Seoyeon Lee, a PhD student in East Asian Languages and Cultures, is a student this semester in my seminar, Science Fiction As Media Theory. For her first assignment, she wrote about Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s“My Space Heroine”, a work little known outside of South Korea. I thought there would be broader interest out there on this topic. For those who would like to know more about Korean science fiction, check out this episode of How Do You Like It So Far?, the podcast that I co-host with Colin Maclay.
Science Fiction Representation of Cyborgs in Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s“My Space Heroine”
by Seoyeon Lee
As a techno-dystopian locale for human trafficking and prostitution, Asia has been depicted against a dark, rainy background full of neon signs in Blade Runner (1982), Ghost in the Shell(1995), and Blade Runner 2049(2017). The Western fear of and fascination with technologized Asia recently shifted from Tokyo and Hong Kong to Seoul, for example, in the cyberpunk film Cloud Atlas(2012), which presents the SF trope of a female cyborg as the very image of a futuristic East Asia. In this film, South Korea in 2144 is depicted as a dystopia governed by transnational corporations that divide the world into the upper-level and the underworld, where the genetically transformed human clones are treated as slave labor.Cyborgs or humanoids in an Asian female figure are no longer unfamiliar in science fiction (hereafter SF) literature, film, and animations.
At this point, a clear SF pattern is drawn from the Western imagination of the Asianized future: Otherizing the Orient by either over-simplifying or over-fantasizing it in order to alienate it from the Western criteria of humanity and humanism. Facing the West’s projection of its technological fear and fantasies of Asia, how does Asia respond? Are Asian SF writers, especially women writers, able to reappropriate the pattern of yellow peril anxieties of technologized Asia in the age of globalization? Considering that SF cultural products are often associated with various factors, such as transnational capitalism, state censorship, and global technological innovations, how do Korean SF women writers conform to or deviate from the status quo? This paper examines the SF literary representation of female cyborgs in Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s“My Space Heroine” (2019) from a feminist viewpoint.
Kim Ch’o-yŏp (김초엽1993~) isa South Korean SF woman writer who is interested in the theme of marginalized identity. Kim majored in chemistry at Pohang University of Science and Technology, and she won the Grand Prize at the 2ndKorea SF Awards with her novella “Book Missing Inside Library” during her graduate year in 2017. Kim’s SF short story, “My Space Heroine” (“Na ŭi uju yŏngung e kwanhayŏ” 나의우주영웅에관하여), which I will discuss in this paper, is included in her first SF collection bookIf We Cannot Move at the Speed of Light, which has been a sensation since its publication in 2019. Given that only a small number of studies on Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s selective SF works have been published and no English translations of her works exist, this paper as the first case study aims to explore the trope of cyborgs in Kim’s short story. In the plot, thefemale protagonist Ka Yun and her idol, aunt Jaegyeong become cyborgs through the SF concept of “Pantropy” to explore a new time-space in the universe. Through the process of becoming a cyborg, Ka Yun understands Jaegyeong’s choice of death; and meanwhile, Kim seeks the possibility to build an alternative world that reflects reality and imagines a future. In other words, Kim’s world-building provides an avenue to understand the characters and the world away from a familiar perspective while questioning the criteria of normality. In this respect, I argue that the SF concept of the female cyborg not only reflects on Otherness to challenge the binary demarcation of the center and the periphery, but also blurs the boundary of the nation-state, race and gender while imagining an alternate future.
Science Fiction Concept of Cyborgs: “My Space Heroine”
As Darko Suvin has argued in “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre,” “SF is a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (Suvin 118). According to Suvin, SF is a literature of cognitive estrangement. It is neither metaphysical nor entirely naturalistic, but a meta-empirical genre that emphasizes a strong relationship with the real world(s). SF, thus, does not simply play the role of the prophet that imagines the near or real future of our society in a pessimistic or optimistic way, but rather aims to unfold the present as history in the form of “some future worlds’ remote past” (Jameson 217).
