Your Utopia by Bora Chung (2024)

Your Utopia by Bora Chung (1)Bora Chung made a splash when her debut English-language collection Cursed Bunny (translated by Anton Hur) was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize. Cursed Bunny’s use of body horror, fairy tales, and the strange to critique modern Korean society, and capitalism more broadly, has earned widespread acclaim—and Your Utopia, which has like its predecessor been translated into English by Anton Hur, builds on Cursed Bunny’s foundation. It does so by again utilizing speculative elements to highlight the oddities of modern life and to showcase the humanity present in even the most bleak of possible futures.

Unlike Cursed Bunny, in which fairytales and urban legends are the inspiration behind many of the stories, Your Utopia looks more towards science fiction tropes for inspiration. One major theme linking together the stories in this collection is how robots, aliens, and technology interact with humans in the far future. Oftentimes, these encounters beget only conflict in Chung’s stories. For example, in “Seed,” the protagonists are the descendants of plant-human hybrids from centuries prior, when industrial farming of seedless crops—and the removal of natural plants in favor of company-provided plants that ensured farmers’ dependence on large corporations—led to the last remaining seeds of natural plants on Earth becoming more aggressive and infecting people, creating the first plant-human hybrids. This story is told in the first-person plural by a group of plant-humans encountering corporate representatives for the first time. Their first impression of regular humans is downright negative, with the corporate humans emerging “single file from the monstrous machine they rode in on.” Misunderstandings arise as the plant-humans are questioned as to why they are illegally undertaking subsistence farming despite bans against any kind of agriculture using plants that are not company-made. Conflict is inevitable between the two groups, and the plant-humans’ resolve against outsiders hardens after this incident.

“The End of the Voyage” also features conflict between different groups of humans: those who have been infected by a zombie-like virus that is only referred to as “the Disease,” and those who have not. Chung’s versions of zombies are indistinguishable from uninfected people in every possible way, except that they gain the desire to eat human flesh.

A tabloid reported that [the eldest son and sole survivor of an Iowa family] spoke about his family and had a sad expression and cried, but when asked if he had eaten his family as well, he answered, “Of course,” like it was nothing. When asked how could he have done such a thing if he loved his family, he said, “Eating just an arm or a leg won’t kill them, right?” as if discussing the weather.

The dry, clinical reporting of the Disease outbreak contrasts with the desperation and high stakes experienced by the protagonist: they join a space mission with the goal of making sure the human race survives by sending uninfected people into outer space, but it quickly goes awry when the first helmsman takes a bite out of the second. The situation onboard the ship escalates to fighting and eventually total chaos, turning into an every-man-for-himself situation.

Both “The End of the Voyage” and “Seed” are concerned with the greater survival of a people or a species and how an individual sees their role in that mission. In “Seed,” the plant-human protagonists are most concerned that some of their seeds survive even if they do not (plant-humans have gained the ability to reproduce like plants in the world of this story); in “The End of the Voyage,” the space mission’s sole purpose is to maintain a population of humans that are uninfected so that, in the case a cure to the Disease is ever found, they can return to Earth. The protagonists each take different approaches, however. The first-person POV narrator in “The End of the Voyage” actively fights on the spaceship to make it out alive; but in the first-person plural POV “Seed,” the plant-humans decide on a less active approach:

When the large machines return, our roots will be pulled from the ground, and we will wither away in experimental labs and prisons. But our seeds will survive … And we will start over again.

Chung therefore implies that there is more than one way to respond to existential threats in these two stories: the more collective approach of “Seed” and the more individualistic method of “The End of the Voyage.” Both illustrate how technology and the natural world collide in unpredictable, haphazard ways.

Still, in “A Very Ordinary Marriage,” Chung suggests that not all interactions between two different groups of people will lead to total annihilation of one group. In this story, the narrator, Seonhyuk, discovers he is married to an alien going by the name Jiyoung. She is on Earth to “study the ecology of human beings” and married him because she “was ordered to live among earthlings.” The story never outright confirms or denies whether Jiyoung’s claim of being an alien is true, though it strongly implies that she is most likely an extraterrestrial. After Seonhyuk sends her away—despite her begging him not to, because she will be punished if she fails in her mission—a replacement that appears identical to Jiyoung shows up. Seonhyuk can tell she isn’t the same person, but doesn’t bring the topic up because he doesn’t want to go through the experience of losing his wife again. This story is similar to “Seed” in that representatives of two separate groups collide. However, Seonhyuk never tells anyone else that he has met people who are most likely aliens, leaving him to live alone in fear of the woman who appears to be his wife but isn’t. Like “Seed,” “A Very Ordinary Marriage” suggests that peaceful, conflict-free coexistence between two groups is difficult-to-impossible when the groups in question have conflicting motivations, whether the antagonist is a race of aliens who are willing to resort to threats of violence to continue their mission of observing humans, or corporations looking to destroy natural plant life to maximize profits.

Not all interactions with futuristic technology are necessarily hostile or doomed to be disastrous in Your Utopia. In the title story of the collection, the narrator is an Asimov’s-Three-Laws-following self-driving car on a planet that has been abandoned by humans after widespread illness claimed many lives. The humans have taken their generators and power sources with them, dooming the robots and machines (which the narrator refers to as “inorganic intelligences”) to slowly die off as the planet runs out of power sources. Since there are no humans left for it to ferry around, the car’s only passenger is a small robot whose serial number has worn off except for the final digits, which happen to be 314. This becomes the narrator’s name for this robot. 314 keeps repeating, “Your utopia is, on a scale of one to ten, your utopia is.” The car responds back based on how much battery it has left, stating, “The lower my battery level gets, the lower my utopia level reaches.” Despite the bleak circ*mstances in which the car has found itself, however, it is still optimistic, telling the robot: “But it’ll get better … Today, we might come across some inorganic intelligence. No we will .” The car and 314 make for an odd friendship, but between the two of them they manage to eke out an existence on an inhospitable planet while facing dismal long-term prospects, with the car fearing that once its tires wear out or after it rusts, it will no longer be able to move.

Nevertheless, “Your Utopia” is one of the most optimistic in this collection despite the post-apocalyptic setting, ending on a positive note as the car determines to keep going and to find another power source for 314: “I dream of a future where [314 is] recharged once more,” it says, “and I will finally hear their voice saying those words again: Your utopia is.” Of course, the car’s optimism is probably futile, since eventually it will need repairs it can’t get; but the story itself ends on a hopeful note as the car resolves to keep going with 314. The car’s refusal to blame humans for leaving the machines to slowly die off, and its persistent hope that there will be a long-term solution to its power woes despite its bleak reality that is unlikely to change anytime soon, in this way nicely contrasts with the tone of other stories in this collection, thus rounding out Your Utopia as a whole.

Despite the elements of body horror running through many of the stories, Your Utopia is funny, strange, and touching, with its robots, aliens, and human characters digging into what it means to exist. I personally found Cursed Bunny more emotionally engaging, but someone more inclined towards science fictional elements, such as futuristic robots, would likely prefer Your Utopia. The collection reminds me of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu (2022), which similarly highlights the strangeness of modern life by using speculative elements—and was also put together at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Where Fu puts her focus on how everyday people interact with Black Mirror-esque technology, however, Chung’s characters are more often not everyday humans. And unlike Fu, who focuses on the present moment, in Your Utopia Chung puts her focus on the future. Between Your Utopia and Cursed Bunny, Chung has established herself as a formidable voice in global speculative fiction.

Your Utopia by Bora Chung (2024)


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