Cyborgs, Cyphers, and Feminist Compromise in Contemporary South Korean Science Fiction

By Max Kapur. A version of this essay appeared in the Emory Journal of Asian Studies, 2020.

Asked to name her fiction’s guiding principle, Korean science-fiction author Yun I-hyŏng answered without hesitation: “I can speak very clearly about that. It’s health. I’m looking toward health.”1 Yun’s response seems to fulfill Marleen Barr’s distinction between women’s and men’s science fiction (SF): the former, Barr argues, embraces a feminist concern for social problems, whereas men’s SF has focused on benign speculation about future technologies.2 While SF has existed in Korean literature for about a century, the rose of women’s SF in South Korea during the past few decades invites us to consider Korean SF’s feminist potential. What draws contemporary feminist authors to SF, a genre that has traditionally framed itself as masculine? To approach this question, I consider two authors’ textual choices in the context of their authorial presentations. I examine two stories, Yun I-hyŏng’s “The Sky Walker” (2008) and Kim Po-yŏng’s “Between Zero and One” (2009), alongside interviews and essays in which the authors discuss their affinity for SF and hint at their political ambitions. At times, they seem at odds with themselves: Yun claims she writes pure literature (sunmunhak), a realist, apolitical genre, but her story features SF’s speculative imagination as well as prominent references to contemporary political debates like national division and the post–Cold War regional order. Kim, on the other hand, makes no apologies for writing SF, but she concedes that her devotion to hard SF alienates some readers. I argue these apparent generic contradictions reveal sophisticated authorial strategies when we situate them in the adversarial environment of Korean literature. Indeed, Yun’s and Kim’s polysemous writing styles reflect the compromises other (Korean) women have made in order to gain a political platform in male-dominated literary spheres. Thus, while the emergence of Korean women’s SF may appear to SF fans as a masculine genre’s feminist rebranding, perhaps it is better understood as the growth of earlier feminist literary projects into a new generic space.

Yun’s “The Sky Walker”3 takes place in a post-apocalyptic future that bears an uncanny resemblance to the present day. Society is divided between two prominent religious groups: on the one hand, pseudo-Christian followers of the dragon god Drakis; and on the other, those who believe a cosmic being named Prometheans averted human extinction by endowing humans with alien technology and scientific wisdom. Chi-hyŏn, the story’s protagonist and narrator, comes from a family of devout Drakianists who have cultivated her talent for trampolining, a form of athletic worship that honors Drakis by imitating his manner of flight. As she grows up, however, Chi-hyŏn begins to doubt her childhood faith, and in the course of exploring her atheist suspicions, she ventures beyond the immense wall that separates Seoyong (a pun on Seoul and dragon) from the nuclear decontamination zone. There, she encounters a ragtag group of Prometheanist athletes who practice tang-tang, a freer form of trampolining that employs multiple trampolines in a larger arena and permits the sorts of daredevil maneuvers banned in Drakianist trampolining. Tang-tang intrigues Chi-hyŏn, and she begins to study their techniques with a Drussian tang-tang athlete named Yuri. However, Chi-hyŏn is undermined by her own ambition. She abandons Drakianism and gets suspended from competitive trampolining, only to discover that she lacks the transhuman gravity-bending ability that enables tang-tang artists to pull off their impressive stunts.

Yun’s skeptical depiction of Korea’s future lends the “The Sky Walker” a keen political edge, and the story’s dystopian elements signal a richer connection to SF canon than implied by the title’s superficial Star Wars reference. In Drakorea, while neither the Drakoreans and Drussians nor the Drakianists and Prometheanists exhibit open hostility toward one another, the profoundness of the social divisions in Chi-hyŏn’s environment rub uneasily against her overarching hope for unity. For example, Chi-hyŏn ponders religion:

My tentative conclusion is that neither the Dragon God nor the aliens ever really existed. Humans were just lucky enough to reconstruct a civilized way of life, and then chose to believe in whatever they wanted to believe.

