories. Among the many webzines, Mirrorzine (http://mirrorzine.kr/), a webzine for fantasy literature, is a foundation for the past and present of Korea's Sci-Fi. In particular, webzine platforms have been the supporters for new authors who won the "Science and Technology Literature Contest" that was held between 2004 and 2006 to continue on with their career. Writers that won in the contest include representative Sci-Fi writers in Korea – Kim Bo-Young, Bae Myung-Hoon, Kim Chang-Gyu, and Jung So-Yeon.
Their works began to be introduced in the publishing market after 2010. Notably, Hello, A.I. by Bae Myung-Hoon won the 1st Munhakdongne Young Writer's Award in 2010. He also showed his imagination of a place that has a strong scent of Korea through his work The Tower (Munji Books) (2006) (This book was translated and published in English by publisher "Honford Star" in 2021). Then, he continued to announce experimental works and created new styles of Sci-Fi through his Art and Acceleration of Gravity (Book House) (2016), Archeological Psychicist (Book House) (2017), and Round and Round Universe (Giant Books) (2020). Meanwhile, writer Kim Chang-Gyu has announced works including Our Banished World (Arzak) (2016), Samsara (Arzak) (2018) and is translating diverse Sci-Fi titles such as Neuromancer (1984), the representative book of William Gibson.

 

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The Tower , Our Banished World

 

Writer Kim Bo-Young is skilled in linking Korea's traditional mythological subjects with Sci-Fi and covering social issues in her Sci-Fi stories. These aspects can be found in her collections Myth of Evolution (Happy SF) (2010), The Seven Executors (Pola Books) (2013), The Prophet of Corruption (Arzak) (2017), and How Similar (Arzak) (2020), and such unique characteristics have led to the recent sale of publication rights of some of her works to "HarperCollins Publishers" in the US. Also, she participated as the science advisor for “Snowpiercer” of Bong Jun-Ho, and has been showing her capacity in diverse fields such as novels and scenarios for games. Writer Jung So-Yeon had been the first president of the Science Fiction Writers Union of the Republic of Korea established in 2018, and has published various works, including My Neighbor Younghee (Changbi) (2015). These writers have been an indirect influence on new writers that made their debut after 2015 by acting as lecturers in all kinds of Sci-Fi writing academies or workshops.

 

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The Prophet of Corruption, My Neighbor Younghee

 

Sci-Fi in Korea is enjoying rosy days today as young new writers are at the center of people's attention. Good evidence of such a trend is three Sci-Fi writers – Chung Se-Rang, Kim Cho-Yeop, and Chang Kang-Myung, who were selected among the top 10 writers that will lead Korean literature for the next 10 years in a survey conducted by "Aladin," an online bookstore. Also, making her debut after winning the grand prize and the first prize at the 2nd Korean Science Literature Award, Kim Cho-Yeop won the 43rd Korea Artist Prize with her If We Cannot Move at the Speed of Light (Hubble) and the 11th Young Writer's Award with her following works, emerging as one of the representative Sci-Fi writers in Korea.
Also, writer Chung Se-Rang who made her debut in 2007 through a genre literature magazine called Fantastic, has been writing stories in various genres, including Sci-Fi and others. Her School Nurse Ahn Eunyoung (Minumsa) has been the talk of the town as it was made into a drama series on Netflix. In addition, it is meaningful to look at the works written by new writers who made their debut as they won the Korean Science Literature Award from 2016 to 2019, such as Park Hae-Wool, Cheon Seon-Ran, Kim Hye-Jin, and Hwang Mo-Gwa. The writers of these works signed contracts to have them translated and published in various languages in such a short period of time and even sold publication rights for video productions. In particular, writer Cheon Seon-Ran has been a rising star in the literary circle for her boundless possibilities with her Broken Bridge (Gravity Books) (2019), Some Shape of Love (Arzak) (2020), A Thousand Blues (Hubble) (2020).

 

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If We Cannot Move at the Speed of Light, School Nurse Ahn Eunyoung, A Thousand Blues

 

As such, the major characteristic of Korea's Sci-Fi works that have been receiving attention from the public is that the stories are manifested in the unique Korean sentiment and experiences moving away from the Western-style world view that had been dominating the genre for an extended period of time. Therefore, readers now think that they are not enjoying a specific code or customs of the special genre but are in fact, appreciating the familiar experiences through the world of "simulacra," which has become common today. In particular, as IT technologies and game culture have become a part of daily life in Korea, such perceptions of the young Korean readership are not new. Hence, rather than feeling distanced by the awe presented by Sci-Fi works, the meanings of various possibilities unfolded in each of the stories become more relevant to readers. These possibilities can be found in the fact that recently announced Sci-Fi works are turning into movies or videos. For example, on top of Netflix “School Nurse Ahn Eunyoung”, a so-called "cinematic drama" titled “SF8” based on the works of writers mentioned earlier, is a good representation. 

 

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Posters of “School Nurse Ahn Eunyoung”

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 “SF8”

 

Against this background, there is a strong possibility that Korean Sci-Fi could continue to expand in the future. Not only because there are several titles in the limelight, but also because various interests that have accumulated in recent years have emerged from diverse backgrounds. There have been various efforts to discover new writers, and those new figures continued on the path that led Korea's Sci-Fi to become what it is today. Also, publishers that specialize in Sci-Fi works are emerging steadily (such as Arzak, Hubble, and Gravity Books) along with public interest, and more publishers are actively publishing Sci-Fi titles such as Arte, Changbi, Goldenbough, Gufic, Editorial, Jamo Book, and Alma Books. In 2019, SF Today (Arte) was published, which is a periodic publication about Korean Sci-Fi. Also, more introductory books for the public related to relevant information or theories and critiques are being published or scheduled to be published.
Korea's Sci-Fi, which is currently at the center of public attention with the rise of new writers and changes in the social and public interest, not to mention the various possibilities born from past experiences, is expected to create more possibilities in not only the publishing culture but also across the entire culture. In particular, the unique characteristics of the genre where it is able to discuss social issues in the form of a story implies the possibility that it will be capable of responding to the diverse changes in the future generation alongside issues of today. Therefore, if you would like to see the cultural possibilities Korea has in 2021 and foresee the future, try reading various stories introduced by Sci-Fi writers in Korea. 

 

 


Written by Lee Ji-Yong (Professor at the Institute of Body & Culture, Konkuk University)

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Lee Ji-Yong (Professor at the Institute of Body & Culture, Konkuk University)

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