Interview with Kim Bo-Young: Why the Stars Shine in Earth’s Sky
by Lim Taehun October 06, 2021
Your short story “How Alike Are We” (2017) can’t be excluded from any discussion regarding Korean literature’s achievements in the 2010s whether one is a fan of science fiction or not. The story keenly observes the changes Korean society is yearning for in the wake of tumultuous events, from the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014 through the so-called “AlphaGo shock” in 2016 to the feminism reboot ongoing from 2015. I imagine the story must have undergone countless revisions and rewrites. I’m very curious what that process was like.
The message of a completed story can turn out quite differently from what you intended to write. My original plan had been to invert the “human in a mechanical body” trope in science fiction and write about an “AI in a human body.” But as I wrote, I struggled with the question “Why did this AI want to become human?” Maybe because humans can easily do what machines can’t, I supposed, but failing to pinpoint an answer, I stopped writing and put the story aside for a long time.
[For anyone who hasn’t read the story, please skip the bracketed paragraphs below as they contain spoilers. The English translation is available online in full at the Clarkesworld magazine website.—Ed.]
[The answer came to me while I was watching The Masked Singer with my older brother. My brother, who has a mild developmental disability, wanted to know whether the masked singer was female or male, while the rest of us watching tried to guess their name or age or profession. It occurred to me then that our ability to instantly tell someone’s gender relies on the countless stereotypes and biases we hold about it. Short means female, deep-voiced means male, and so on. My brother was having trouble perceiving gender because he doesn’t stereotype. I reasoned that an AI would have precisely the same difficulty.
This is a logical conclusion. AIs don’t reproduce sexually, so they have no gender, so they have no reason to distinguish between genders. Whereas humans immediately assign a binary gender to even an AI who explicitly says they don’t have one, that they are, so to speak, agender.]
Once I found the answer, the story developed quickly. Then a publisher approached me for a solar system-themed anthology, where I decided to include this story that had been brewing for a long time.
But right around the story’s due date, Korean Gamergate occurred. [In 2016 a video game voice actress tweeted an image of a T-shirt reading “Girls Do Not Need A Prince.” The tweet prompted a backlash among male gamers and resulted in the voice actress losing her job.—Ed.] There was an outpouring of complaints by gamers insisting “I don’t want to see work by a feminist in my games” and demanding such work be removed. Their definition of a feminist was loose at best. Anyone who said, “That’s no reason to remove someone’s work” was branded a feminist and attacked. The worst hit were game illustrators, many of whom were women and part-time subcontractors unprotected by labor laws, so a number of companies took down their illustrations in an attempt to defuse the uproar. But a series of all-too-successful complaints only fueled the frenzy, which spread to other creative industries and to Korean society at large with repercussions felt to this day. Game narrative design being my main source of income at the time rather than fiction writing, I suddenly had to stop everything I was working on.
Amidst that madness, the story I’d been writing felt too superficial. I told my publisher that I just couldn’t publish the story as it was, and pinched for time, I sent the revised story to my editor chapter by chapter, daily serial style. That’s how my bafflement at the hate and madness that can suddenly spread in a restricted environment ended up in the story.
On the flip side, Gamergate prompted the Korean publishing industry to take a deep interest in feminism. And it didn’t take long for the industry to realize that most feminist utopian and dystopian fiction was in fact science fiction. Existing Korean SF writers were reexamined, a slew of general fiction readers—the majority of whom were women—consequently crossed over to the genre, and new SF writers also shot up in number. Paradoxically, 2016 was a breakout year for the Korean SF market.
“I’m Waiting for You” and “On My Way to You” are two linked epistolary stories about a man and woman whose unsynchronized timelines bar them from reuniting for their interstellar wedding. Compared to “On My Way to You,” which is told from the woman’s point of view, the man’s telling of “I’m Waiting for You” feels a lot more condensed. Why did you choose the letter format?
From the outset, “I’m Waiting for You” was written not to be read, but to be heard when the person who had commissioned the story proposed to his girlfriend. The story’s first version was a cassette tape recorded by the groom. My first draft had music cues. Since the story would be narrated to a romantic partner, I chose the letter form for its conversational tone, and since it wouldn’t do for the girlfriend to get bored and leave mid-reading, I omitted and condensed a lot. The man would narrate the whole work himself, so the woman wasn’t featured in the story. Everything in this story was written with a single goal: that she might, as she listened, be moved to accept his proposal.
Except—I feel a little apologetic toward the couple for saying this—when I was writing “I’m Waiting for You,” my thoughts kept turning to the parents waiting for their children aboard the Sewol. There was no special reason for the association. It’s just that there was little else I could think about that year.
I’m also sorry to say that the person I had in my thoughts while writing “On My Way to You” was my mother, who had passed the previous year. There was little else I could think about that year, too. Sewol parents would miss their children even if the world should end. As I would miss my mother even at the world’s end. Love isn’t so complicated.