But the things people believe in end up shaping the world. (290)

Chi-hyŏn’s resigned tone stresses the intractability of social difference. As in today’s Korea, Drakorea’s neoliberal order rests on enduring narratives of regional division and economic stratification.4 In a sense, Chi-hyŏn herself engages in the speculative project of SF through her desire to venture beyond the wall and challenge Drakianism’s cramped worldview. She longs for a different frame of reference, or what Darko Suvin calls “a mapping of possible alternatives” to a future that seems predestined.5 Yet Chi-hyŏn, limited by her genetics, must accept a more modest victory: The Drakianist priests loosen their rules to allow higher jumps, and Chi-hyŏn returns to mainstream trampolining and starts training for the next Drakolympics. She also begins to yield to her mother’s tireless insistence on reading Dragon Scriptures every day. Chi-hyŏn’s accession to the social hierarchy does not offer readers the sense of political closure conferred by, for example, the young hero’s crisis of complicity at the end of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. But the political references Yun includes along the way connect “The Sky Walker” to canonical SF in that they transform a contrived future into a sandbox for reimagining the contemporary, revealing Yun as an inventive and politically engaged author.

However, when Yun discusses her own work in person, she outlines a strikingly more complex generic position. She admits only reluctantly of her SF influences, instead claiming the apolitical literary orientation of pure literature (sunmunhak). For example, Sin Yŏn-sŏn begins one interview6 by asking for Yun’s thoughts on the postmodern impulse to overcome genre boundaries. Yun first defends genre distinctions: “I think [the different genres] should have respect for one another. Back when I didn’t know anything, I used to think that the division between pure literature and genre literature would disappear, should disappear. That doesn’t seem right.” Yun complicates this response, however, in answering a follow-up question about her own generic affiliation. Despite Yun’s earlier assent that her fiction contains “science-fictional elements,” Yun says, “I think of myself as an author of pure literature. That’s if I had to choose between the two” (“the two” refers to genre literature and pure literature). Later on, the interviewer asks Yun how she decided to become a writer. Yun answers, “It may be unappealing to say this, but … I was a Haruki [Murakami] fan.” Even as she acknowledges her creative debt to Murakami’s speculative fiction, Yun situates reading his work as a girlhood pastime.7 What compels Yun to make these apologies—for wishing genre distinctions would fade, for reading Murakami?

Yun’s noncommittal responses offer a glimpse of an authorial strategy that seeks to incorporate her speculative and political ambitions into a literary scene dominated by realist values. Rather than write off Yun’s disavowal of SF as simple elitism, I believe her half-embrace of pure literature is a literary example of what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls strategic essentialism.8 In the interview cited above, after Yun identifies herself as an author of sunmunhak, she adds, “For now, I tend to be immersed in the pure-literature system.” Such cautious phrasing suggests Yun understands her standing within the pure-literature community primarily as a source of cultural capital; once she’s secured a publishing contract, she isn’t afraid to violate the genre’s realist conventions. In other words, Yun sees herself as an author of pure literature only insofar as pure literature shares her humanist values (“I’m looking toward health,” she says9). On the other hand, SF’s capacity for dreaming about alterity is what empowers Yun to explore social issues in depth.10 Yun’s inconsistent genre geography in the interview thus directs us to her innovative genre-bending in the pages of “The Sky Walker.” Indeed, Yun’s reluctant affiliation with pure literature resembles her character Chi-hyŏn’s return to Drakianist trampolining: by willfully acceding to the given social order, Yun and Chi-hyŏn alike bargain for a measure of creative latitude.

Yun would not be the first female author to make such compromises in pursuit of broader artistic goals. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar liken women who write in patriarchal contexts to “Cyphers,” cypher meaning both null (because women are assumed to lack literary agency) and inscrutable (because when they nonetheless do write, they are shunned by the literary mainstream and called nonsensical).11 In SF, already a marginal genre in Korean literature overall, Yun faces the added challenge of working in a male-dominated field.12 This challenge explains why she describes her relationship to genre as not a choice between literary conventions, but a strategic affinity for one social “system,” articulated through what she calls a “generic code” (changnŭ chŏgin k’odŭ).13 By packaging her SF as the more respected sunmunhak, Yun embraces a strategy similar to those other Korean women have used to secure a place in Korean literature. For example, Kyeong-hee Choi has framed Ch’oe Chŏng-hŭi’s pro-Japanese collaborationist stories as a covert indictment of Korean nationalist patriarchy,14 while Sunyoung Park has applied Gilbert and Gubar’s notion of palimpsestic writing to Kang Kyŏng-ae’s journalistic narratives of women’s poverty.15 Socialist realism and SF represent opposite literary epistemologies, but in unapologetically embracing her chosen genre, Kang also resembles the next contemporary SF author I turn to, Kim Po-yŏng.

