[JAPANESE] Narrators in the Age of the Pandemic
by Yūshō Takiguchi June 14, 2022
This anthology features six short stories by Korean writers, each written in response to the pandemic. The original Korean edition was published in September 2020. As the title implies, these are science fiction writers and here they depict fictional worlds, distanced in both space and time from the pandemic that first confronted us in 2020 and which persists to this day.
However, I don’t think this approach needs to be explained by the status of these stories as science fiction. I myself am a Japanese writer of realist fiction (or at least I think I am), but since the pandemic began, I have found it very difficult to write realistic scenes. I am sure writers in all genres share my predicament.
These days, we are shocked by videos of concerts from a few years ago – the throngs of people, the complete absence of masks from faces. If we try to write about our pre-pandemic reality, about the world ‘before’, this erasure of the pandemic only ends up drawing attention to it. On the other hand, if we simply write about the reality of living with coronavirus, our setting becomes one in which science fiction is rapidly merging with reality (ghost cities, remote work, virtual spaces, etc.), again foregrounding the pandemic and interfering with our intended style and themes. Novels and short stories are, of course, works of fiction, but because they are formed from language, they will always have one foot in reality. However outlandish a story’s setting, what the reader responds to is a feeling that its language, the narrator’s voice, is real. Under these conditions, the notion of ‘realism’ itself begins to unravel: the question becomes not what we write, but how we write it.
By holding the reality of the pandemic at a certain remove, whether in space or in time, each of the stories in this collection affords its narrator a poignant sincerity. They each find themselves in a situation they feel compelled to narrate (telling a story, no matter how short, is always a strenuous undertaking), and it is in this urge that their inexorable realness lies. Their very distance from reality is what makes them feel so real. The importance of this seemingly perverse approach in the age of a pandemic is something that even I, as a non-science-fiction writer, can appreciate – even more so when the theme being addressed is that of the pandemic itself.
In Kim Choyeop’s “The Last Lyoni”, the narrator is dispatched to a robot settlement on a doomed planet, where she finds herself obliged to lie to a dying robot. This is no simple lie, however; it is also a narrative she directs at her own newly discovered self. In Djuna’s “The People Who Came from a Dead Whale”, the narrator is stranded on a planet far from Earth, trapped in a desperate situation, and yet frankly explains why they feel compelled to tell their story. The setting of Jeong Soyeon’s “Mi-jeong’s Uncertain Box” appears to be closest to our present-day reality, but its temporal structure is the most distant, and it is precisely this bold structure that communicates the narrator’s reason for telling the story. In each of these works, sadness and despair are what compel the narrator to tell their tale. But for this very reason, narration also becomes an act of hope, and narration itself a way of ushering hope into the story.
I was most struck by Popo, the protagonist of Lee Jongsan’s “A Whirlwind of Insects”. Having just turned forty, she has decided to get married for the first time, but worries about the prospect of sharing a home and life with someone else. In a world constantly plagued by swarms of insects carrying deadly bacteria, this seems a personal, trivial worry – and yet it feels deeply sincere. No matter how great the terror facing the world, when an individual tells a story, it becomes the story of their life. This points not only to the limits and freedoms of storytelling, but also to its role in ensuring our lives remain firmly our own, never to be snatched away.
A story consists of words in which someone tells us something: this holds true both before and after the pandemic, and whether or not the genre is science fiction. Whatever world the narrator inhabits, and whatever state that world is in, when they begin to tell their story, it is their sincerity that points us towards the light. No matter how dark or disturbing the point of departure, we are never left in the pit of despair. That, to me, is what stories are all about.
Translated by Jesse Kirkwood
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AUTHORS Kim Choyeop Kim Choyeop (b. 1993) holds a BA in chemistry and an MA in biochemistry from Pohang University of Science and Technology. She launched her literary career in 2017 when two of her stories, “Irretrievable” (excerpted in this issue) and “If We Can’t Go at the Speed of Light,” won the grand and runner-up prizes respectively at the 2017 Korean SF Awards. She then went on to win the Today’s Writer Award in 2019. Her debut short story collection, If We Can’t Go at the Speed of Light (Hubble, 2019), was a record-breaking bestseller in South Korea, and a Japanese translation is set to be released by Hayakawa Publishing. One of the stories from the book, “Symbiosis Theory,” was also published in Clarkesworld magazine.