by Jinwoo Park
When asked about his interest in science fiction, writer Ted Chiang replied that this genre of writing allows him to make philosophical questions ‘storyable’. In other words, science fiction lifts the boundaries of the physical world, creating space for the writer to throw ambitious questions to test.
With I’m Waiting For You, Kim Bo-young faithfully follows this tradition of science fiction, imagining mind bending stories that pose the reader with a question: is the flaw of our own humanity worth the price of being human?
In exploring this key concept, Kim Bo-young presents us with two sets of stories. One is about how a couple is separated through time due to their longing for each other. Another is about a ‘perfect’ cosmic entity that becomes corrupted.
The titular story, I’m Waiting For You, kicks off with the problem of time. A man and a woman are engaged, but there is a catch. The woman is travelling from Alpha Centauri, and it will take four years and six months for her to arrive on Earth for the wedding ceremony. The man does not want to wait that long, so he devises a plan to travel at light speed, at which time will slow down. This means that while he spends a few months on the spaceship, four years and six months will go by. When he hears that his fiancée will be two months late, he has a choice, whether to stay on track or switch ships that will allow him to skip those months.
Rather than arrive on time and wait, he jumps to another ship that will arrive just in time. This moment of impatience proves to be very costly. A series of misfortunes beset him, straying him far from his planned trajectory. What is worse, he knows he is sabotaging himself by his eagerness to be with his fiancée, but he cannot stop making these choices.
While this happens, Earth is ravaged by disaster and turmoil, turning into a post-apocalyptic version that is devoid of the life as they knew existed. The man, seeing this, chooses to travel in his spaceship over and over again, in the hopes that he could meet his soon-to-be-wife.
As we read on, there is hopelessness that creeps over. As society falls, and one mishap compounds with another, the reader cannot help but think, ‘how will this man ever connect with his bride?’ This is a question that the man wrestles with as well, until he is driven to surrendering. He decides to end it by returning to Earth and accepting his fate.
He decides to go back to where he was supposed to be married. It is a choice that reflects his desire and love for his partner. And this flash of humanity, just like how his deeply human impatience cost him earlier, is what ultimately brings him salvation. He finds traces of his bride, and the story ends on a note of hope.
In the second set of stories, we follow Naban, one of the ‘Prophets’. These are presented to us as universal entities that defy time and space. They dwell in a place called the Dark Realm, and in order to take learnings from life, the Prophets create the Lower Realm, which is understood to be the world we readers know and occupy.
“Because we should learn wisdom, not knowledge. We can’t learn from knowledge. We should learn from life itself.”1
Like children playing and experimenting, the Prophets perfect this ‘School’ with each iteration. They add rules that would make their learnings more effective, such as ‘death’, which is a concept that they create in order to be able to return to the Dark Realm from the Lower Realm after their life.
It should also be noted that the Prophets are divisions of a single entity. They themselves are also able to divide into multiple beings, as well as merge with one another. There is doubtless acceptance among them that they are one, and that those in the Lower Realm are also a part of them. They are all one being.
Corruption is understood as the denial of this. To recognize others as not them, and to recognize the self as distinct from another. This is the main conflict of the story that happens in the background. The Prophets are trying to battle corruption spread by Aman, a disciple of Naban.
It does give a strange feeling that something we readers take for granted is understood as corruption. After all, the recognition of others is an instinct for us. Viewed from the lens of the Prophets and their infinite lives however, we can glance how in their perspective, this is deeply undesirable.
“Poverty, unhappiness, deprivation, abuse, an unloved life, all of these things alienate you from others. hey corrupt you spiritually. Make you forget that you and the universe are the same.”2
The fight over corruption builds to a climax throughout the story, and as Naban slowly loses control in the Dark Realm, he comes to understand the true meaning of life in the Lower Realm. Because it is finite and flawed, it has value that is distinguished from the infinity and perfection of the Dark Realm.
“Even for just one life, I want to live. A life is lived only once, anyways, and once is enough.”3
Which is why That One Life, a short vignette that continues Naban’s last foray into the Lower Realm, reads like an optional epilogue. It is not exactly necessary to know what Naban does afterwards, and what becomes of this cosmic conflict between the two Realms. Because Kim Bo-young sufficiently fulfills her intended thesis in the Prophet of Corruption: life, in all its irrationality and flaws, is worth living. Naban’s step forward into the unknown is in itself a declaration. We don’t need to know what happens next.
In fact, by knowing what happens next, it lessens the impact of the Prophet of Corruption. Whether intended or not, this is also an interesting meta structural observation. The flaw of uncertainty is what creates the most evocative effect, just like life.
On the other hand, On My Way To You works better as a companion piece to the first story. It gives us the other side of the couple’s long journey toward each other. In it, we see how she has equally been pining for him. Where he makes mistakes, she understands and forgives, such as his disastrous choice to switch ships. It is like seeing a puzzle piece fitting another. And the pay-off at the end is so much sweeter because of it. That their love can sustain through the impossibility of finding each other. Just like the Prophet of Corruption, we are reminded of how even the smallest beings can defy the infinity of time and space through their humanity.
In these four ambitious stories, Kim Bo-young weaves tales that lay bare our human flaws. She tests them through trials that are not possible in reality. By the end, she gives us a firm answer to the philosophical question of whether our humanity is worth all the flaws it has: To be human is to be imperfect. It is to make mistakes, to hope for impractical dreams, and to love irrationally. And all of that is certainly worth fighting for.
1Kim, Bo-young. I'm Waiting for You: And Other Stories. Translated by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu, HarperCollins Publishers, 2021. 97.
2Kim, Bo-young. I'm Waiting for You: And Other Stories. Translated by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu, Harper Collins Publishers, 2021. 150
3Kim, Bo-young. I'm Waiting for You: And Other Stories. Translated by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu, Harper Collins Publishers, 2021. 190.
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