When it comes to the literary aesthetics of cognitive estrangement, Kim Ch’o-yŏp deploys the SF trope of a cyborg in her short story. If the definition of a cyborg is “a hybrid of machine and organism” (Haraway 291) that is not afraid of “their joint kinship with animals and machines” (295), then Kim’s “My Space Heroine” is a great example to delve into. This short story depicts a female cyborg who changes bodily fluids and organs to complete the global mission of exploring an unknown space in the universe. Kim herself has become a “cyborg” since she was medically diagnosed as having a hearing impairment and wore a hearing aid from her early teens. When asked how it felt as a cyborg to live with a disability, Kim responded that “We are all in symbiosis with technology and we are hybrids of machines and organisms. … We already acknowledge the potential impact of becoming a cyborg which dismantles various dichotomies between machine and organism, human and non-human, and so on. If we cannot stop obsessing about the concept of normality, however, cyborg technology would merely become a means to fulfill the practice of normality. What kind of cyborg shall/should we eventually become?”This response highlights Kim’s main idea of (becoming) a cyborg that is often combined with a transformed body and extended mind to question the criteria for being human.
In Kim’s SF short story, the second-generation female astronaut, Ka Yun, tried to understand the mysterious death of her heroine, aunt Jaegyeong, the first astronaut to participate in the Aeronautics and Space Administration Project. In order to pass through a black hole like a tunnel and arrive at a new time-space in the universe, the selected astronauts were trained to rebuild their bodies through “Pantropy,” a so-called “cyborg grinding project.” During the multilevel training, the original human body is supplemented with artificial organs, skins, and blood vessels to endure the acceleration of gravity and pressure inside the tunnel. After their body fluids were replaced, both Jaegyeong and Ka Yun became cyborgs, hybrids of metal machines and nanobots. Although the first attempt of the project failed due to an unexpected explosion, Ka Yun, inspired by her long-time heroine Jaegyeong, was selected as the final member of the project to accomplish the incomplete mission. Through the process of becoming a cyborg, Ka Yun realized the reality of Jaegyeong’s death and gradually changed her feelings about Jaegyeong from a sense of admiration to betrayal to sympathy. Ka Yun understood why Jaegyeong was not in the spacecraft the day before launch but dived into the deep sea, where her marginalized identity as a disabled Asian single mother was finally liberated from the oppression of normality through the practice of becoming a cyborg.
Throughout the story that addresses Jaegyeong’s mysterious death from Ka Yun’s perspective, Kim employs the SF trope of a cyborg both to reflect the hierarchical dualism of reality and to imagine an alternate future free from the various social regulations and norms. In particular, when Jaegyeong was selected as the first woman tunnel astronaut, she was embroiled in controversy due to her background:
[Jaegyeong] was at the center of controversy over the selection of qualified astronauts, when the press released the fact that her skinny, small body had less muscle mass and a lower bone density, which were below the standard of the normal human body. She even had chronic vestibular disorders and was an Asian woman who once experienced pregnancy and childbirth. People were curious about how such an inappropriate agent, Jaegyeong, was chosen to be the representative of human beings. It was not emphasized that Jaegyeong was one of the three final selectees, and the other two astronauts were white men from the Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters.
While Jaegyeong was criticized for beingan imperfect candidate who did not fit into the standardized image of a white male astronaut, she was simultaneously admired as a heroine who was the representative of gender and racial minority groups. Jaegyeong met Yu Jin, Ka Yun’s mother, in an online community, where a single mom raising her non-marital child communicated with others. Jaegyeong and Yu Jin took turns taking care of their daughters and later built an alternative family relationship to live together. This alternate concept of family is considered a big threat to the normative social structure and challenges the heteronormative perspective of family kinship. Jaegyeong acknowledged that a double-edged sword was facing her as if she was the very person to be underrepresented or overrepresented, but she was not able to escape this double burden. In this light, Kim successfully illustrates the tension between fear of losing normative power as hegemony and a fascination for embracing differences in reality through the SF representation of a female cyborg Jaegyeong.
