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Review: Kim Bo-young – On the Origin of Species and other stories

On the Origin of Species cover v2After the mild disappointment that was the audiobook of Kim Bo-young’s I’m Waiting for You (let down by the somewhat unwieldy story The Prophet of Corruption) it was with a slight sense of wariness that I embarked upon the Kaya collection of her short stories On the Origin of Species. I was also cautious because of Kaya’s hasty claim that this was the debut English-language collection from Kim, when at least in the UK the Harper Voyager set beat them to the shops by a couple of weeks.

But the author’s unexpected and quirky introduction to the Kaya volume – entitled A Brief Reflection on Breasts – immediately suggested that I could be embarking on something rather special. And within a couple of pages of the first story – Scripter – I was totally hooked. Imagine a Matrix-like scenario in which players of a computer game inhabit a virtual reality world; this is a world that was created in the days of the technology’s infancy, and no-one now understands the arcane code in which it was written. All but one player have got bored with the game and moved on to other, cooler, entertainment options. How is the game manufacturer supposed to persuade that one remaining player to log off so that they aren’t burdened with the ongoing costs of maintaining the game’s software? One hapless employee enters the virtual reality world to try to reason with the persistent devotee…

With thrillers and mystery stories, I’m used to moving into skim-reading mode to find out what happens next all the quicker, skipping over the duller passages in which nothing much is happening. With Kim Bo-young’s stories, I am torn between wanting accelerate my pace to find out what inventive thought she will come up with next, but still wanting to slow down because every page is brimming with ideas. I’m not sure I’ve experienced that enjoyable dilemma with any other writer.

With much science fiction the action is played out in a world not too different from ours. In Kim Bo-young’s fiction the world we know is turned inside-out and upside-down. In the title story, for example, we are in a post climate disaster world in which the only “life-forms” to have survived are robots and less advanced machines.

In this brave new world Asimov’s laws of robotics have evolved, and the robots themselves have come up with a definition of life: “Life must possess free will, run on electric energy, contain a chip, and be made in a factory”. When a crackpot robot scientist believes he has discovered a form of organic matter that spontaneously grows, increasing in mass as it does so, and claims that the matter is “alive,” he faces an uphill struggle in persuading the rest of academia that maybe the definition needs to be re-looked at, particularly when the supposed life form seems to thrive in an environment of moisture and oxygen, chemicals that are so corrosive to robot life. In this topsy-turvy world the robots have to ensure that  CO2 is constantly pumped into the atmosphere in order to maintain their own ideal living conditions.

This story and its sequel deservedly gets the prominence given by lending its title to the whole collection. But other stories are almost equally as entrancing. For me, the least enjoyable tale is An Evolutionary Myth, a semi-mythical tale that could have come out of the Samguk Yusa, in which a deposed prince goes into exile to escape his ruthless uncle who has usurped the throne. The twist in this story is that the exiled prince progressively metamorphoses into different creatures as he adapts to life in hiding. But even this story has its strange, hypnotic charms.

You might not think that a story about a world ruled by dragons, in which humans are kept as pets, would be terribly readable, but in Kim’s hands it is compelling as she plays out the differences between the two species’ modes of perception, almost, towards the end of the story, coming to some sort of resolution only to let it slip through our fingers. Between Zero and One is a brief story that looks at time travel, while in Stars Shine in Earth’s Sky is a scientist on a planet far away from Earth wonders why it is that those five words are transmitted in an interstellar message from our world.

I am, quite simply, in awe of this writer. Thanks, Kaya, for bringing this collection to us, and thanks to the two translators credited on the title page, and the four additional translators credited at the end of a couple of the individual stories (Eunhae Jo, Melissa Mei-lin Chan, Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar). I can quite see why Bong Joon-ho is a fan.

Kim Bo-young: On the Origin of Species and Other Stories score-2score-2score-2score-2score-2
Kaya Press, 2021, 300pp
Translated by Joungmin Lee Comfort and Sora Kim-Russell

Available from Amazon, Bookshop.org and elsewhere

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