Science fiction is, and has always been, obsessed with fictive States: techno-dystopias, post-apocalyptic juntas, chemically policed narco-utopias. Real-life totalitarian regimes, however, are usually approached with dread and ellipsis, and have been aligned with the most grimly realist of genres (e.g., concentration camp fiction). But what if our perspective of totalitarian regimes themselves were refocused through the kaleidoscopic lens of hyper-speculative science fiction? What if, for instance, we went could transition from speaking about “North Korean science fiction,” an anomalous subject in its own right, to “North Korea as science fiction”?
This was the proposal made by Seo Young-Chu in a fascinating talk, introducing the film Pulgasari at NYU in late February. In her book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation (Harvard, 2010), she attempts to reimagine science fiction as “high intensity realism” rather than an escapist unrealism, “a mimetic discourse whose objects are nonimaginary yet cognitively estranging.” Sci-fi is not antithetical to mimesis but works through “a combination of lyric and narrative forces” to “generate mimetic accounts of cognitively estranging referents” (3, 73). The “cognitively estranging referent” is the native subject of science fiction, in her analysis. Such a referent is one that eludes “simple,” naturalistic representation: the wondrous, the repressed, the uncanny, the ineffably other (5ff).
In this way, sci-fi does something like the Freudian dreamwork: it rearranges our neuroses in ways that are distorted enough for them to become palatable. The work of science fiction is often the work of trauma, operating by necessarily insufficient approximations. But in the view of Seo Young-Chu, these are not exactly fantastical, since “trauma is always already science-fictionalized;” she quotes trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman as saying that the experience of trauma “gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness” (156). If political trauma is the cognitively estranging referent, it makes sense that its representation would resemble science fiction.
The talk began with a second person “tour,” revealed after the fact to be an almost verbatim pastiche cobbled from various accounts of North Korea, from travel guides to history books. “Uncanny alterations of consciousness” seem to be the norm here: Pyongyang is a “surreal theme park,” a “stage set,” symmetrical and sparklingly clean, sometimes as garish and pointlessly monumental as Las Vegas but also a “ghost city” that is so quiet at night that you can hear the purring of coal-powered automobiles for miles down the mostly desolate highways. The denizens, each of whom has an individual “reliability rating,” seem like mass-produced robots, outfitted with the same mass-produced costumes. The exact same image of a smiling Kim Il-Sung hangs everywhere above them. You can see his body, housed in a glass sarcophagus, though only at the appointed time, and not without passing security checks, disinfection, and powerful air blowers.
This might all be true, but there’s a way in which the prose ineluctably drifts into the territory of science-fiction. And indeed, North Korea has been richly mined by sci-fi proper, from David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas to the Bond film Die Another Day to the Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries digital lit piece “Miss DMZ” – all discussed by Seo Young-Chu, who ably demonstrated that science fictional representation of North Korea has become the default mode.
She speculated upon a variety of reasons why this might be the case: it may be an overcompensation for the virtual “poverty” of representations of the “hermit kingdom,” a response to the uncanniness of North Korea’s anachronistic, otherworldly existence in a universe where the Cold War never ended, or it could be a mutated species of Orientalism (or even “self-Orientalism,” a curious but provocative phrase she seemed to regret as soon as she uttered it).
What she didn’t explicitly suggest was that, perhaps, the science fictionality of North Korea begins with the Kim regime and with the “Juche idea” itself (that “opaque core of North Korean national solipsism,” Bruce Cumings calls it). The way this works akin to, but in the end very distinct from, the way all countries utilize and repackage exogenous representations to sell themselves as fictions to tourists and other onlookers. Quaint villagers in Southeast Asia are paid to dress as old-fashioned peasants for Westerners; Western Europe sells a storybook fabrication of itself through heritage tourism; the United States has entire cultural industries that serve the purpose. What is distinct about the autofictions of the “hermit kingdom” and other “closed states,” to use an expedient term, is that they are directed primarily inward. An allegory: Pyongyang’s tallest building, a luxury hotel, is not designed to dazzle foreign tourists like the grand establishments of Dubai, because foreign tourists are not encouraged to visit Pyongyang. In fact, it’s not even habitable, and never was. It exists only as a scar on the skyline, a masterpiece of unconsciously deconstructivist architecture, a monument to monumentality. It is a fictional edifice.
All nationalisms are essentially fictions. But what happens to the fiction of the nation state in a totalitarian regime, promoted and maintained through a cult of personality, with a highly centralized system of communication and information exchange? In a place like North Korea, the “imagined community” as it exists in official representations of the State derives principally from the myopic, bizarre millenarian fantasies of a dictator. If there is a dialectic process of circulation at all it tends to be confined to the channels of the bureaucracy, forming a closed loop, like the networks of communication in Franz Kafka’s The Castle.
