Peter Y. Paik


On his book From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe

Cover Interview of March 22, 2010

A close-up

Is mass violence justified if it brings about a better world?  This question has been raised frequently in relation to communism, as crimes of Stalin and Mao exposed the murderous core of this utopian ideology.  But with the end of the Cold War, a rather startling reversal took place: utopianism migrated from the revolutionary Left to the neo-conservative Right.

Indeed, the justifications for the invasion and occupation of Iraq convey the impression that much of the rhetoric of revolutionary socialism is being straightforwardly deployed on behalf of a radical program to extend democracy and free markets throughout the globe.  The endemic strife that has overtaken Iraq compels us to question what it means to be regarded as a potential beneficiary of utopian violence—to question the experience of a person who is forced to accept the gift of freedom and all the horrors it has thus far entailed: terrorist bombings, ethnic cleansing, and a brutal insurgency that may trigger a civil war.

In the South Korean film Save the Green Planet, an erratic and violent young man kidnaps the wealthy and famous CEO of a chemical company, who he believes is an alien from the Andromeda galaxy leading a mission to destroy the earth.  The protagonist, named Lee Byung-Gu, is unhinged by a lifetime of devastating suffering and has compelling reasons for carrying out a brutal vendetta against the industrialist.  He was once an employee of the company run by the supposed alien, and his girlfriend was beaten to death during the break-up of a workers’ strike.  His beloved mother, who also worked for the same company, lies in a deep coma from chemical poisoning.  The CEO is a brusque and venal boor named Kang Man-Shik, who has recently won a suspicious, very public acquittal from charges of stock fraud.  Aided by his girlfriend, a trapeze artist named Sooni, Byung-Gu overpowers an inebriated Kang returning home from a drunken night out.

What ensues is a series of horrific tortures, inflicted by Byung-Gu on Kang, to force him to reveal his identity as an alien agent and to set up a meeting with the alien prince.  Kang, after a failed escape attempt, finally admits that he is an alien, but that his mission is not to destroy humanity but to save it from its most dangerous impulses, which now threaten the entire planet with annihilation.  But the only way to save humanity is to single out a few individuals for experiments that test their capacity to endure suffering.  Byung-Gu’s mother was singled out as an ideal test subject because, as the alien executive explains, “physical and mental suffering stresses organisms, forcing them to adapt and develop more quickly.”  Indeed, Kang reveals that Byung-Gu and his mother were deliberately subjected to agonizing torment and misery in order to bring the experiments to more advanced stages.

Stunned by the obscene essence of the injunction underlying Kang’s speech—“Forgive me for the suffering and death of your mother, and you and your kind will be rewarded with peace and plenty!”—Byung-Gu reacts to Kang’s words by shooting out a mirror reflecting the face of his prisoner, and then opens fire against his own desk.  Although one may account for his acting-out as a kind of admission of failure, since the aliens are revealed to be far less one-sidedly malevolent as Byung-Gu believes, this scene can also be understood as a demonstration of his resistance to the persuasive force of Kang’s argument for the salvational correction of the human species.