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Quick Book Rec: Tower by Bae Myung-hoon

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Science fiction is written all over the world, and every few years Anglophone audiences get exposed to a new corner of it. The last decade has seen a flowering of Chinese and Japanese SF in translation. A few years ago, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad took the literary world by storm. And recently, science fiction from Latin America has been all the rage, with authors like Samanta Schweblin, Pola Oloixarac, Rita Indiana, Nona Fernández, and Agustina Bazterrica being translated into English. In late 2020 and early 2021, someone seems to have decided that it was Korean SF’s turn, with several major works receiving English-language editions (in particular, check out UK-based publisher Honford Star, who have put out handsome editions of several books). At the vacation house where I recently stayed with some friends, these books were available for reading, and today I’d like to talk about one them. Tower by Bae Myung-hoon was originally published in 2009 (the English translation is by Sung Ryu), and its concerns connect with conversations we’ve had on this blog about urbanism, vertical construction, and most importantly, the relationship between capital and citizens.

The tower of the title is Beanstalk, a mega-skyscraper that is its own sovereign nation. Over six hundred stories tall and sprawling outwards for a kilometer or more on its horizontal axis (despite the novel’s title, the Beanstalk is more potato-shaped than a tower), it is a world unto itself. The novel never specifies what country the Beanstalk is in (though one obviously assumes that it is Korea) or what city. And in fact, one gets the impression that most Beanstalk residents would consider that question illogical—they don’t think of themselves as being in any city except Beanstalk, and when they talk about what’s on the ground, they refer to it as “our neighboring country”. Not that the ground occupies much of their thoughts, as most Beanstalk residents never leave, and many suffer from “terraphobia” so crippling that the very thought of being outside or on the Earth’s surface causes them deep anxiety.

Tower is a fix-up novel, made up of six short stories and three document fragments. The opening pieces are humorous, even satirical. In “Three Wise Recruits”, a researcher attempting to track power dynamics within Beanstalk tags bottles of expensive liquor with trackers in order to see how and to whom they will be regifted during the Christmas season, only for his study (which is, we are told, funded by one of the tower’s political parties) to be stymied when the bottles all end up in the apartment of a film star, who just happens to be a dog. “In Praise of Nature” is about a writer who has been bribed into substituting his hard-hitting political writing with nature writing, with the gift of a Mediterranean villa—which, because of his terraphobia, he can never visit, but only views through a robot’s camera eyes. In “Taklamakan Misdelivery”, a woman who broke off a relationship years ago when she got immigration approval into Beanstalk and he didn’t discovers that her ex attempted to follow her into the tower by enlisting in the Beanstalk military, which is engaged in several wars in far-flung countries, and has been shot down in the desert. Because the pilot is a contractor, not a citizen, the authorities won’t expend any effort in recovering him, and the heroine ends up crowdsourcing the recovery effort among her fellow residents, getting them to review satellite images of the desert to find the crash site. (One of the ways in which the lag time between Korean- and English-language publication impacts the book’s reception—the idea of getting a lot of people to do a little part of a large task probably seemed more revolutionary in 2009 than it does today.)

Small-scale as they are, these stories help create a sense of Beanstalk as a rough equivalent of many modern, wealthy democracies, plagued with ills such as inequality, high barriers to immigration and citizenship, and an unaccountable political elite that many citizens are willing to ignore because their standard of living is pretty high. Even the revelation that Beanstalk has a military that conducts operations in foreign (and Muslim-coded) countries—which most citizens are indifferent to—feels like it tells us more about our world than the novel’s. It’s only in the fourth story, “The Elevator Maneuver Exercise”, that we understand how these stories have been laying the groundwork for our first meaningful exploration of Beanstalk society as a distinct entity, and of the form of extreme urbanism that has developed within it. We’ve already learned that movement between floors in Beanstalk is complicated and expensive—elevators are the tower’s public transport, but passes are pricey, and often permit movement only between certain floors or at certain times. Narrated by a Beanstalk civil servant, this story reveals that there is within Beanstalk a profound rift—philosophical as well as practical—between “horizontalists” and “verticalists”.

