translated by Stella Kim
original publication (in Korean): 2020
first English edition: 2022, Honford Star
grab a copy here or through your local independent bookstore or library
When I was writing about Korean SFT in Out of This World (2020), only two works of long-form Korean science fiction* were available in English: a work of surrealist social protest called The Dwarf (by Cho Se-Hui, 1978; tr by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, 2006) and a collection of far-future aphorisms and observations by Ganymedean settlers called The Jovian Sayings (by Bok Geo-il, 2002; tr. by the author, 2014). Since, then, thanks to publishers Kaya Press and Honford Star, Anglophone readers have been able to enjoy Readymade Bodhisattva: The Kaya Anthology of South Korean Science Fiction (2019), To the Warm Horizon (2021), Counterweight (2023), and Tower (2021) by the same author of the current novel under review. Now we have Bae Myung-Hoon’s Launch Something!, a work that blends science fiction and political satire to produce a unique novel about how people behave under extreme circumstances.
Boredom can be considered “extreme” when it’s felt by those who desperately want to make a difference in the world (or in space, or on Mars). The main characters, including remote-pilot Han Summin, Space Force leader Gu Yemin, Inspector General Park Soojin, and several others, find themselves without much to do, given that the ROK Space Force is an affiliate of the Allied Space Forces (ASF) and thus can only act in concert with that group. Without a space program like that of the US, Russia, or China, Korea doesn’t have the resources or power to do more than launch satellites or help maintain its small colony on Mars.
That colony, though. Given that life on Mars is so different from that on Earth, the colonists started feeling like the mother planet wasn’t interested in their well-being. A rebellion ensued during the time when Mars and Earth were furthest apart, which meant that Earth couldn’t respond quickly to diffuse the situation. When Earth did get its people to put down the rebellion, the violence that occurred surprised no one. This Martian rebellion, though a major plot point, is only discussed as a past incident, and at first doesn’t seem relevant to the first, and very strange, event in the novel–the appearance of Pac-Man over the Earth.
As the Space Force figures out, Pac-Man was a satellite folded like origami and then unfurled, but with one section malfunctioning (thus making it look like Pac-Man). Reflecting the sun’s rays back at the Earth, the satellite at first is believed to be causing the massive heat wave affecting all of Korea. Soon enough, after the satellite is destroyed by the ASF (with help from the ROK Space Force), people realize that Pac-Man wasn’t really affecting the temperature that much. The strange feeling resulting from seeing a second sun in the sky for several months did wear on people, though.
The ROK launch was odd in that it didn’t seem necessary and Gu Yemin was refusing to say exactly what the payload was. It turns out that that payload would be the only thing standing between Earth and a revenge plot by a disgruntled Korean-Martian colonist involving an asteroid in Earth orbit.
Launch Something! develops very slowly and somewhat unevenly–indeed, it’s more like a series of linked stories. As Bae himself notes in the “Author’s Note,” part of the novel comes from his novella “Conjunction Holidays,” which was published in the Korean sci-fi anthology Because We Still Have Time (2017). The feeling of a slow unfurling comes mostly from the long, detailed conversations between the main characters as they sit around and wait for orders or for the authority to give orders. The second half, though, brings many of the main points together in a tense final scene that makes the reading very worthwhile. I’m very much looking forward to reading Bae’s Tower after this.
*I’m specifically talking in this review about science fiction specifically, not speculative fiction, generally.