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If We Can’t Move at the Speed of LightKim Cho-yeop

“Aren’t we only ending up increasing the total amount of loneliness existing in the universe?”

『If We Can’t Move at the Speed of Light』

Author : Kim Cho-yeop
Publisher : Hubble
Publication date : June 24, 2019
Number of pages : 344
Format : 130x198mm
ISBN : 9791190090018

Kim Cho-yeop

Kim Cho-yeop debuted in 2017 by winning both the Grand Prize and runner-up prize at the Korea Literary Prize for Science Fiction with Irretrievable and If We Can’t Move at the Speed of Light. She published If We Can’t Move at the Speed of Light and The Girl in the Cylinder, and received the Today's Writer Prize in 2019 and Young Authors Award in 2020. She has an acquired hearing loss.

In Search of the Proper Place for Beautiful Beings


What Kim Cho-yeop’s sci-fi offers us is a picture of the future. The science and technology of a time to come, and not of this age, takes us to a colorful, mysterious world. In that world we can design human embryos, communicate with intelligent beings from outer space and meet dead members of the family through data simulation. In it we dream of a utopia that might come to be someday, but not too distant in the future. The future she depicts intersects with, quite acutely, the social controversies of the here and now. Discrimination against women, the disabled, immigrants, single moms and other underprivileged minorities are still common. Non-financial values are discarded in a system that evaluates everything by its end result. People found to be non-conforming to the standards of normality are excluded from the historical record. Is the reality the human race has achieved through state of the art science and technology a better place? Can all the discrimination, oppression, alienation and pain be changed for the better?

If science and technology can’t guarantee a better world, a binary answer whether the result of technology will be utopia or dystopia can’t be satisfying. What is important is the process itself of dreaming up, in detail, the utopia or dystopia that is correlated to the world we live in, in a complex way. In the process, we will be able to remember people that had been long forgotten due to their status as “an abnormality,” or distribute proper values to those of a different type. Then we can dream of a place where science and technology do not exclude anyone, but instead teach the world to live together. Novels by Kim Cho-yeop offer such a beautiful path to tread.

A Voyage for the Forgotten

In Kim Cho-yeop’s novels, truth is not given, but is in the process of becoming. That is why often her novels begin with a missing person, then the truth is slowly revealed by tracking them. But what kind of truth is it?

In Irretrievable, there is a library of “minds” where all the information from the deceased have been transplanted in data form. When you log into the mind you can meet the soul of the deceased, so people visit the library to mourn or speak to the dead. Ji-min, upon learning that the index of the mind carrying her mother’s soul was lost within the library, starts to track the traces she left behind. Ji-min did not miss her mother — during her life, her mother had suffered from depression and had hurt Ji-min too much. However, when the disappearance of her mother’s mind from the library renders the truths about her doubly lost, she starts to question them. She learns that her mother began to suffer from postpartum depression after she quit working as a designer when she became pregnant, and that even before her index was erased, her mother’s life was already dissociated from the world. This realization, which comes on the eighth week of her own pregnancy where she realizes she does not yet feel any maternal instinct for the unborn child, expands into an empathy for the dissociation from society women go through in the course of marriage and pregnancy. When she finally meets up with her mother’s soul, she faces her and musters up the courage to tell her that even though no words may be able to comfort her mother, now she understands her. Those words that Ji-min utters are a message of reconciliation she sends to her mother with whom she had a dysfunctional relationship, and also a wish to reconnect all women cut off from the world back with society.

This wish continues with the female scientist in If We Can’t Move at the Speed of Light. Set in the future when interplanetary travel is possible, the story follows 170-year-old Anna, who has been waiting for over a hundred years, alone, in a space station for a spaceship to take her to the planet Slenphonia. An employee visits Anna to collect and destroy space debris, and through this second character we learn by bits and pieces that Anna was a scientist researching deep freeze technology to put human bodies into frozen sleep during the frontier days of space travel. When warp travel was developed where spaceships can move faster than the speed of light by warping the space in the universe, the Space Federation, whose only concern was economic efficiency, curtly notified her that she could not travel to Slenphonia where her husband and children were. Anna, left alone in the middle of nowhere and barely managing to prolong her life through deep freezing technology, does not forsake her dream of traveling to Slenphonia. It’s impossible for her to reach the planet Slenphonia with her outdated shuttle as the trip will take tens of thousands of years at the speed of light, nevertheless she leaves the space station without a glance backwards, saying “I know exactly where I have to be.”

Her dreams had been crushed by the Space Federation whose only concern was financial efficiency. The hundred years’ worth of longing Anna bears towards her family who are likely already deceased is made even more forlorn by the tens of thousands of years between the two planets. Even though her last space voyage would be towards her death, this trip, although already destined to fail, is not meaningless. Because the traces they leave behind — as they delicately stroke the things that set with the passing time — becomes significant again even after they are forgotten and long gone. We cannot travel at the speed of light, we’re not pioneering the deep space, but even under impossible circumstances, Anna and this novel travel against the flow of oblivion — to conjure the truths embraced in the heart of those that are forgotten.


By In A-young
Literary critic

Translated by