Tuesday, April 15, 2014

fiction vs. science fiction

On Friday I spoke to my mother on the phone for the first time in four months. We're not estranged or anything; far from it. I'm just a horrible son, even when you don't apply the Confucian lens. We talked around Christmastime and...well, the time just slipped away. Life intervened. The trip to Sapporo, the move to Gangnam, and all that jazz. It's hard for me to remember that I have to contact her; she has no way of contacting me (I call my parents via Skype, but they have a land line).

Anyway, Mum said something interesting, as she always does. We were discussing my younger brother, a young actor in Hollywood searching for his big break, and how a big-name studio asked him and his crew to do a short film. You can catch some snippets of it here, if you don't mind strong language. (He's on IMDB, too.) That dark-haired fellow with the Mel Gibson looks and the chip on his shoulder and the what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about expression on his face is who I grew up with, folks. 

Anyway, I finally managed to inform my mum that I've submitted my first novel to Penguin Books, and am awaiting a reply. Among the many pithy observations she made was that my brother and I have both chosen extremely tough and competitive careers, and we are both on the threshold of success (she's great with the encouraging comments). It gave me pause. She was right in more ways than she knew. Not only have I decided to make my name in fiction, but science fiction to boot. The requirements of the genre are a bit more stringent than mainstream fiction. I don't mean to imply that mainstream fiction is a cakewalk or anything like that. Not at all. To be a writer in any genre requires patience, skill, practice, a certain degree of natural talent, patience, confidence, dedication, and hard work (especially the last one). It's not much different from being an actor in that respect. That was my mum's whole point. 

But to be a sci-fi writer you need all that and more, I've realized. First, you have to understand the fundamental ways in which technology, science and progress affect human lives. You have to see the human story behind the inhuman gadgets and gizmos. You must march to the same fife as a mainstream fiction writer by composing a compelling story, a tale of ordinary human (or inhuman) beings in challenging situations, relatable characters with the same age-old problems, seasoning the tale with conflict and drama and triumph and failure and character development, not forgetting correct pacing and florid language and all the other ingredients which fiction is heir to; but that ain't all. Into the fabric of fiction you must weave the scintillating threads of the fantastic. You must wed your human story to the extraordinary technology of the future, the advanced science of impending ages, the limitless world of wonder that lies beyond the borders of imagination. One e-zine I've submitted to won't even consider a manuscript unless it's "a good character-driven story wherein the technology is so vital to the plot that the narrative would be indelibly altered were it absent." 

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I consistently fail to do. 

Writing is like herding cats. Staying on top of what every good story needs—plot, pacing, vivid characters, sizzling prose, universal mores—while trying to throw in the novel aspects of science fiction like mind-blowing tech and aliens and starships and whatnot is...challenging. It's rather like trying to cook a four-course dinner. You're boiling the pasta and stirring the sauce and grating the cheese and pounding the breadcrumbs, and just as finish you realize that you've let the mushrooms (which were supposed to be lightly sautéed) burn to ashes in the skillet. Despite your best efforts, the meal leaves a carcinogenic taste in the mouth of anyone who eats it. That, apparently, is what my stories are doing to the editors at Asimov's, Analog, and Daily Science Fiction. I haven't sold a story yet. 

But at least I know what I'm doing wrong. The trick is that happy marriage of the unreal and imaginary to the tried-and-true fictive formula. I haven't had much success combining memorable characters, fantastic settings, incredible technology and a classic plot into one single story, but I'm getting better. Like anything else, all it takes is practice. You have to get a feel for it, and I can feel that I'm getting a feel for it. Enough to realize that some stories need to be aborted before I waste time and energy on them (such as the idea I had while shopping with Miss H last weekend, "Incheon Airport Post-Rapture"ha!). 

I can write good stories, and I can dream up good sci-fi concepts, but getting the two to merge in my brain and slide all the way down through my arms and fingers to the keyboard is another matter. 

Tomorrow is Wednesday, my day off. I'll see what I can do about it then. Wish me luck. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

the new front porch

Miss H and I have done it all. When we were in Bucheon (2012-2013) we were in an officetel, which is a building which rents out rooms for commercial and residential purposes alike. Generally there's one big living area with a kitchenette, a bathroom and a loft, and that's exactly what we had at our old building.

In Gwangnaru (2012-2013) we lived in a villa, which are usually only three or four stories tall and have about four or so rooms on every floor. They're cheaper than officetels, but you have less space. We had a studio apartment, a tiny kitchen, and a twin bed to share. It's a wonder we didn't murder each other. 

We had to keep the door to the enclosed glass veranda (which nonetheless was exposed to the open air and mighty cold) open, because Charlie's litter box was out there. So I put some nails into the door frame and clipped those blankets over the threshold to block the chill night air. 