If Yun’s authorial strategy involved distancing herself from the SF community while adopting the genre’s literary conventions, Kim Po-yŏng bears the SF label with pride and pushes the genre in new directions using her rich knowledge of science and literary theory. Kim is also unlike Yun in that Kim makes no attempt to obscure her political ambitions; in the author’s note to her story “Between Zero and One” (discussed presently), she implies that the story critiques President Lee Myung-bak’s education policy.16 Nonetheless, Kim also inhabits a complex identity. I argue that her enthusiasm for politically charged SF represents a different, but equally strategic, response to the same systemic issues Yun dodges by affiliating with pure literature instead of SF. Like South Korean factory-girl authors of the 1970s and ’80s, Kim may sacrifice some visibility by adopting a marginal genre, but she gains an opportunity to participate in a literary community that shares her political and epistemic values.17 Thus, rather than disavow science fiction, Kim advocates for literary practices that will broaden the genre’s readership and raise its critical standing. In her essay “On Writing SF,”18 Kim asks why SF faces a tepid reception among some readers. Her answer suggests Korean SF is overdue to make a turn toward social, and perhaps feminist, engagement. Kim notes that SF creators must answer contradictory demands: while lay readers complain the science is too hard and distracts from the plot, scientists take a red pen to every scientific error. Kim shares her “workarounds” for appeasing these critics. She writes her stories using a “dual structure” that includes both technological speculation and emotional drama, and she does as much background research as possible while also allowing herself to take occasional scientific liberties.19

Kim offers a virtuosic demonstration of dual structure in “Between Zero and One,”20 a story whose commission request read simply “unconditional hard SF.”21 The story is propelled by an eccentric informant named Thick Glasses, who travels through time to console Mrs. Kim after her daughter, Su-ae, committed suicide. Mrs. Kim blames herself for her daughter’s death, precipitated by an escalating series of arguments over the girl’s declining academic performance and her involvement in a youth protest calling for the end of “old-fashioned education” (239). We learn that Su-ae’s rebelliousness stemmed from a suspicion that her schoolteachers, rabid anti-communists who teach “obsolete physics like Newtonian mechanics” (263), had created a time-travel device and were abusing it to implement their conservative ideology.22 As Thick Glasses reveals, this conspiracy theory was entirely true, and Thick Glasses is herself the accomplished scientist whom Su-ae, had she survived, would have grown into. Moving back in time, Thick Glasses visits Su-ae and tries to vindicate her, but she fails to avert the girl’s suicide, leaving the reader to speculate about Thick Glasses’s true identity and the implications of editing the past. As Kim explains in her essay on SF authorship, the primary structure in “Between Zero and One” is this thought experiment about the paradoxes of causality inherent in time travel. However, Kim decided to heighten the story’s political and emotional drama after recalling her own mother’s reaction to “Beneath the Earth,” one of Kim’s earlier, nerdier stories: “But child, what does the whole thing mean?”

Kim humbly maintains that most SF creators employ the dual-structure technique, but I argue Kim’s use of it lends a political potency to her text that could not exist in either conventional SF or the rarefied environment of pure literature. As Marleen Barr observes, feminist fabulation (her preferred term for women’s SF) features a concern for social justice absent in the technological hyperfixation of men’s SF.23 In “Between Zero and One,” the fictional technology of time travel enables productive intergenerational conversations. Thick Glasses endears herself to Su-ae by disproving the girl’s assumption that “grown-ups don’t understand quantum mechanics around here” (261). Mrs. Kim, in contrast, finds Su-ae’s rabbit (a social-networking device) bewildering and worries it will distract her daughter from schoolwork. In fact, Su-ae has been using the rabbit to practice English with peers around the globe (262), and her adult counterpart Thick Glasses works as a sort of intertemporal diplomat who fields calls on her holographic phone from the Secretary of Health and Human Services (246). For present-day readers, such images spotlight changing expectations of young people and the pitfalls of a rigid education system that lags behind technological development. Consider the critical role of social media in 2008’s youth-organized “Mad Cow” protests24 of Lee Myung-bak’s free-trade policy: in Donna Haraway’s sense of the term, Su-ae’s friends and the 2008 protestors alike can be called “cyborgs” whose transhumanity empowers their ironic, postmodern style of protest and endows them with the political vocabulary needed to combat a system as intractable as technocapitalism.25 Barr sets feminist SF apart from men’s SF on the grounds that the former is more socially engaged, while Haraway sees feminist SF as improving on feminist realism by speaking to our contemporary transhuman ontology.26 It seems Kim threads the needle of feminist SF by passing both “tests”: her fiction contains both incisive political commentary and a speculative vision of a society changed indelibly by technology. Despite the genre’s marginal status, Kim writes and advocates for SF because she knows no other genre can carry her message with such force.

