Readymade Bodhisattva: The Kaya Anthology of
South Korean Science Fiction
Edited by Sunyoung Park and Sang Joon Park
Kaya Press, 2019
434 pages, $24.95
Reviewed by Alice Y. Lu
Western science fiction has evolved from the golden age of “hard” science-rooted Isaac Asimov to the “societal” writing of Ursula K. Le Guin, with subcultures and time periods focusing on cyberpunk, futurism, feminism, and post-apocalyptic. Though South Korean science fiction is a much younger and smaller genre, the translated anthology Readymade Bodhisattva (Kaya Press, 2019) is a collection of thirteen pieces from the 1960s to the 2010s, and yet it is just as matured, as if it had skipped over the Golden Age to stories intrinsically focused on social dynamics.
As the introduction states: “one distinctive mark [of South Korea] is a strong sense of the apocalypse having already happened, whether through war, colonization, dictatorship, or the corporate monopolization of resources.” As the country has become highly developed in recent decades, with an enormous growth in GDP and global presence in media, the book makes a good case its genre writers have encompassed the nuances and questions that arise. We meet a cast of “others” including a wheelchair-bound dreamer, a lone male in a woman’s world, a space refugee, a young robot artist, a literal alien, and the theoretical adult version of a teenage girl who committed suicide. It pulls out the loose threads in the fabric of society, highlighting the “what-ifs” of a collective consciousness.
In the titular short story by Park Seonghwan, Inmyeong is an artificial intelligence robot who supports a Buddhist temple and hopes to achieve enlightenment, which raises questions from authority figures: Does Inmyeong have a “concept of selfhood” before it is capable of rejecting it? Is the robot greater, wiser, and more noble than the human? The mechanic who comes to fix the robot declares: “This thing that he could take apart with his own hands, using nothing but a wrench? In that case, enlightenment couldn’t be that hard to achieve!” But of course it isn’t — a human must be reincarnated through thousands of lifetimes, and in each, the same soul must reject “passions and desires.” If a robot is born without human desires, is it human?
As humans, we tend to possess an intrinsic chaos of emotion and creativity, The speaker of “Along the Fragments of My Body” by Bok Geo-il is a nine-year-old aspiring artist, trying to grasp this chaos. She is a newer model, but she reveres the “’bots from Old Earth” who have “looked up into its blue sky, and felt the wind and rain on their skin.” She sees their nostalgia lends to the emotional basis of their art. The robot herself is a poet, and as she looks out at the night sky filling up with Jupiter, she thinks of a poem about the movement of human descendants through space. She is blinded by the wide smile of a reporter, though she cannot smile herself. She is confused by abstract art pieces, but attributes it to her young age. As the art in our world becomes more and more curated (if not produced) by algorithms and metrics, the young robot child is an attempt to reclaim, through her own revelations, how art is intrinsically tied to physical existence.
My personal favorite, “Cosmic Go,” features a mother and daughter pair who share a love for the game Go, a game of strategy traditionally played by more-privileged males. As the daughter grows up, the game becomes a metaphor for her life and dream to go to space. Real life is a “background noise” to her studies and to the game of Go. She “[wonders] whether other people [have] as much structure as the nineteen lines on the Go board, and whether their lives [are] as meaningful as the 361 points where the gridlines intersected.” At twenty-eight years old, all of her life’s moves are destroyed when she becomes disabled by a vehicle accident, and “in twenty seconds [she][loses] all the fruits of two decades of hard work.”
Like all good science fiction, the collection allows readers to ruminate on contemporary traumas and issues. “Between Zero and One” by Kim Bo-Young provides commentary on education fever in South Korea set to the background of parallel universes ruled by a world of “probability” rather than certainty. A young girl has committed suicide just before her college entrance exam, and her mother laments their parting memories: “She should’ve waited a little bit longer…We would’ve forgiven each other…She should have left me with a different memory.” The adolescent girl is compared to the moon, which “was in flux until the first spaceship landed on it” and “scientists determined its form.” The adult version of the girl will be forever theoretical but probable in the world of Between Zero and One. On the other hand, “Our Banished World” by Kim Changgyu recalls the 2014 Sinking of MV Sewol, in which hundreds of high school students died. It may be a more hopeful narrative than its real-world counterpart.
While the stories in Readymade Bodhisattva recreate the tropes of science fiction, the genre of “wonder,” its a new context. One can sense the presence of this history, of something dystopic having happened already or happening during the course of the story. In the stories of Readymade Bodhisattva, science fiction is not just a medium for playing with ideas, but for thinking about society, whether the clash between Buddhism and technology or conflicts between family units, characters are anxious about their wants and ambitions, which at are odds with the competitive society they live in. After all, is not anxiety the dark-mirror version of “wonder”?