ORA

No Small Thing: Sci-fi meets the polycrisis

Peter is the editor of Ethnic Media Services, which received an ORA Research Grant. EMS’s ORA Research involves educating its network about the polycrisis and in-depth reporting to explore the linkages between the issues they typically cover and the global polycrisis.

For a country like South Korea, saturated as it is with all things hi-tech, it always struck
me how little science fiction was to be found. Instead, there was K-pop, contemporary
drama, and period pieces galore. It felt then, back in the early aughts, as if the country
was trying somehow, through popular entertainment, to reconcile its past with its
present.

Then the future landed.

Korea was a Japanese colony for four decades, from 1910-1945, a brutal experience
that was followed by an equally brutal civil war and ongoing national division. History
was an open wound even as the country catapulted into the 21 st century. (A few years
back, a New York Times piece reported on the trend in Silicon Valley to pilot new apps
in Seoul where uptake and early adoption of emerging technology far outpaced anything
in the US.)

So, it made sense that much of the popular imagination was given to rectifying the past,
to squaring historical memory with the country’s current reality. Do that and the future
would take care of itself, the thinking went.

Would that the polycrisis were so malleable?

In 2006, the film The Host landed on Korean screens. By acclaimed South Korean
director Bong Joon-ho, it tells the story of a fantastical monster that emerges from the
Han River, which runs through Seoul, to wreak havoc on the city and its residents. The
film, inspired by the true-life story of an American employee with the US Military who in
2000 ordered his Korean underling to dump 480 bottles of formaldehyde into the Han
River, remains one of the highest grossing in South Korean history.

The doors to science fiction, to speculative fiction – and with these a window onto a
near-term horizon roiled by climate change, political and economic instability, rising
inequality, and global conflict – suddenly seemed wide open. By 2017, South Korea
would see the launch of a sci-fi writers’ union. Productions including the smash hit Squid
Game, set in a dystopian near future, would go on to break domestic and international
records.

But what was it that turned South Korea’s gaze in this direction? And what did the
country, one steeped in Confucian reverence for the past, see as it peered around and
ahead as its point of reference?

These were the questions that were top of mind as we undertook our project with ORA
looking at the polycrisis through the lens of science fiction. The answers, we hoped,
would reveal something fundamental about how global societies were reimagining
themselves in response to the emerging tangle of sociopolitical and environmental
challenges confronting the planet.

“In Latin America, the polycrisis has defined much of its history, and where once writers
turned to magical realism, many now look to science fiction to depict that reality,” writes
veteran journalist Pilar Marrero. “These new works,” she continues, “focus less on
reconciling the past than on making sense of a fraught present and uncertain future.”
Or consider this statement by Indian author Samit Basu about the tendency of Western
readers to interpret his novels, which depict the often-chaotic juxtaposition of ancient
and modern in contemporary India, as dystopian fantasy. “Dystopia is a function of
distance.” In his works, writes journalist Jaya Padmanabhan, Basu creates a turbulent
reflection of the world around him, one infused with the “intimacy of lived experiences.”

Or this, from author Ken Liu, who spoke to ethnic media reporters during a media
roundtable in March of 2023: “I speak to a lot of folks from all around the world in
different cultures,” said Liu, credited with, among numerous other literary achievements,
inventing the “silk punk” genre of science fiction. “And one common refrain I hear is a
sense of not feeling entirely at home in modernity.”

If there is a unifying thread here, it is exactly that shared sense of dislocation, of feeling
the familiar walls of societal institutions that have been in place for decades or centuries
begin to creak and moan under the weight of a rapidly advancing future for which few of
us feel prepared.

“At times,” notes historian Adam Tooze, who as much as anyone helped popularize the
term polycrisis, “one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality.”

In this context, science fiction is emerging as a uniquely suited canvas onto which
global communities – even ones, like South Korea, with little to no history of the genre –
are turning to paint their deepest fears, their hidden hopes, forgotten memories, or
lingering frustrations, all against a backdrop at once surreal, futuristic, and familiar.
“Science fiction has this way of giving you hope,” Jovita Jacobs, a member of the Black-
owned bookstore Sistah Sci-fi, tells reporter Julia Tong. “And so as long as the future
still has hope, who am I not to carry hope into the future?”

Experiencing these works, one feels, if not less anxious, perhaps at least more at home,
whether home is Buenos Aires, Mumbai, Seoul, or Beijing. And in our increasingly
volatile world, that is no small thing.

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