Diving into Korean Science fiction with Kim Cho Yeop

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Author: Andrea Ramírez 

Intergalactic travel, robots, cutting-edge technology, solid feelings, digitized minds, and much more are what you can find in the book of short stories: “If We Can’t Travel at the Speed of Light” by author Kim Cho Yeop (Ulsan, 1993), published in 2019 and translated into Spanish in 2022 by Joo Hasun with Editorial Planeta. Science fiction is a genre that is over a hundred years old and became popular in the second half of the twentieth century. For a long time, this genre was seen as irrelevant or second-rate in Korea, as realism was favored. Certainly, after the 1990s and in recent years, science fiction has been one of the genres that have been supported in Korea, and several artists stand out, such as Jung So-yeon (1983), Kim Bo-yong (1975) and Bora Chung (1976), among others. This genre speculates on events that could occur in the future and uses various sciences to legitimize the plots in the works; a well-known example is that of Isaac Asimov, who was in fact a professor of biochemistry and wrote classics such as I, Robot. 

In fact, Kim Cho Yeop’s appearance in the literary field came as a surprise when in 2017 she won first and second place in the Korea Literary Prize for Science Fiction. Many of us know science fiction stories through movies like Blade Runner or Metropolis, which have come to us from Americans or Europeans. However, to do so at the hands of a young Korean author was a groundbreaking ride for me, and it is an experience I would definitely recommend. Does a pleasant future hold for us with technological advances, will these future realities be restful or will they make us miss the distant past, will human relationships be changed by technology?

Photo of Kim Cho Yeop. Taken from Matadero Madrid

It is a pleasure to read these stories because this fiction is strengthened by the academic training of the author, who being a scientist with a master’s degree in biochemistry, has injected her knowledge into the stories making them take us to possible worlds, from technology, ideas that already exist and other possible in a not so distant future. This could classify her work as hard science fiction, as it is rigorous and takes care of scientific and technical arguments, throughout her stories the author tries to explain on several occasions how technology works and how it was possible to reach certain scientific milestones, such as the creation of embryos or the use of nano solutions to modify a human body and turn it into a cyborg.

The female figure in the future and her place in the world is an aspect that is explored by the author in various ways in her stories. Various roles of women as daughters, mothers, friends, and professionals are explored, as well as how they relate to others and how they are viewed within society. Arguably, these are not questions for the future, but ones that are also explored in the present. It is great how through various female figures the diversity of roles we can play is understood, and in turn, I think Kim Cho Yeop’s academic background as a scientist makes this aspect to be explored in greater depth. Does motherhood change the work aspect, do women have to work much harder to be recognized, is dedicating oneself to a field of study without a break valuable? The stories explore women’s scientific endeavors and how research is conducted with the purpose of providing answers to the world on a variety of topics, from cryonics and life on another planet to language. This then gives a special seal to the work, as it allows the reader to glimpse several possible worlds through women and men who live with certain creations and inventions in non-existent, but plausible, special-time coordinates.

Science fiction-s woman. Taken from Freepik

When looking for more information about the science fiction genre, one finds that it is characterized by exploring possible consequences of foreseeable and hypothetical inventions or creations, this is certainly the case with Kim Cho Yeop’s stories. For example, in her first story, which shares the title of the book, she explores the figure of the scientist and refers to unknown worlds, the longing for a trip to a distant planet. She shows us a future world with spaceships and human beings as colonizers, with the desire to try other life outside the earth through various means such as wormholes and cryogenics. It also explores human relationships that are changed because of the different social and scientific contexts. An example of this is when one of the protagonists of the story says the following: “We are only multiplying the sum total of the existing loneliness in the universe” thus expressing her position in the world and how human connections are still valuable, even if they are put aside.

