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'Your Utopia' considers surveillance and the perils of advanced technology

Algonquin Books

As concepts go, "utopia" is a spectacularly Janus-faced one. The word itself is encrusted with opposing meanings, signifying both an ideal place and no place.

Every utopia also encodes a dystopia; an imagined ideal defines itself against antipodean values, lightness against darkness. Korean writer Bora Chung thoroughly embraces the term's quirk of contradiction in her new story collection Your Utopia. Working again with Anton Hur, who translated her first story collection Cursed Bunny into English, Chung now scares up scenarios set in both the near past and near future. If the expertly crafted stories in her prior collection revolved around what M.R. James called the "malice of inanimate objects," the stories in her new collection are more tightly focused on surveillance and the perils of advanced technology.

In "The Center for Immortality Research," a glorified executive assistant works to plan an anniversary event for the titular research center. The story takes place in 2010 and seems, at first, to be a workplace satire: The narrator, who wears her lowly status like a hair shirt, is consumed with making countless iterations of invitations, altering a word on the invite to appease one board member, only to change it back at the behest of another. Novelty-chasing tech gurus and politicians who make a fetish of long life also come in for a roasting. A candidate for the National Assembly pledges to his constituency that if he is elected, he "will make everyone in our country live forever" and speaks in neologisms like "thoughtified."

When the anniversary gala rolls around, micro mortifications turn into a mudslide of macro ones. It appears that several typos have been introduced into the invitation copy and, as a coup de grace, the narrator is implicated in the theft of some DVDs after she is caught on surveillance footage. The twist is that she can't be fired, since she and everyone else who works at the center is immortal. I wish that this idea had been more fully developed, if only to make clear why immortality should conflict with job termination; as it is, the revelation is given the wingspan of a sentence and the story quickly peters out into a lament about the narrator's purgatorial status: "As long as I lived, I had to figure out a way to put food on the table, and this eternal need to feed myself was frightening."

With other stories, the prevailing feeling is not that it ends too soon, just as things were getting interesting, but that Chung is rounding the corner of a plot twist at the precise moment the reader is. "The End of the Voyage" has an exciting premise: A mysterious disease causes people to turn into cannibals. While there's no mention of COVID in any of these stories, there are obvious parallels. Both emergencies give rise to vaccine nationalism: "Surely it was better for my country to find a cure before anyone else," thinks the "linguistics specialist" narrator to herself. She and a small crew of others manage to leave Earth on a spaceship, only to discover that the captain and others on board have succumbed to the disease. The final line, which I won't give away, necessarily revises all that one has read up to that point, but seems tacked on.

More interesting are the contradictions between stories. The narrator of "End of the Voyage" muses tonelessly that "there is no such thing as two-way communication," yet the idea is defied by two more promising stories. In "Seed," a race of human-plant hybrids fights to maintain sovereignty over their small patch of land from the rapacious Moshennik Corporation (modeled loosely on Monsanto, it would seem). The merging of two different species is the culmination of "a symbiotic relationship rather than a parasitic one." And the final story, "To Meet Her," envisions a world of "deepfake technologies that utilize Bakhtin's Mirror Theory." The AI technology has internalized two gazes: "one that looks back on ourselves, like a mirror, and one we think the other is seeing when they look at us." It's two-way communication all the way down. Words also drift like pollen from one story to another, setting off allergic narrative reactions. "You can quit a company or disown a friend, but you can't quit or disown your family," opines the worker at the immortality center. Yet in "End of the Voyage," a minor character is disowned by his parents after he chooses to become an engineer instead of a lawyer or high-ranking administrator.

On a sentence level, the prose in Your Utopia lacks the freshness of Cursed Bunny. The pages are unfortunately spackled with clichés: people "get wind of the project" in one story and the main character in "The Center for Immortality Research" despairs of never being promoted "in this organization until the end of time," a cliché made even more flagrant by the fact that "the end of time" is void of meaning for a person cursed with immortality. In too many stories, the stripped-down, bloodless prose resembles something that might be churned out by ChatGPT. Sometimes, this is deliberate — as with the title story narrated by a car-like "inorganic intelligence" and another story told by an AI-enabled elevator. Yet a certain aloofness shades as well into stories told from the perspective of humans; other people's faces rarely rate a description, to say nothing of their psyches.

In an afterword on "the act of mourning," Chung writes that she took part in "ritual prostration" protests in 2020 for the Anti-Discrimination Act and the Serious Accidents Penalty Act. The Acts were conceived to protect the rights of sexual minorities in Korea and workers injured on the job, respectively. At times, the stories give the impression of having been written as a bid for relevancy in our gig work and tech accelerationist age. The last story even ham-handedly spells out the problem with corporations pursuing "their endless greed for profit and money and more profit and more money at the expense of our whole world." Yet the strongest of these stories impart a sense of disorientation, rather than a moral critique, evoking worlds that seem at first like utopias only to disclose, upon deeper inspection, dystopias.

Rhoda Feng is a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer. She has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The New Republic, and The New York Times, among other publications. She is the winner of the 2022-23 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

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Rhona Feng