Neither Yun I-hyŏng nor Kim Po-yŏng can be fully appreciated under the conventional hierarchy of literary genres. Instead, I’ve argued that both in their stories and in the ways they describe their own writing, these so-called science-fiction creators move between generic identities in a way that reflects continuity with the strategies other women have used to achieve visibility in the literary mainstream. This analysis reminds us that like gender or womanhood itself, genre is a kind of performance, “a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end.”27 Thus, in her interviews, when Yun downplays her political edge and takes a bashful tone in citing Haruki Murakami, she associates herself with the apolitical, realist canon of pure literature even as her stories like “The Sky Walker” broaden that genre’s political and empirical horizons. Kim never apologizes for writing SF, yet her formal innovation of the dual structure can also be read as a genre-bending project that recasts SF in heightened political terms. While women’s SF is a relatively new genre in Korea, such authorial strategies recall those of Yun and Kim’s predecessors. For example, Hye-Ryoung Lee suggests the case of labor activist Kwŏn In-suk as prototypical of minjung feminist authors. Kwŏn was sexually assaulted by police interrogators and later “emphasized that the violence committed against her should be regarded as the oppression of a worker rather than the violation of a woman … in order to avoid her gender identity overshadowing the cause of labor activism.”28 Yun and Kim make different trades, but the underlying strategy of feminist compromise (or patriarchal bargain29) remains.

Yun and Kim are both contemporary authors. Further research may contextualize them and their peers in the larger history of Korean SF. In her genealogy of twentieth-century Korean SF, Sunyoung Park traces the genre from its positivist embrace of technology in the 1960s, through the dystopian, minjung-infused anxiety of the ’70s and ’80s, to a renewed hope in the ’90s for liberation through connectivity.30 This periodization agrees with Judy Wajcman’s history of feminism’s relationship to technology: Whereas early radical feminists concluded that technology was a tool of the patriarchy, in the 1990s, a wave of cyberfeminist activity arose thanks to the early internet’s anonymity and freedom. Wajcman, writing in 2006, called for a technofeminist approach to scholarship that would challenge cyberfeminism’s technological determinism by centering feminist actors instead of the technologies they use.31 In a sense, Yun’s and Kim’s work answers Wajcman by offering a more complex appraisal of the relationships among technology, capital, and feminism. In “The Sky Walker,” Chi-hyŏn’s hopes of escaping the rigidities of Drakianist trampolining are thwarted by the Prometheanists’ technological and genetic advantages, and we are reminded that technology is just as likely to compound inequality as it is to transcend social division. Meanwhile, in “Between Zero and One,” even the power of time travel isn’t enough to protect Su-ae from her suicidal impulses. In these instances of contemporary Korean SF, technology embeds a range of potential futures, and not all of them are positive. But, as the narrator of “Between Zero and One” wryly observes, “Was there ever a time when probability didn’t rule?” (260).