The second story holds several unknowns that are gradually unraveled through a letter sent by a female character to her friend. Everything develops from a question: why don’t the pilgrims return? Intrigue, curiosity, oblivion, and the search for the truth are the protagonists of this story that make us wonder: is knowledge about the world protected and do we live happily under ignorance? What kind of life do these characters have in a beautiful town far from the earth? On this occasion, once again the female characters seek their place in the world and the figure of the scientist resurfaces through biohacking, improving the human body and skills through technology

Biohacking. Taken from El Cronista

Have you ever wondered if somewhere in the universe there are other beings, how could you communicate with them? The search for extraterrestrial life through space travel is the theme explored in the third story called “Spectre”, where Kim Cho Yeop again approaches us with scientific terms such as photonic propulsion, basic biochemical elements on earth, and space expeditions. A woman scientist is found after decades and is accused of creating stories about beings from other planets, some accuse her of lying because “her loneliness must have been terrible to the point of imagining the non-existent”.

In the fourth story, there is no space travel or robots to accompany human life. In fact, it presents a world quite similar to the one we live in today, but that would be modified through an invention that could be considered at the time of writing these words. Can you imagine being able to have various emotions in a material form, from the most pleasurable to the ones we most want to avoid? The situations arising from such a novel invention remain as those of a not too distant future where “those products are attractive precisely because they endow something immaterial with materiality”; in this story, the possibility of materializing emotions wreaks havoc or helps human relations.

In his fifth story, space once again plays an important role. The quest to conquer other worlds and meet other beings is not such a futuristic issue, it could even date back to before the space race in the sixties, but the fact that these trips are possible thanks to the advances in science is something we are just exploring. Astronauts are figures that inspire respect and are role models; how many children will Neil Armstrong have inspired after being the first to set foot on the moon? This idea of the astronaut is developed in the story called “About my space heroine”, in which a young girl seeks to be the first to travel to the other side of the universe through a tunnel that has not been crossed before by humans. In this process to become a candidate to take the next step in the history of human beings, she is confronted with the truth about her heroine. The author again brings us a world supported by plausible scientific arguments (at least in theory) and reflects how humans seek to know and explore, regardless of losing part of their humanity through pantropy, a concept used by Blish in 1957 in a science fiction story, and genetic engineering.

Cricki’s ilustration. Taken from WallHere

Libraries are one of my favorite places and I certainly prefer physical books to those I can find digitally. Some say that these places are on their way to disappear or will become another type of entity, what do you think? I still enjoy going through the aisles surrounded by books and flipping through pages holding the materiality of history in my hands. In Kim Cho Yeop’s penultimate story, libraries are explored for a different purpose than the one we know. Usually, to search for a book we need certain elements such as the author, the name of the book, and the genre, among others. But what do we do if we do not find the book even though we know it is there? Can you imagine that, instead of books, you have the possibility to search for the digitalization of the mind of a relative who has passed away? Libraries would change from cultural precincts to places to pay tribute to the dead. This is explored through the relationship of a mother and daughter in the text “Untraceable”, there is no recognizable whereabouts for that being who had given life to Jimin. In this text, there is also an approach to the theme of motherhood and women’s roles.

Finally, we find the story called “The symbiosis hypothesis”. Let’s start by remembering a little about the meaning of symbiosis, which is defined as the way in which individuals of different species relate to each other obtaining benefits. There are several types such as mutualism, parasitism, and commensalism, among others. In this story, this relationship is explored through the figure of some researchers trying to understand, through experiments, what some beings want to say without resorting to verbal language. In the midst of these investigations, they begin to have results that do not make sense. The figure of art turns out to be the key. Through the paintings of a woman named Lyudmila, we learn about “that place” which is another planet according to her. Her paintings are representations of this place in a constant way and the people resembled it with unknown places, but that they kept in their hearts, which made them have different emotional reactions to the work of this woman.

I hope you will be eager to travel to new worlds with Kim Cho Yeop’s stories, which are undoubtedly full of surprises and reflections for readers. In addition, the author explores with her stories several plausible worlds in which there are several well-developed characters that lead us to know more about these unknowable realities for us.

Reading Pair: Adriana Mercado 

Reviewed by: Marisol Montiel


Kim Cho Yeop. Si no podemos viajar a la velocidad de la luz. 2022. PlanetaLibros.

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