So when we see such States as sci-fi or as speculative fictions, we are only following their lead. Moreover, the relevant realms of fictional representation are not confined to statecraft: dictators seem to have an uncanny fondness for pulp, fantasy, and sci-fi. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was famously fond of the movie King Kong, released the year he was appointed Chancellor. And Kim-Jong Il, as it turns out, is both North Korea’s supreme leader and its supreme cineaste. With a science-fictional theory of millenarian/”revolutionary” dictatorships, it is more than a happy coincidence or a curiosity that he is the author of a portentous volume entitled On the Art of the Cinema.
In fact, Kim’s obsession with the art form went to such lengths that he kidnapped his favorite director, the South Korean Shin Sang-ok, and forced him to make a “socialist Godzilla movie” that would enhance the reputation of North Korean cinema. The result was Pulgasari, which can be viably read as an anti-capitalist film, but which seems more poignant as a coded critique of the Kim regime itself.
The monster in this film is almost too good a metaphor for the authoritarian post-Leninist Revolutionary project: it leads a “backward” population at mercurial speed to overthrow the ancien régime, and continues growing by furiously consuming iron at the ultimate expense of the people. This seems to me an allegory of the famines caused by the fetishization of industry and steel manufacture that gripped post-Stalinist modernizers like a Marinettian fever dream. Once he consumes all of the iron, Pulgasari is at once “savior” and “enemy”: their liberator, their god, but also a nihilistic, Molochian machine fueled by the obsessive weaponization of raw materials. In short, he is the Kim regime personified. But the great leader, who is not a cognitively estranging referent to himself, was pleased with the film he had sired at gunpoint: “When the movie was delivered to Kim, he saw it as a great victory. Trucks pulled up to Shin Films to unload pheasants, deer and wild geese for the movie crew to feast on.” Most North Koreans are severely malnourished.
“…because fact and fiction sometimes blur in Libyan politics, I might be accused of exaggeration… The domestic policies of the Libyan regime have often bordered on fiction.” – Mansour O. EL-Kikhia, Libya’s Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction
“I will now tell you the story of my experiences when I made that journey, that escape to hell. I will describe the road that leads there, describe hell itself for you, and tell you how I came back by the same way. It was truly an adventure, and one of the strangest true stories ever, and I swear to you that it is not fiction.” – Muammar Gaddafi, “Escape to Hell”
So much for North Korea, but half a world away, another megalomaniac is busy constructing hyperreality out of midnight-movie pastiche. When Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was faced with the first serious challenge to his thirty-year reign, he was simply unable to absorb events into the fictive narrative within which he understood his place in history. Because such events could not happen in the hyperreal Libya of Gaddafi’s imagination, actual state policy was to proceed as if they were not happening. Soon after the unrest began, Gaddafi took to state television, “charging that Osama bin Laden had drugged the town’s youth into a rebellious frenzy.” A classic exploitation plot: replace Osama bin Laden with “the Russians” and you have a half a dozen science fiction films from the 1950s.
The official ideology of Libya is jamahiriya, which translates to “state of the masses.” The system outlined in The Green Book, the founding text of Gaddafi’s Libya, describes a politics not unlike syndicalism or council communism (from what I can gather; it’s not the most cogent thing ever written and I am not motivated to reread it). In theory, Gaddafi has no power. This is why he told Christiane Amanpour that he cannot “step down,” because in the Gaddafian ideology he is not a ruler, but the liberator and savior of a free Libya. These are not “lies,” they are fictions. The realist approach to studying North Korea and Libya has only produced bafflement and confusion. Perhaps hyperreal regimes, which conjoin fact and fantasy, require theories of resistance based on a kind of hyperrealpolitik.
Gaddafi’s is what Libyan scholar Mansour O. EL-Kikhia calls an “idiosyncratic ideology,” a syncretic bricolage attempting to overcome a heavy anxiety of political influence with the use of improvised, localized mythologies. Gaddafi fused “Nasserism and classical Marxism, along with Islamic socialism” into the “Third International Theory,” as outlined in his Green Book. Such ideologies are “experimental” in nature, which is to say, they are speculative fictions: works in progress. In Libya’s case, it is “cemented together by the colonel’s complex personality.” The idiosyncratic dictator is an authoritarian and an author, and the nation is his text. Gaddafi’s words are not (or not only) ridiculous, because like the plot of a science fiction novel they are only meant to cohere to their own fantastic premises. Emendations and retractions can be made as required.
But Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t just play a sci-fi writer on television. He’s the author of Escape to Hell and Other Stories (1998), a curious volume which veers uncomfortably between hyperbolic political allegory and madcap fiction. The description on the jacket of the English printing is a vindication of Seo Young-Chu’s argument about science fictional representation: “Muammar Quaddafi’s short stories and essays in this book are more revealing about his vision of the world than all of his addresses and the articles and reports that have been written about him during the last 25 years.”
I think this is quite true, but alas, it has received almost no serious attention. Why does the work linger in such obscurity? Why do the few reviews that exist of it seem almost embarrassed of themselves? Why does the New York Public Library require it to be read under “supervised use”? “Dictator lit,” as a review in The Guardian styles it, is indeed an uncomfortable genre, and just the proposition of Gaddafi’s “fiction” is dually repulsive: revolting, like Mein Kampf, but also frivolous, like Stalin’s insipid poetry. In fact, it’s too preposterous to truly affront, and too bizarre to be boring. But while it is one of those books that one likes to amuse guests with, it is not merely an oddity.
Of course, it is odd. Suicidal astronauts? “Jewish satellites” taken down by the power of mass prayer? Pathetic entreaties to respect “the earth’s bounty” by a the leader of an oil kingdom? Hand-wringing ruminations on the gender of death? The discovery of “Amelica” by an Arab prince? The line between sarcasm and solipsism is difficult to discern. Certain broad tendencies, however, are impossible to ignore.
Escape to Hell opens with a harangue against urban life, the Fritz Langian bleakness of which is paralleled only by the anxious, mephitic metropolises of dystopian, futurist science fiction. The “Hell” of the title both is and is not the city; even if the latter is vile, “how beautiful is hell compared to your city!” City inhabitants are like rats and mice, scurrying emotionlessly, like the robot inhabitants of sci-fi Pyongyang: “City people do not address one another as fellow social beings or even human entities, but as ‘You, who live in apartment number x on floor number x…telephone number x, license plate on car number is x’ and so on.” The city is “a filthy tomb,” with “no moon or sun,” perpetually dark like the sci-fi cities of Blade Runner or A.I..
Gaddafi’s hyperbolic, delusional contempt for urban life and his identification with a non-existant “people” located somewhere in an amorphous Arcadian hinterland makes his aerial bombings of his own cities consistent with his fictional prognoses, in which agitated urban throngs are literally mentally disturbed, unearthly creatures. The city dweller is not a “true human being” (48), but some kind of uncanny specter. To Gaddafi, a place like Benghazi must seem like a pestilent sore, a tumor requiring irradiation – especially after the supposed recent invasion of the “Qaeda” body snatchers.
There is, of course, a long and diverse tradition of reactionary pseudo-populism which identifies the city with bodily infection, as in the pithy remark of Thomas Jefferson (who, in the interest of civic health, moved his nation’s capital from Manhattan to a pestilent, malarial swamp): “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Gaddafi says much the same thing, but in the mode of frenzied science fiction rather than political aphorism: “[The city] stretches out in every direction, limitlessly. It becomes a parasite to everything around it, spreading its poisonous tentacles, killing fresh air by turning oxygen into carbon dioxide, which is then turned into carbon monoxide.” Here we have what Seo Young-Chu describes as a staple of science-fictional writing: the literalization of metaphor. The city is not merely a metaphorical “sore” on the “body politic,” but a veritable engine of miasma and molecular disintegration.
This recourse to technobabble is not an aberration. Consider the following passage from The Green Book, which is not trying to resemble science fiction, but nevertheless does:
If a community of people wears white on a mournful occasion and another dresses in black, then one community would like white and dislike black and the other would like black and dislike white. Moreover, this attitude leaves a physical effect on the cells as well as on the genes in the body. This adaptation, will be transmitted by inheritance. The inheritors automatically reject the colour rejected by the legator as a result of inheriting the sentiment of their legator.
A common formula for him: a practically nonsensical political claim is asserted as a self-evident axiom, and then reinforced with a nonsensical appeal to the authority of scientific knowledge. In this case, the “knowledge” is a bizarre admixture of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the things you hear from drunken street prophets, but no matter. The esoteric specificity of sci-fi writing is part of what gives it its “high intensity” aura. The worlds summoned up can seem realer than our own; the futures projected can propel themselves backward to us in affective waves of uncanny retrocausality. This is how prophecy works, as well, and Gaddafi is duly dubbed “a revolutionary and a prophet” in the translator’s introduction.
Unfortunately, prophets have a marked obsession with the end times. Understanding how they will navigate their apocalypses will require a hyperrealpolitik amenable to fantastic speculation.