I stood with my back pressed against the front door as I snapped this picture. Not even enough room to swing a cat. Believe me. I tried. 

Daecheong, in the Gaepo ("get rid of the dog") neighborhood in southern Gangnam-gu, is the first place in Korea where we've lived in an honest-to-God apartment. I won't give you any of the "before" pics (taken before we mopped after the two twenty-something male meatheads who lived here before us). I'll just show you the nice after pics so this post doesn't get too huge:

This actually has nothing to do with new apartments, cleaning, or Gangnam. Miss H and I have decided to be a bit more adventurous when it comes to using our toaster oven as...well, an oven. For baking stuff. These are the necessary supplies. The corned beef hash is my vice. 

And pay no attention to that mess of bottles on the gas range or the fermenter on the kitchen table. The boys were coming over that day to bottle our robust honey-molasses porter, and I was laying out the materials. 
Guest bedroom, pulling double duty.

So much storage...[drool]

I'm really glad we're not paying for this place; it cost $450,000. That's US dollars, not Korean won. We have an 18-hour security officer, free large-trash pickup, three bedrooms (I keep mentioning that, don't I?) and a splendid view off the unenclosed veranda-thingy we have out front in lieu of a hallway:

Not pictured: my trusty mountain bike. 


I like it. Gives me some nice fresh air to smoke my pipe in. 

Let us get the laundry racks down and the floor swept and I'll put up some images of our apartment's fetchingly-decorated office/den and master bedroom. Oh, that's right! We have to make a run to Insadong or Garden 5 for decorations...

Stay tuned. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Park, Lee, and Kim...oh my!

Have you ever wondered why such a staggeringly large slice of the Korean population is named Park, Lee, or Kim? 

So have I. In fact, it used to be the most burning question I had about this peninsula, right behind what "Seoul" means

But not anymore. I found the answer. 

First, let me introduce you to a building:

                                                                                                               from Wikimedia Commons

It's called Gyeongbokgung ("Palace Greatly Blessed By Heaven") and it stands in central Seoul, near the intersection of Lines 3 and 5. Up the hill behind it is a famous Buddhist temple and the Blue House, the official residence of the Korean president. Gyeongbokgung was the largest and grandest of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty. Originally constructed in 1395, right after Joseon's foundation, and then later burned and abandoned for three centuries, it was reconstructed in 1867. 

Now here's where things start to get controversial. 

The official word is that Gyeongbokgung was burned to the ground by Imperial Japan shortly after their annexation of Korea in the early 20th century. But various reports and accounts I've heard tell a different story. Let me back up and do some more explaining.

Korea's surnames, like Scotland's, were all clan-based in antiquity. The Kims were a clan unto themselves back in the day, and a very powerful one. So were the Parks (or Bak, as I prefer to romanize it). The Lees, too. But there were hundreds of others: Choi, Bae, Woo, Lim, Jang, Jeong, Bang, Go, Min, Hong, Seo, Gang, Yoo, Heo, Yoon, Gwak, Gwon, Yang, Hwang, Myeong, Dong, Ryu, Noh, Na, and Pyo come readily to mind.

Here's the thing, though. Korea used to have a caste system. The Kims, Lees and Parks got so powerful that they became the rulers of some of the peninsula's mightiest kingdoms: Baekje, Silla, Goguryeo, and Joseon. Everybody else got the shaft. The Gangs and Yoos and Yangs remained commoners. Granted, any commoner could sit for the gwageo (civil service examination) and become a yangban (civil servant), entitled to an estate and aristocratic privileges...but hey, noble names were still noble names, and common ones common.

When the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910, one of the first things they did was abolish the caste system. Suddenly a Kim was no better than a Choi, and Park no worthier than a Jang. But the names themselves still retained some time-honored clout. It was a mark of prestige to be a Kim or a Park, even if the Japanese had barged in and said it didn't count for beans anymore. 

So, according to what I've heard, Gyeongbokgung wasn't burned down by the Japanese. It was burned down by the Koreans. See, Gyeongbokgung was where the Hall of Records was. Everybody's birth certificates and genealogies were in there. With those reduced to ashes, a lowly Pyo or Hong could waltz right into the nearest Japanese registrar's office and say "Hello there. I'm Mr. Kim." Or "Howdy doody, ilbon saram! I'm Mr. Lee!" 

I don't know if that's true or not, but I have to admit it's a compelling theory. Korea suffers from a deplorable excess of Kims, Lees and Parks because their granddads all wanted to put on airs and had no qualms about committing arson to do it. This is why I secretly rejoice whenever I see an extremely rare surname (such as Gwak, Yang or Pyo) because I know that that person's ancestors had enough pride in their roots not to torch the royal palace and then fake their names during the next census.

And now you know the rest of the story.

P.S. Can you think of anybody else who might be using the name "Kim" to give themselves some street cred...?