Notes

1.
Sin Yŏn-sŏn, “Yun I-hyŏng.”
2.
Barr, “Feminist Fabulation.”
3.
The story was first published in 2008 in the Crossroads Webzine and later anthologized in Yun’s 2011 collection K’ŭn nŭktae p’arang. I quote from Kyunghee Eo’s manuscript of her translation, which has since been published in Readymade Bodhisattva.
4.
On the neoliberal characteristics of contemporary Korean society, see Cho Hae-joang, “The Spec Generation.” For an explicitly feminist examination of similar issues, see Song, “A Room of One’s Own.”
5.
Suvin, Metamorphoses, 24.
6.
Sin Yŏn-sŏn, “Yun I-hyŏng.”
7.
When Sin Yŏn-sŏn asks Yun what sort of literature she reads now, Yun’s hesitation is palpable: “I like realist literature and genre literature alike. I also like Korean literature. And I also like SF.”
8.
Spivak’s work, Can the Subaltern Speak?, deals with nationality; I am taking essentialism in its conceptual sense of accession to existing social categories.
9.
In addition to health, Yun mentions to the interviewer the politics of memory (perhaps a nod to the counterhistorical project of minjung literature) and the challenges of intergenerational communication.
10.
Per Suvin’s thesis in Metamorphoses, as cited above.
11.
Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 60.
12.
My implication isn’t that the pure-literature community is less patriarchal than the SF community in a normative sense. Rather, it seems Yun herself has found the pure-literature system more receptive of her own literary goals.
13.
Sin Yŏn-sŏn, “Yun I-hyŏng.”
14.
Choi, “Another Layer of the Pro-Japanese Literature.”
15.
Park, The Proletarian Wave, 229.
16.
“While I was making up my mind about what to write, one day I had a dream in which the current president appeared as a high-school teacher. And I felt that his every aspect overlapped perfectly with a schoolteacher whom I’d terribly disliked—that while he was a reflection of society as a whole, he was also a self-portrait; that he was someone who’d escaped from one of my childhood nightmares. Instead of being an old story from my childhood, I felt this was a story that continues even now. So I decided to write that story” (Kim, Chinhwa sinhwa, 326).
17.
See Barraclough, Factory Girl Literature, esp. ch. 3, which argues factory-girl literature bore a unique capacity for expressing the conflicted subjectivity of young women who were the products and producers of modernity but not its beneficiaries.
18.
Kim Po-yŏng, “SF rŭl ssŭntanŭn kŏt.”
19.
Kim jokes, “A criticism often made of authors is, ‘If you just Googled it once, you would’ve known.’ But in order to Google, I’d first have to know what I don’t know. And if I Googled everything, it’d really take a ‘Google’ (10100) hours” (ibid.).
20.
The story is anthologized in Kim’s Chinhwa sinhwa; I quote from the manuscript of an English translation by Eunhye Jo and Melissa Chan, which has since appeared in Readymade Bodhisattva. Jo graciously provided me her digitized version of the Korean text as well as the editor’s comments on her translation.
21.
Kim Po-yŏng, “SF rŭl ssŭntanŭn kŏt.” Elsewhere, she quotes the commission as reading, “as hard as your heart desires” (Chinhwa sinhwa, 326).
22.
Note Kim’s reference to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which Nazi scientists plot to invade and racially purify parallel universes. In a literal sense, these fictional characters fulfill Jameson’s fear that utopic literature is a covert “attempt to colonize the future, to draw the unforeseeable back into tangible realities” (Archaeologies of the Future, 228).
23.
Barr, “Feminist Fabulation.”
24.
Kang, “Internet Activism Transforming Street Politics.”
25.
Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” On the role of irony, pastiche, and internet memes in the 2008 protests, see Kang, “Internet Activism Transforming Street Politics.” On technocapitalism, see Wajcman, Judy. “TechnoCapitalism Meets TechnoFeminism” (also discussed below).
26.
In other words, Haraway seems to agree with Park’s observation that for the (Korean) SF authors of the ’90s, “science fiction was akin to a new ‘realism’ for an advanced society in which science was no longer the exclusive domain of government” (“Between Science and Politics,” 19).
27.
Butler, Gender Trouble, 45.
28.
Lee, “Bright Constellation,” 239.
29.
Kandiyoti, “Bargaining with Patriarchy.”
30.
Park generously allowed me to consult her forthcoming article, “Between Science and Politics.”
31.
Wajcman, “TechnoCapitalism Meets TechnoFeminism.” Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” is a representative example of what Wajcman calls cyberfeminism. In Korea, the anonymous (but widely regarded as lesbian) author Djuna, who rose to prominence in the 1990s, is perhaps the prototypical (dis)embodiment of Haraway’s cyborg activist; see Park, “Between Science and Politics,” 31n35.

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