Timeless love

Kim Bo-young is one of the most prolific science fiction writers of East Asia. At home in South Korea, where she is currently based, she won the best novella award in the first round of the Korean Science & Technology Creative Writing Award with The Experience Of Touch, her first published book. She has also won the annual South Korea SF novel award twice. Kim has a forthcoming English translated short story and novellas in the United States. I’m Waiting For You And Other Stories is her first English translation work published in the UK.

Composed of two novellas which contain a collection of four short stories, I’m Waiting For You tells the story of two separated lovers who have promised to meet each other in order to get married.

Opening “his story” is a nameless man who recounts the details of his lightspeed journey outside Earth. His time in the galaxy passes slower than that of his lover on Earth, prompting them to miss each other but he must wait for her constantly as one month of the voyage is about four years and four months in Earth time.

Isolated in his spaceship, the man renders his love into words. He writes to keep promises that he’ll marry his sweetheart no matter how long he has to wait. The man wants to speed up his journey to get to the wedding but the time difference enveloping them only interrupts and delays his plan. The lovers’ forthcoming nuptial keeps multiplying in time and as the man’s vessel drifts further into space, the economies, politics, cultures and nations on Earth totally vanish. The man floats lonely into the unknowing space. His only wish is the return of his lover, but both time and space have detrimental effects. They forbid her from reuniting with him. His wait is in vain.

Stories Two and Three — the strongest tales of this novel — are interconnected and can be read as one mid-length novella. The core of Kim’s high conceptual storytelling is mythology, eschatology, infused with eastern philosophy and folk literature. Here, we’re introduced to the twin “Dark Realm” and “Lower Realm”. The first is the afterlife with Prophets — divine-like beings assuming the role of the Creator — and the latter is where the students of Prophets live to “learn”– Earth. In other words, entities in the dark realm have no form or gender but they extract a part of their bodies to divide, like clones or amoeba, in order to produce the next generation of beings. Similar to Greek Gods, the Prophets oversee and take an active part in lives on Earth. When the entities are separated or found to be “corrupt” — meaning influenced and immersed in ways of the Lower Realm, they are persuaded to merge with their ilk to cease being.

The Prophets have many lives and live through spans of centuries. Naban, the folk hero whose name is taken from Korean mythology, for example, is a second-generation Prophet who retains memory since time immemorial. His legend is associated with being the first man who married Aman, the first woman, in a place named Asiata near Lake Baikal. But in Kim’s narrative, however, having merged countlessly, Naban has neither gender nor form. Their underlying philosophy is centred upon a quest to find the meaning and cause of suffering — the epicentre of Buddhist fundamental teaching. The ascetic Naban is conceptualised to be the one who stands the most with struggling classes. Their divided students are depicted to be liberators of the oppressed. When Naban’s students question as to why they are always fighting the oppressors or the powerful but never attain the power of their own, the Prophet answers that “if you were not poor you would not think to fight them in the first place”.

Each time the Prophets meet, they debate the meaning of life and eschatology in the Dark Realm — “it’s no death. We neither disappear nor perish. We simply change. This self never ceases to exist”. Kim’s emphasis on the science of last things tends to be on individuality which emerges and becomes a reminder of experiences in the corrupt world. The Lower Realm may be a corrupt zone but it’s a testing ground for those who seek to become individualised. Those divided from the Prophets are a testament to this fact. “Corrupted” they may be, but to “obtain learning in life, someone has to create bad karma”. In the eyes of the Prophets of the Dark Realm, their learned students favoured the Lower Realm all along.

Back to the narrative of love, the last story returns to focus on the couple tainted by the laws of physics. The woman tells her side of the story in a series of fifteen letters. We can read them as unfortunate incidents as she too can’t travel according to what had been planned. Inside her ship, where space is stratified and occupied by authoritarians, the woman’s space is nestled between two strangers’ beds. Later, she is demoted to “fourth-class” and being called a refugee. She spends her solitude writing unsent love letters, reading e-books and befriends an AI steward who only listens to “reasonable” commands. Lightyears behind the man’s spaceship, other passengers laugh at her when she lets them know that she’s on her way to meet her lover to get married. When her ship turns around and descends to Earth, civilisation is gone, and so is humanity. The woman finds that human beings had their hands all over the planet’s destruction.

Earlier in April, when it was first released, I’m Waiting For You was impressively picked by The Times of London to be the Science Fiction Book of the Month. In perspective, it’s a narrative that may not be entirely new to philosophy or quantum studies readers. But intuition wise, Kim’s book takes us directly to the heart of epistemological complex — about belief vis-à-vis theory of knowledge; birth vis-à-vis death; gravity vis-à-vis imagination; and galaxy vis-à-vis self. Among these immersive dimensions of counterparts or parallels, love stays at the centre.

A sizeable addendum to clarify the novel’s conceptual terminologies and translators’ processes of work are included.