In addition to Kim’s reflection of reality through Jaegyeong’s fragile and disabled body, Jaegyeong’s ironic choice of becoming a cyborg mermaid highlights the subversive version of imagining the alternative future where human normativity is challenged. On the night before the spacecraft was launched, Jaegyeong decided to explore the deep sea rather than achieving the glorious title of being the first Asian woman astronaut. The next day, the media concluded that Jaegyeong committed suicide due to stress, and the public condemned her impulsive choice while proposing a new model of an ideal human that was the opposite image of Jaegyeong. Ka Yun, however, underwent the cyborg grinding process as Jaegyeong did and thought about Jaegyeong’s purpose of jumping into the deep sea as a cyborg body. During the actual diving training that checked whether the transformed cyborg body could withstand pressure, Ka Yun felt an unexplainable sense of freedom under the sea. At this moment, she realized that “what Jaegyeong wanted indeed was not the way of entering the space tunnel but becoming a new human. That is to say, cyborg grinding itself was what she had wanted from the very beginning” (Kim 306). Ka Yun envisioned the alternative space where Jaegyeong already became a cyborg mermaid and breathed freely with her newly implanted gills in the deep sea. This possibility of living in a new world resonated with what Jaegyeong mentioned before: “I want to become a human beyond human” (281). Jaegyeong’s words do not simply mean that she prefers sea to space in order to seek her freedom with her cyborg body. Rather, Jaegyeong’s pursuit of liberation is closely connected with the question of why humans explore new space. For Jaegyeong, regardless of whether the destination is deep space or a dark sea, becoming a cyborg itself provides the opportunity to imagine an alternative future in which a new human, i.e., posthuman decenters the dominant discourse of Western humanity.
It was not a surprise that the collection of Kim’s SF short stories became a sensational best-seller in South Korea, given that her posthuman narrative not merely reflected global technological innovations in contemporary Korean society but challenged the status quo from the perspective of race, gender, and disability. Although Kim’s vivid embodiment of cyborgs differs from cinematic visualization of cyborgs, her world-building as a communicative form in a written text reveals the power of literary imagination. It refuses to imitate the collective imagery of cyborgs driven by mass communication of audio-visual media; rather, it pushes the boundaries of reality to envision an alternative future making invisible visible.
This paper analyzed Kim Ch’o-yŏp’s “My Space Heroine” to examine the role of the SF trope of cyborgs. Kim provided a creative avenue to empower the act of storytelling through the SF effect of cognitive estrangement. By telling the story about another future, Kim imagined a world that reflects reality impacted by technological innovations and questions current norms to explore the uncertainties. The writer’s scientific imaginations played a significant role in avoiding the reproduction of the Other and blurring the boundary between the center and the periphery. In particular, Kim represented the image of a female cyborg, who was largely marginalized in history, to represent oppressive society and subverted the Western dominant paradigm of normality. Both Jaegyeong and Ka Yun as Asian women astronauts became cyborgs to complete the space mission, but their destinations were different. While thinking about Jaegyeong’s mysterious choice of diving into the deep sea, Ka Yun later realized that Jaegyeong was overrepresented as a part of minority groups and underrepresented as an unqualified agent. Becoming a new human, i.e., a cyborg, was the only way for Jaegyeong to escape the double burden and contest the Western ideal of humanity. Rather than entering the space tunnel to become the first Asian woman astronaut, Jaegyeong chose to belong to nowhere but herself while exploring how to become a cyborg.
By analyzing Kim’s SF work, I argue that SF as a literary genre is neither a means to propagate science technology nor a mere entertainment to amuse the public; rather it crosses the boundary of science and fiction and its in-betweenness ultimately makes SF writing reflect the present and imagine an alternative future. In this context, SF writers, as well as the audience, should consider the concept of a cyborg that represents the Other within or beyond reality.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne."A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In The Cybercultures Reader, 291-324. Edited by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy. London: Routledge, 2000.
Jameson, Fredric. “Progress versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?” In Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 211-24. Edited by Rob Latham. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
Kim, Ch’o-yŏp. “Na ŭi uju yŏngung e kwanhayŏ.” In Uri ka pit ŭi sokto ro kal su ŏptamyŏn, 273-319.Seoul: Hŏbŭl, 2019.
Suvin, Darko. “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre.” In Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 116-27. Edited by Rob Latham. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
The Korean essay appears in Ch’o-yŏp Kim, “Shinch'ewa kamgagi pyŏnhyŏngdoen uridŭrŭi chilmun,” Sisa-In169, Sisa-In co., Itd. https://www.sisain.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=35180
This is my translation from Korean. The original text is found in Ch’o-yŏp Kim, “Na ŭi uju yŏngung e kwanhayŏ,” in Uri ka pit ŭi sokto ro kal su ŏptamyŏn(Seoul: Hŏbŭl, 2019), 279-80.
SEOYEON LEE is a second-year Ph.D. student majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California. She graduated from Ewha Womans University with a bachelor's and a master's degree in Chinese Language and Literature. Her current research centers on science fiction literature in Korea and China. In particular, she is interested in the intersection of contemporary Korean and Chinese science fiction writers’ works while exploring possibilities of imagining an alternative world beyond the boundaries of gender and race.