The horizontalists are the workers who move goods and people within the tower’s levels, while the verticalists move them between those levels. As the story quickly informs us, the horizonatlists are a labor union, while the verticalists are a corporate-controlled guild. In other words, the setting of the tower provides an incisive metaphor for the ways that power distributes itself in modern societies. The narrator’s job with the government involves making emergency plans—for evacuation, or the swift deployment of security forces. It’s telling that the tools he uses are almost all vertical ones, signifying the interconnectedness of political and business elites, as well as their detachment from the citizenry. A major plot point in the story is the mayor’s insistence that he should have his own elevator, capable of removing him from the tower in one fell swoop in case of an emergency, even though—as the narrator suggests to his superiors—a mixed vertical/horizontal approach could achieve the same goal just as quickly, and without creating a disruption in the tower’s floorplan that would allow enemies to discern the elevator’s route.

The narrator befriends a horizontalist activist, won over by her moving writing about level 520, which in her hands becomes its own world. But in an excerpt from this work, we discover the darker truth about what became of this level. The author explains that despite the greater power held by verticalists and their corporate masters, intra-level elections almost always return horizontalist candidates, because the top-down mentality of the verticalists makes it impossible for them to understand the needs and concerns of any specific level. To combat this phenomenon, researchers send a spy to level 520, who discovers that the level’s cultural center is a café owned by a former horizontalist union member, where citizens can gather, learn news, and exchange information. The verticalists then open another café in level 520, cheaper and with better fare, and quickly break the existing business’s back. With their cultural center gone, the citizens of level 520 lose their sense of a shared, distinct community, and in the next election, vote for a verticalist candidate.

Later stories continue to stress the divide between Beanstalk’s leadership and its citizenry. In “The Buddha of the Square”, the Beanstalk security forces acquire an elephant for crowd control. Despite repeated demonstrations of the beast’s unsuitability to security work (much less to security work within a skyscraper), the sunk cost fallacy holds sway—the elephant exists, and therefore it must be used. The next time there are demonstrations against the mayor, the elephant, named Amitabh, is sent into the public square—only for the demonstrators to sense his immense, placid soul and rally around him, which only further enrages the authorities, who wanted a bloodbath (warning: this does not end well for the elephant). In “Fully-Compliant”, a spy for a country decimated by the Beanstalk military activates a decades-in-the-making plan to destroy the tower, only to discover that, one by one, the sleeper agents in charge of safeguarding the bombs planted in Beanstalk’s walls had disabled them. Yes, they all tell her, Beanstalk is the Tower of Babel and needs to be destroyed. But their part of it, the neighborhood where they lived and served the community for decades, doesn’t deserve to die.

The central question raised by Tower is “what is a city?” Is it the people who live in it, raise families, make friends, develop new ideas and artforms and ask questions about the world? Or is the corporate and political interests without whom the whole thing wouldn’t have existed in the first place? Which of them should be in control? Which of them should be afraid of the other? Is a city a community, or a piece of real estate? Of course, the distinction, as the novel acknowledges, isn’t that clear-cut—the same people who rally to locate a downed pilot in “Taklamakan Misdelivery” are the ones who tolerate a system where their military is outsourced to contract workers, and the people whose goodness persuaded the terrorists in “Fully-Compliant” to hold off on destroying the tower probably also voted for the government that chose to pursue that war in the first place. Localism—or, in this context, horizontalism—can also be an excuse for letting other people deal with the big questions.

This is not the first work of urban SF I’ve seen grapple with these issues—of the top of my head, the one that most readily comes to mind is Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140—and what it seems to me that they’re all wondering about is the very issue of modernity. Most of us live in communities that have grown past our ability to comprehend them, too trapped in our level to meaningfully influence those above us in the hierarchy. As many reviewers have noted, Tower is a response to changing ways of life in South Korea (the same inequality that gave us Snowpiercer and Parasite), which is also a swiftly urbanising society, with many urban Koreans living in blocs of towers dozens of stories high. On this blog we tend to treat upward expansion, as opposed to horizontal sprawl, as a necessary condition to combatting climate change and creating more livable spaces. Tower is a reminder that such an expansion also requires new ideas in social engineering, and in our understanding of what cities are and how they should function.

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