COUNTERWEIGHTof Djuna. Translated by Anton Hur.
In the last years of the 19th century, the visionary Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky conducted a thought experiment about a tower tall enough for its top to escape gravity. From the 1960s, the idea evolved into that of the “space elevator”, a transportation system consisting of a cable attached to the earth’s surface near the Equator, anchored by a counterweight out beyond geosynchronous orbit. “Crawlers”, or elevator cars, would go up and down, without the need for rocketry. Although popular with science fiction writers and the longer-haired type of engineer, space elevators remain theoretical. Current building materials are too heavy and lack the strength for such a titanium cable, so a prerequisite for the existence of a space elevator would be the invention of new materials such as carbon nanotubes.
In “Counterweight,” by the pseudonymous Korean science fiction writer Djuna, nanotubes are part of the intellectual property of the sprawling, multinational LK corporation. LK built a space elevator on the fictional island of Patusan in Southeast Asia, a perishing fragment of the global periphery with “respectably dense tropical forest with pitifully low biodiversity … and villages and towns that collapsed after draining their watercourses without regard for. the consequences.” The corporation has transformed Patusa into a “gateway to Earth,” a global hub for space exploration and trade. Corporate rule has inspired protest and armed resistance. The narrator, Mac, a high-ranking LK security agent, arrives on Earth as part of a counter-terrorist operation, tracking and detaining cadres of the Patusan Liberation Front.
Caught up in the web is an unfortunate mid-level LK employee named Choi Gangwu, who is in regular contact with one of the Liberation Front agents. Choi seems to be, by nature, a dreamy and unmotivated person – his hobby is watching butterflies – yet after several failed attempts he mysteriously scored very high in the LK entrance tests, and when he talks about the space elevator, he becomes intense and opinionated, as if his personality has changed. Detained by the company for his involvement with the resistance, Choi is instructed to meet his contact, who he seems to believe is just a fellow butterfly enthusiast. The meeting turns violent; suddenly something explodes in the contact’s brain, killing him instantly and leaving Mac, who is already aware of more than one intersecting conspiracy, wondering if there are still more wheels within wheels.
Djuna has been publishing science fiction (and film criticism) in South Korea for over 25 years, without making any biographical revelations. “Counterweight,” their first full-length work to appear in English, in a crisp translation by Anton Hur, is an efficient, fast-paced cyberpunk story that’s at its best when unpacking the ramifications of the ubiquitous “Worms,” neural implants. that Internet users together and offer various kinds of augmentation, from Internet-like access to information to much stranger mutations in perception and personality.
Although never as deeply mired in paranoia as the dizzyingly indeterminate fictions of Philip K. Dick, this is a world where agency and identity are always in doubt. Do these feelings of love belong to you or were they planted? Is the terrorist acting of his own free will, or is he a meat puppet, under the sway of shadowy controllers elsewhere? The experience of “always-on” involuntary connectivity even acts as a deterrent to crime: “The Worm, at the slightest sign of violence, would have alerted the company immediately.” Vastly increased powers have been bought at the expense of human autonomy, and it is clear that as the web becomes ever tighter, humans adapt to accommodate it. When an electromagnetic pulse weapon takes Mac’s worm offline, he experiences a “sense of uneasiness” at being “separated from the herd.”
From the rain neon of “Blade Runner” to the Vanta-Black corporate Japan of “Neuromancer”, Anglophone near-future speculation has long had a streak of Orientalism, a fascination (often admiring) with the liquid modernity of East Asian urbanism, and the regions’ characteristic approaches to technology. . After the global success of Cixin Liu’s “Three Bodies” trilogy, American publishers are belatedly bringing Asian science fiction stories to an anglophone readership that has a demonstrable hunger for their culture in various forms. “Counterbalance” is also, in a small way, an expression of soft power, part of a wave of South Korean film, popular music and literature that in recent years has given Seoul unprecedented global cultural power.
“Counterbalance” brings a distinct tone to its tale of corporate skulduggery. LK is a “chaebol”, a characteristically Korean structure of corporate ownership by a single family, and the plot hinges on questions of inheritance, whether it is possible to transmit through a corporation something more than culture, some personal essence.
The novel’s speculations about human agency resonate in the present moment, when US tech CEOs oscillate between issuing resounding warnings about the existential risks of the AI systems they are developing and breathless hype about a brain-computer interface. The book imagines the imminent appearance of companies controlled by artificial intelligence — companies like intelligence, a fusion of technology and economic logic that will definitely surpass humanity. LK, we discover, “slowly exceeds the limits of human control.”
Hari Kunzru’s next novel, “Blue Ruin,” will be published in May 2024.
COUNTERWEIGHT | By Djuna | Translated by Anton Hur | 160 p. | Pantheon Books | $24