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Bae Myung-hoon’s Tower could be the most fun thing you read this year

TowerBae Myung-hoon’s Tower is the first of several science fiction books to reach us this year, and if the rest are as good as this we’re in for an enjoyable time. It’s his first full-length work to be translated into English, and also translator Sung Ryu’s first book. She has two further titles coming out this year.

Tower is based on Earth in the not too distant future. Building technology has advanced to an extent where a skyscraper can reach to 674 levels (compared with the Lotte World Tower’s 123) and house a self-governing city-state with a population of half a million. Academia has invented ever more arcane areas of specialist research, from power field dynamics to skyscraper ecology. But other than that, it’s a world which feels very much like ours, today.

The tower, Beanstalk, is a bastion of capitalism, where everything has to be paid for (except a postal service which relies on public-spirited individuals to do the deliveries). But it’s a successful economy into which citizens of other states are desperate to immigrate to secure a reasonably well-paid job. It’s a place which exploits these foreign workers, and which outsources certain services and functions (even the military) to subcontractors – including foreign workers – to avoid direct responsibility for when things go wrong. It’s a state that is fighting an undeclared war against an international terrorist organisation that is seeking to destroy it, with nukes or otherwise. But although many outsiders resent the very existence of Beanstalk, many of its inhabitants, including the migrant workers, find it a normal and even congenial place to be.

Because of how close Beanstalkian society is to real life, Bae Myung-hoon can dissect it with a satirical eye, poking fun at what are in fact shortcomings in our own societies. In a set of six standalone but interlinked short stories Bae looks at different aspects of society and human relationships, displaying powers of forensic observation and creative imagination in equal measure.

Those of us who (when not in lockdown) work in an office block known the logistical problems in moving between floors. Imagine that problem scaled up for a building 674 storeys tall. Bae does, and creates a whole story around a logistics planning department that has to devise schemes to evacuate the building in an emergency, or deploy security details to suppress a citizen unrest that might break out on several floors simultaneously.

Bae has a wicked sense of humour. In the first story, he pokes fun at the ethics of academic research, the exploitation of unpaid interns, nepotism, the power of celebrity, the increasingly arcane areas of academic specialism, and the circulation of power and influence. The tale is built around an intriguing idea that by tracking the circulation of bottles of premium whisky in a society – too expensive to buy for yourself, but perfect as a gift to show appreciation or to hope for future favours – you can map the invisible web of power networks. Imagine further that the academic research is sponsored by one of the candidates in an upcoming election, who clearly wants to uncover some dirty secrets about the incumbent mayor; and that the graphical map of influence being bought and sold only makes sense when acknowledging that a celebrity dog is part of the invisible network; and you have a virtuoso bit of story-telling to launch the collection.

Tower: back cover
The back cover is as good as the front

The second story also features the clandestine workings of power and influence, as Writer K, a satirical author and harsh critic of the authorities, mysteriously starts writing about the beauty of nature. Could it be anything to do with the rather unusual gift he has been given? The death of a protestor in an incident not unlike the Yongsan tragedy forces him to make a decision about his career.

Other stories tell of the sacrifices people make to get a good job in a good company, that can lead to the breakdown in relationships; they poke fun at everything from corporate reorganisations to pointless political divisions; they explore the notion of using an elephant for suppressing public demonstration (and how to move an elephant in an elevator…); and finally tell the tale of a race against time in which the international terrorist organisation unleashes a credible threat to Beanstalk’s very existence. And every now and then the celebrity canine actor – the first non-human to receive a movie award – makes a brief appearance.

We are also treated to a variety of narrative styles, from the conventional third-party narrative via an extended and very homely first person reminiscence to a tale told via an exchange of letters. We even have a story within a story, as a writer muzzled by the fear that one of his guilty secrets might be made public seeks to convey his message heavily cloaked in metaphor.

Six stories, plus an appendix containing three related offcuts: an interview with the celebrity canine actor; an introduction to one of the books that is featured in another of the stories, exploring the tension between the warmth and human connection fostered by a mom-and-pop run coffee shop and the destructive impact of an encroaching, more impersonal, coffee empire; and a sample of Writer K’s nature writing – a Möbius strip-like story about a possibly divine polar bear.

Perhaps the least successful passages in this book are the nature writings of Writer K, whether as part of a story-within-a-story or in the appendix. But that’s fine. We feel that Writer K is in fact Bae himself, never happier than when he is poking fun at the establishment and less effective when writing about nature: again, there is a Möbius strip-like feeling about Writer K that adds to the enjoyment of the collection as a whole.

This is altogether a fun and thought-provoking collection. Sung Ryu’s translation flows naturally, and Bae Myung-hoon’s veritable torrent of ideas provide great entertainment. Full marks to Honford Star, and to the artist Choi Jisu for the stunning cover.

Bae Myung-hoon: Tower
Honford Star 2021, 254pp
Translated by Sung Ryu
Originally published as 타워 by Omelas, Seoul, 2009.

Thanks to Honford Star for the review copy. Tower is published today.


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