Kalin Stacey is a writer, educator, and activist based in Toronto, Canada. He is currently a student of translation studies at Glendon College, a voracious reader of SFF, and an aspiring translator of speculative fiction.
translated from the Korean by Sophie Bowman & Sung Ryu
April 6, 2021
grab a copy here or from your local independent bookstore or library
Occasionally translators find themselves in a position to offer Anglophone readers treasures we otherwise wouldn’t be able to discover—and I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories, by South Korean author Kim Bo-Young, is truly a treasure. Although Kim is by all accounts a leading voice in the SFF community of her home country, this book is only the first full-length collection to appear in English, appearing as it did last spring (and followed very soon afterwards by On the Origin of Species and Other Stories in May 2021).
I’m Waiting for You presents two pairs of linked stories as well as several afterword pieces by various parties involved in their development: the author, the translators, and the two original recipients of the first story. As it happens, the eponymous novelette “I’m Waiting for You” has a fascinating origin story; it was commissioned by a fan of Kim’s so he could recite it to his girlfriend as a sort of bespoke, personalized marriage proposal. Although it was originally intended to be a private story for that one couple, they later agreed to share it with the world, and each wrote letters, included at the end of the collection, about the story’s meaning for them.
And the story itself is beautiful. Taking the form of a space-faring epistolary romance, the narrator writes a series of letters to his betrothed from his relativistic-speed space travel on the “Orbit of Waiting.” This journey, which starts out with the intention to wait for his lover until she returns from a lengthy interstellar trip, soon becomes more complicated as one of them encounters an obstacle, leading to a domino effect of delays that span years, decades, centuries. At first filled with quirky humour, ”I’m Waiting for You” becomes darker and lonelier as it progresses and as the protagonist skips forward in time in attempt to recover the hope of returning home and fulfilling his engagement. But with so much time passing, it may just be that the married life he imagined will be harder to realize than he ever thought possible. Since I don’t want to spoil the evolution of the story for future readers, I’ll leave it there. Still, Kim is able to weave a remarkable narrative—at times touching, at times unsettling—in such a short space.
It is followed by the mind-melting, novella-length story “The Prophet of Corruption,” which could perhaps be described as metaphysical science fiction, although such a description does not do it justice. It follows the Prophet Naban, oldest among a cohort of primordial beings who make up the very fabric of the universe and reside in the Dark Realm. They routinely reincarnate into living beings in the Lower Realm (our world) so as to grow and learn from the experiences of each new life. And while they are able to separate and “birth” new entities (think of cell reproduction, as an analogy), they retain an acute understanding of the Oneness of all reality, the sentience of every thing, and the illusive nature of life itself. Until, at any rate, a growing, insidious corruption spurred on by the Prophet Aman threatens to destabilize this Oneness, and with it all existence.
While “The Prophet” clearly draws heavily from aspects of Buddhist cosmology, it also incorporates elements of other mythological figures, in particular from Asian cultures. Despite the heavy emphasis on cosmology and mythology, it still incorporates aspects of science and science fiction, and contrasts the powers of divinity with the powers of science (in fact, any review would be remiss not to at least mention one of the story’s greatest characters: the troubled, im/permeable wall of a spaceship — but you’ll have to read it to understand why). “The Prophet” explores the nature of reality, the history of the universe, and the immutable tension between individuality and the collective whole. It is dense and challenging, a unique contribution to speculative fiction and, quite frankly, a masterpiece.
The third story, “That One Life,” is essentially a sequel to “The Prophet,” and it is much shorter and less developed. It depicts three potential – maybe even parallel? – lives of the Prophet Naban at the end of the universe. It’s very open-ended and leaves room for lots of interpretation, and as a conclusion, it doesn’t quite live up to what came before. Nevertheless, it shows Kim’s definitive ability to shift perspective and freshly explore her established worlds.
And that very approach is how she finishes the volume: with “On My Way to You,” an epistolary answer of similar structure to the first story, this time written by the fiancée of the first narrator. It chronicles her journey across space and time as she tries, beset by very different hardships, to reunite with him.
Beyond the excellent stories, one of the special aspects of this book is how front-and-center the author’s reflections and the translators’ presence are. Among the afterword pieces previously mentioned, there are letters exchanged between the two translators reflecting on their work and collaboration. It is wonderful to see translators afforded this kind of space, as it is often so lacking in the world of literary publishing. The result is a book where the title’s promise of “other stories” moves beyond fiction and includes layers of non-fictional stories about love, courtship, unusual writing project, and the art of translation.
One can only hope that I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories marks the beginning of increased attention to (and publication of) Kim Bo-Young’s work in English, and that the very capable Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu find their way to sharing more Korean speculative fiction with us.