In both “How Alike Are We” and “On My Way to You,” an AI, a technological being, acts as the arbitrator and problem solver of a catastrophe that has befallen human society. The AIs in both works follow a strictly mathematical and logical algorithm. Yet the conclusion they draw is to stand on the side of good, not evil. I found this interesting. What is artificial intelligence to you?
My answer may not be what you expect. Artificial intelligence is the way I understand my family, and how I understand my life with my family.
My brother has a mild developmental disability that can be categorized as Asperger’s. When I was young, there was poor awareness of disabilities and it wasn’t easy to find professionals and professional services. My parents had me believe that my brother was normal and I grew up believing so. As with many children with older siblings, my brother was my first friend, my first window into society. But as I grew older, the problem that the world neither understood my closest and most familiar friend nor noticed his existence—yet had so many people like him—became one of my life’s major preoccupations.
The logical reasoning of artificial intelligence is not unlike the way someone with Asperger’s thinks. My brother does not judge, whereas a neurotypical person will judge even when they say they do not and thus has no idea what it feels like to never judge. I project such qualities onto my AI characters. So for me, imagining the personality of an AI is easy, comfortable, and fun. The gaze of my machines reflects my brother’s lifelong struggles, as well as my own feelings of disconnect with this world that come from having been socialized through my brother growing up.
I don’t think the AIs I portray are ethical. They are simply logical in a way that humans aren’t. This just appears ethical to the human eye at times.
Important themes in your work like “the evolution of ethics” must have required careful consideration in storytelling. Does your concern with ethics ever restrain your imagination? Or have your efforts to stay true to principles helped renew your imagination in unexpected ways?
Imagination can’t be restrained. It’s boundless. Every night I watch the images cooked up by my imagination until I fall asleep. It just takes time for me to convert those imaginings into a form people can understand, and to research what I need to realize them. That’s why storytelling can realize only tiny snippets of my imagination.
Realism still dominates Korean publishing and many readers find even the most common SF tropes strange or difficult. Writing stories that don’t bore me or my SF readers but are still legible to the uninitiated has thus been a key concern throughout my writing career. It’s like having to satisfy two requirements that are impossible to satisfy at once, every time. This restraint is great enough that I haven’t had the chance to worry about any others.
A Plagued Sea (2020), a story about the outbreak of “East Sea Disease,” was published in the midst of COVID-19. I wonder how the pandemic has affected your brainstorming and writing process.
A Plagued Sea was written as an homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The disease in my story, I decided, should cause changes to one’s physical appearance, so the references I had in mind while brainstorming were the plague and leprosy. But then COVID-19 broke out while I was writing. Obviously, I couldn’t ignore what was happening and it made its way into the story. My stories always contain my present. Even if it weren’t for the coronavirus, the world’s changes would be mirrored in my work.
That said, I live in a remote South Korean countryside, in the mountains with hardly any houses around. Most of my work is done online, there hasn’t been a lockdown yet in South Korea, and my region hasn’t imposed very strict pandemic controls, so for the most part, my everyday life remains unchanged. What I feel more acutely from here is climate change. The vegetation is shifting rapidly as is the crop cycle. Both have been triggered by similar causes, and soon we will face many problems that none of our existing methods can solve.
The thought that everything can end in an instant does weigh heavier on me now. All the more reason to live this day and moment preciously.
“Scripter” is about distinguishing an AI from a human in the game world—a kind of Turing test. Though published back in 2008, the story is still interesting in today’s world where the metaverse is the next big thing. What would you say are the similarities and differences between imagining games and imagining science fiction?
I was a game developer before becoming a writer, and until as recently as 2016, I supplemented my income with narrative design consulting gigs. “Scripter” reflects a lot of my experience as a developer.
“Science fiction” is a subject-matter-based classification so you cannot really compare it to games. If I were to instead compare “fiction” with games, I would say they are completely different fields requiring completely different talents and skill sets. A game script acts as a docent who guides user behavior. You calculate distances that users will travel and the time and effort it will take them to navigate the story, planting signs at the right places so they don’t get lost. Since the rewards in a game are simpler and more straightforward than those in reality, where you position the rewards determines whether users fight or cooperate. In fact, a game offers the developer a chance to build a utopia according to their philosophy, but the CEO’s or investors’ desire to make money ends up interfering.
Finally, a short question on translation. Is there anything you’re concerned about or particularly wish for when your work gets translated into English?
My translators are the ones who have their work cut out for them, so who am I to worry! All I can say is that, as more Korean literature crosses borders, the absence of masculine and feminine nouns in Korean will probably be something translators will have to tackle with increasingly. As Korean isn’t inflected for gender, you can delay revealing a character’s gender or not reveal it at all and leave it open. Many internet-based writers also choose not to disclose their gender.
Interviewed by Lim Taehun
Translated by Sung Ryu
Lim Taehun is a literary critic and assistant professor at Chosun University. His research interests include literature and technology, and SF culture and soundscape art.
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