Review by C. Derick Varn
In another life, I worked at Korean University and was studying/writing on the works of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha in as close detail as I could, and I went to a conference on narratology to speak on Cha. While I was there, I expressed interest in critical narrative theory as applied to poetry, science fiction, and comic books. Someone suggested this book because it spoke to both Cha, Korean cultural studies, and an expanded view of works of science fiction. Now, Cha’s Dictee is not science fiction by any conventional standard, but Chu includes it because of its metaphorical richness and speculative social commentary. Chu’s focus on science fiction as both a lyric and narrative mode of interrogating the social space fascinated me and not only led me to abandoning my arguments about Cha scholarship, which often was somewhat sloppily used in semi-nationalistic readings of Korean identity in the American. In short, this book’s argument about Cha was highly disruptive to my thinking, and even changed my poetic approach to my creative work.
In the last few weeks, I have been re-reading this book in addition to reading some more popular “scholarship” on comics. While do not necessarily agree with the hyper-broad definition Chu assigns “science fiction” (which is largely divorced from the sciences in Chu’s view, an argument that seems to only really be viable after the 1960s), her expansion of the role of science fiction as using metaphor as lyric imaginary is incredibly insightful. Chu’s primary assertion that the metaphorical and strange deliberately conflates and collapses the wall between the literal and figurative in most science fiction offers a very fruitful way to approach a lot of pop culture, but particularly New Wave Science Fiction and Slipstream fiction.
To say that “Chu explores the globalized world, cyberspace, war trauma, the Korean concept of han, and the rights of robots” as the press release around the book announces is actually somewhat of an understatement. Han, for example, doesn’t quite translate into English but can felt in Korean cinema’s obsession with vague past guilt and revenge as well as haunting itself with its own cultural memory. This does lend many Korean films a very “speculative” quality that does collapse the narrative/lyric distinction. Chu gives the fictional interrogations of science fiction more than a speculative turn: they do refer to reality for Chu, but tries to voice alienation and estrangement from the very reality it is trying to represent. It also does more blatant philosophical work, but Chu does convince me that poetics of M. John Harrison or J.G. Ballard or the speculative paranoia of Philip K. Dick or the ethnical explorations of Ursula K. LeQuin do belong in nearly same category as Cha or Kathy Acker or any other explorers of self-estrangement in more “literary” or “counter-cultural” work.
One of the most fascinating and important assertions of this book though is that allegory is the least “science fictional” element to most science fiction. In fact, it is where the collapsing of figurative and literal does not work as well and shifts into the purely figurative. This would mean that much “dystopia” and “utopia” as literature do not actually play in the realm of science fiction explicitly. This is most clearly stated in her chapter five on rights of robots, where she makes clear that the memetic element of science fiction is vital even to the genre’s ethical experimentations.
This is an under-read book outside of a very specific subset of literary studies where it has had some real pull. Chu is a first-rate scholar and does reverse expected reading and interpretative strategies often, but she does it without bogging one down in a lot of technical literary jargon and requires only minimal prior engagement with the theoretical apparatuses that inform her work. Meaning that while this book is related to the academic monograph, it does not read like one. One does not have to be a scholar to approach Chu’s argument. All one need to be is a serious reader.