The Orphan Master’s Son has been classified as a literary fiction, thriller, political commentary, love story, and dystopia. It has characteristics of magical realism and although it is set in the recent past, tonally it matches science fiction dystopias like 1984 and the film Brazil. This makes sense given the setting of North Korea, a mysterious country about which everything we know seems stranger than fiction. Adam Johnson fills unknown spaces with details that feel at times otherworldly, as when Jun Do listens to transmissions that seem to come from beneath the sea before he realizes that they actually come from the International Space Station. Other details feel futuristic, such as the autopilot machine invented by the interrogators of Division 42.
The speculative fiction tone of this contemporary piece also makes sense given that Adam Johnson’s previous work was science fiction. His book, Emporium is an acclaimed collection of short stories in which a diverse cast of characters struggles to find meaning and connection as they deal with violence and imminent disaster. His novel Parasites Like Us involves an anthropologist who inadvertently brings about the end of the world.
Finally, it turns out that the science fiction genre has allowed writers a little bit more freedom in North Korea than other forms of writing. Science fiction has always been able to tackle taboo topics because authors can use metaphor to make their point. According to Benoit Berthelier:
After a speech delivered by Kim Jong-Il in October 1988 called for the development of science fiction on a larger scale, the number of sci-fi works grew significantly. From space travel to immortality or underwater exploration, sci-fi stories cover a wide range of subjects within settings that usually exceed the national boundaries of North Korea. If the country remains the central point of most plots, foreign characters–both positive and negative–are much more common than in traditional fiction.
According to Berthelier, everything written in North Korea has to send a message that the leadership desires. In North Korean science fiction, there’s no individual genius science – science only happens when everyone works together as part of a hierarchy. There are a lot of robots and no aliens, because of “the lack of scientific proof of a developed extraterrestrial life”. But there are more foreigners than in most other North Korean fiction, and a wider range of settings and plot types. While North Korean science fiction carefully toes the line of what’s acceptable, it gets to wiggle its toes a bit more than other genres do.
Even though The Orphan Master’s Son is not science fiction, it uses the SF trick of metaphor to convey the unspeakable. In an interview in the 2012 paperback edition, Johnson says that he didn’t want to write about all the horrible stories he heard of the atrocities in labor camps so he replaced them with forced blood donations. This served as a straightforward depiction of atrocity but also as a metaphor of the state sucking the life out of its people. Similarly, the persistent rumor in the book that there is no retirement village at Wonson and that retirees simply disappear is not based on fact (there’s a beach resort at Wonson but no retirement homes and no claim of retirement homes) but it serves as a fantastic metaphor for a dead-end – the idea that there is no possible happy ending and no escape.