Between the Lines Book Club: The Orphan Master’s Club and Science Fiction

between the lines book club logoThe 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.

photo of Adam johnson

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.

cover of Emporium

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,[2] 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.

illustration from Explosion in the 3rd Dimension

Illustration for Explosion in the Third Dimension, by Han Seong-ho

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.

Between the Lines Book Club: The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

between the lines book club logoWelcome to Between the Lines Book Club!  This month we’re reading The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson.  Please comment about this book online, and join us at our in-person meeting on Sunday, October 26th at 2PM, at Arden Dimick Library (891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95864).

The Orphan Master’s Son tells the story of Jun Do, who is raised in an orphanage in North Korea.  Jun Do believes that he must be the son of the Orphan Master, saying, “The surest evidence that the woman in the photo was Jun Do’s mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment.”

As Jun Do grows up, he finds himself in a range of morally convoluted situations.  He lives in a world in which personal survival trumps all else, and in which there’s no truth expect what the Dear Leader proclaims to be the truth:

“Where we are from… [s]tories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

The Orphan Master’s Son was critically praised for its fictional creation of a bizarre dystopian state, the atmosphere of suspense, and the use of dark humor (a visit to a Texas ranch is both horrifying and hilarious).  It was criticized by some for its cartoonish portrayal of Kim Jong Il and the tonal shifts – for some critics, these shifts were brilliant, while others found them discordant.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging more about Adam Johnson and the story behind the book.  Stay tuned!

cover to Orphan Master's Son

Friday Book Club is on Summer Vacation

SWT-Book-ClubsOur book club is taking a break in August, but it will return in September, proudly bearing the name:  “Between the Lines”.  This book club is both online and offline – comments are welcome here on the blog, and if you are in the Sacramento, California area you can come to an in-person meeting at the Arden-Dimick Library.  Here’s the schedule:

September 28:  The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

October 26:  The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

November 16:  The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

All meetings are at 2PM in the Community Room of Arden-Dimick Library, which is located at 891 Watt Ave, Sacramento, CA 95864.  See you in September!