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[Latest Read] Bora Chung on finding utopia amid dystopian worlds

‘Cursed Bunny’ author writes about robots ‘sweeter’ than human

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : May 14, 2024 - 14:00

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Bora Chung (Courtesy of the author) Bora Chung (Courtesy of the author)

Few voices resonate as uniquely as that of Bora Chung, whose gripping stories like the haunting narratives of “Cursed Bunny” captivate readers worldwide. With her genre-defying short story collection, translated by Anton Hur, Chung became a finalist for the UK International Booker Prize in 2022 and the US National Book Award in 2023.

Chung once again plunges readers into her blend of horror and absurdity, sprinkled with dark humor in her second short story collection “Your Utopia,” the English version of which hit bookshelves worldwide in January/February.

This is the second collaboration between Chung and the acclaimed translator Hur. Additionally, the duo has two more books in the pipeline, “The Midnight Timetable” and “Red Sword,” both slated for release in 2025.

The Korean edition of “Your Utopia” was published in 2021 with a different title, “To Meet Her,” which is also one of the eight stories.

“Most of the stories were written from 2010 to 2021, right before the publication, while I was still teaching at a university,” said Chung in a recent interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul.

In the very first story, “The Center for Immortality Research,” a low-level employee runs herself ragged planning a fancy gala for donors, only to be blamed for a crime she witnessed during the event, under the noses of the mysterious celebrity benefactors hoping to live forever.

“It was written in 2010. Eighty percent of the story actually happened in that exact order, until the weird guy came out," Chung chuckled. "The other stories are mostly from 2014 to 2018, and 'To Meet Her' was written in 2021."

“So these are newer stories compared to 'Cursed Bunny.’ And I could say, they delve more into traditional science fiction themes, whereas 'Cursed Bunny' leaned more toward horror.”

English editions of English editions of "Your Utopia" by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur (Algonquin Books, Scribe Publications, Honford Star)

In the titular dystopian road trip story, "Your Utopia," two robots are on a quest for electronic power after humanity abandons the planet, striving to help each other in their struggle for survival. The original Korean titular story, "To Meet Her," was inspired and dedicated to the late Byun Hee-soo, the country's first transgender soldier, who tragically passed away in 2021 after being forcibly discharged the previous year. Among the collection's diverse narratives are tales of cannibalism induced by a virus, an AI elevator, encounters with aliens and explorations of memory.

Despite their disparate themes, these stories are united by Chung's blend of wry humor and unexpectedly tender moments, often emerging between unexpected subjects.

Reflecting on the thematic undercurrent in her latest book, Chung said, "I think it’s a very basic question of what is human nature -- what are the depths of human nature amid dystopian landscapes.”

She said the overarching theme comes from the science fiction class she taught for a decade.

“We were discussing what it means to be human, the meaning of life, how we relate to, or forge a relationship with another being that is not human but has a sense of self. I wasn’t necessarily thinking specific classes when I wrote the stories but I taught that class every spring semester for a decade, so it must have definitely had an impact.”

Bora Chung (Courtesy of the author) Bora Chung (Courtesy of the author)

When it was pointed out that robots are depicted as “more humane” than humans, Chung acknowledged, “It’s true. Humans are meaner, and robots are warmer and sweeter (in the stories).”

“The next chapter in SF literature seems to be transcending humans,” said the author, who is also a member of the Science Fiction Writers Union of the Republic of Korea.

“Humans are killing each other, and we already have robots capable of thinking, acting, and potentially replacing humans. It’s highly likely that we are doomed, and robots will survive,” Chung said.

Although she said this in a tone tinged with cynicism, she still attends protests -- for something or for someone. In the author’s note, Chung describes how she spent her pandemic years essentially attending protests, to the point where she went to protests every week.

In the author's note, she writes: Just because I protest ... it doesn't mean the world will change. ... But maybe there will also be those who will survive. And I want to be able to have as little shame as possible when I stand before those who do.

“I think it is already a done deal that we are doomed, but if we act, maybe we could fail a little less drastically. We are already minus 10 but there is a feeling that if we do something, we can make it to minus eight or seven.”


In this series, The Korea Herald introduces Korean literature through translated works, offering interviews with authors or translators as well as reviews, inviting readers to explore the vibrant literary landscape of Korea. -- Ed.


"Your Utopia"

written by Bora Chung, translated by Anton Hur

Algonquin Books, January 2024 (US)

Scribe Publications, January 2024 (AUS)

Honford Star, February 2024 (UK)