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The Tower coverMost Anglophone satire, from George Orwell to Spitting Image, generally comes down to the view that the wrong people are in charge. In contrast to this, non-Anglophone satire, from Kafka in the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky in Stalin’s Soviet Union, pays little attention to who is in charge, but rather directs our gaze to the surreal idiocy of trying to live a normal life within a broken system. The Korean writer, Bae Myung-Hoon, provides a perfect example of such a satirical attack in the opening pages of Tower, a collection of linked stories all set within the 674-storey skyscraper-nation, known as Beanstalk. In its first scenes, a group of researchers are investigating power relationships within the tower. Recognising that bribery is the quickest way to identify who owes fealty to whom, they invest in ultra-expensive bottles of whisky, fit them with GPS, and then trace their route through the complex social networks of the tower, only to discover that the kingpin towards whom the bottles of whisky all make their journey is a dog. [1]

Tower was first published in 2009 in Korea, where Bae Myung-Hoon is a popular and award-winning writer of science fiction and political satire. This volume, attractively and enterprisingly produced by the Korean publisher, Honford Star, seems to be the first of his works to have been translated into English. If his other works are as sharp and adept as this, it should not be the last.

Towards the end of that first story, significantly titled “Three Wise Recruits,” the three young researchers recruited to carry out the hard work of actually conducting the research, realise that they must pay a duty call on the wife of their boss, who has just given birth. This requires a complex and at times arduous journey from Level 27, where the Beanstalk Tacit Power Research Centre is situated, all the way up to the fashionable and expensive hospital on Level 647. It doesn’t help that it is Christmas, though they do find one affordable store open where they might buy the requisite gifts. It is only as they negotiate the many changes of elevator that they recognise that their gifts—a ring traditionally given to new babies, perfume, and a herbal medicine—are in fact gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Within the context of the story, this potentially heavy-handed symbolism actually works to great comic effect. But Bae Myung-Hoon’s touch is, thankfully, lighter and more subtle in the remaining stories. The long, drawn-out nature of the researchers’ journey does, though, set up a later story by drawing attention to the complex problem of logistics within the tower: an offshoot of the military is permanently engaged in working out the navigation and control of the myriad lifts within Beanstalk, in the hope that this work might allow militia or emergency services to be rushed to any location within the tower.

Life within towering edifices has been a commonplace in science fiction, notably in works such as The World Inside by Robert Silverberg (1971) and High-Rise by J. G. Ballard (1975), but usually these are tales of social collapse, as civilisation falters in the face of the soullessness of modern living. But Tower doesn’t follow that pattern. Indeed, several characters seem to be agoraphobic, happy to stay within Beanstalk rather than venture outside, even in the direst extremes. And when the tower faces an existential threat, it is saved because people who live there value the experience of living within Beanstalk too highly to let the skyscraper tumble. This is not, then, a world in which things fall apart. But it is a world in which we see, repeatedly, that those who benefit from the system care nothing for everyone else.

For instance, most of the Beanstalk military is made up of mercenaries, to whom the hierarchy owes no duty of loyalty. So when one of their pilots is shot down in the desert, the military high command makes no effort to find and rescue him. But his friends within Beanstalk make their own ad hoc efforts to find him by hacking in to satellite imagery. Their efforts go viral, and within hours there are people all over the world joining in the search.

The idea of military search and rescue being effectively outsourced to civilians sitting at their home computers, like a more immediate SETI, is one of the unexpected but entirely logical twists that make this book such a delight. Bae Myung-Hoon is masterful in the way he will throw in some detail that makes you laugh out loud at the incongruity, then stop and think that, yes, within such an environment that is exactly how these things would work. For instance, in an unexpected echo of the big-enders and little-enders of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), politics within Beanstalk is divided not between left and right, but between horizontalists and verticalists, between those who campaign for their own neighbourhood, their own level, and those who seek political unity with the floors above and below them. Another of the appendices is an extract from a sociological study that explores the underhand means the verticalists used to disrupt the local power of the horizontalists.

The thing to note in this instance, of course, is that Beanstalk’s political establishment is made up of verticalists, and they use dirty tricks to secure their power. Yet the political system does not engender civic responsibility. The perennial enemy of Beanstalk is the Cosmomafia, an outgrowth of the post-Soviet Russian mafia. The two have been engaged in constant, low-level warfare, and eventually reports come in that Cosmomafia have access to an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, and they will be in a position to use it against Beanstalk within a couple of years. The response of those in government is not to inform the citizens of Beanstalk, or to initiate defensive measures, but to quietly sell their expensive homes on the upper levels and leave. Although rumours of an impending attack do circulate, most people are simply happy for the chance to get a better home at an affordable price, and literally move up in the world.

As with the crowd-funded search for the downed pilot, it is effectively left to a minor official to work out what to do about the threat. Evacuating the tower is out of the question: since Beanstalk declared itself an independent nation, the surrounding country has declared that any mass movement from the tower will be treated as an invasion. But as he considers his options, the official begins to realise that the real threat comes not from any missile, but from a coordinated series of mysterious property deals within the tower, conducted through the offices of an Islamic Bank. Usury laws that mean the bank cannot charge interest have resulted in procedures being developed that make real estate deals less transparent than they might otherwise be. But why these particular properties are changing hands, who is behind it, and what threat it might all pose, is not immediately clear.

At the end, the tower still stands, the mass of people still live there, and still enjoy living there. It is not the tower itself that alienates them. When they protest or riot, as they do (at one point an elephant is imported in an attempt to intimidate the demonstrators; but the elephant is peaceful, loved by everyone, and achieves enlightenment in the moments before plunging to its death in a bizarre accident), it is because of the vast indifference of the system. Bae Myung-Hoon describes the nature of living within that system with a gentle sympathy for his characters, a wild inventiveness in describing their strategies for survival, and an appealing sense of humour. It makes for an unexpectedly rewarding and engaging book.


[1] The dog reappears in the last of the three appendices that conclude this book. Here we read an interview with the dog that has just won the first ever acting award given to a non-human film actor. The dog’s final words to his many loyal fans are: “Woof-woof! Woof-woof!” [return]

Paul Kincaid has received the Thomas Clareson Award and has twice won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, most recently for his book-length study, Iain M. Banks (2017). He is also the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014).
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