North Korean science fiction and the Maoist road to Mars

Jeff sez, "The Journal of Asian Studies has two science fiction-related essays: a full-length study that focuses on North Korean sci-fi stories of the 1950s and 1960s, which were intended for children and influenced by Soviet works of the time; it's paired with a shorter comment that explores parallels between texts Zur analyzes and SF produced in Mao era China."

Things were getting busy on the major flight corridors between the Earth and Mars, or so the casual observer of socialist bloc science fiction from the 1950s might come to believe. While there are no reports of intergalactic traffic jams, Mars was becoming a destination of choice in science fiction from both sides of the Iron Curtain. In her fascinating article, Dafna Zur details the exploits of an international exploratory mission to the red planet, consisting of children from a dozen nations, including North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union. It remains unknown whether the explorers from Kim Tong Sŏp's serialized novel Youth Space Expedition Team met any other socialist space travelers on their way to Mars. But they could have very well run into spaceship #1, commanded by Zhenzhen, the protagonist of Zheng Wenguang's (1929–2003) “Cong diqiu dao huoxing” (From the Earth to Mars) (Zheng 1954a).

“At the heart of North Korean science fiction” of the 1950s and 1960s, Dafna Zur points out, “is the implication of science, technology, and the environment in the political discourses of development shared across both sides of the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War.” Zur demonstrates how popular genres, scientific agendas, and visions of the future were circulated across the socialist bloc, creating shared imaginaries of a new world, powered by both ideology and scientific discoveries. The agents of this thrust into the future are invariably the youth. The points raised by Zur, of course, echo far beyond North Korea; similar observations can be made for other socialist nations, such as the People's Republic of China (PRC). It is no coincidence that Chinese science fiction entered its second “golden age” in the mid- and late 1950s, just when science fiction adventures took off in the Soviet Union, in North Korea, and elsewhere.1 Yet it is also noteworthy that the newfound interest in science fiction went hand in hand with an upsurge of transnational exchanges and translations in the hard sciences, and of concerted efforts to popularize this science. In the first half of the 1950s alone, the PRC translated over 2,000 volumes of science books from the Soviet Union, and rolled out a series of campaigns for science popularization (kexue puji).2 Science fiction, I argue, thus occupied just one end of a larger continuum of scientific discourses that ranged from the empirical through the popular to the imaginary. These discourses fed into each other and were intertwined with another continuum, of existing and future technologies. The temporal axis implied in this second continuum generates the emphasis on the youth observed by Zur—today's children are the scientists of tomorrow, who will turn imagination into reality. The interplay of science, science popularization, and science fiction, as well as the youth as pioneers, is illustrated by the work of Zheng Wenguang, a contemporary of the North Korean writers discussed by Zur and the author credited with launching the new wave of Chinese science fiction in the 1950s with his story “From the Earth to Mars.”