God often plays an outsized role in science fiction, if only by not showing up. In H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, for example, the narrator encounters a deranged curate—that’s an assistant to an Anglican priest—in the turmoil following a Martian invasion. The two hide in a ruined house, where the holy man rants on how the extraterrestrials are God’s punishment for a fallen world. The narrator must incapacitate him with a shovel to prevent the enemy from detecting them. Later, as the Martians fall prey to a virus benign to humanity, the irony becomes clear: Matter, not spirit, drives the universe.
But the genre can’t quite leave Christianity, and many SF writers have speculated in ways much more commodious to the religion. In November 1974, Philip K. Dick received a mystical vision that would later become a legendary episode in the history of the genre. At home, recovering from an operation on an impacted wisdom tooth, he received a visit from a strange and beautiful woman wearing an ichthys, the Christian symbol of the fish, as a gold pendant on her neck. Dick then described a “pink laser” shooting from the symbol directly into his mind and imbuing him with divine logos. This included the author catching a glimpse into a parallel life as Timothy, a persecuted Christian living in 1st-century Rome. The vision set off a torrent of creative activity, which included Dick’s later novels VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, as well as an 8,000-page journal of philosophical speculations, selections of which were published in 2011 as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
Intimations of the divine can also be found in Another Man’s City, a short novel by the late Korean writer Ch’oe In-ho (excerpted in Asymptote here). The book follows K, a middle-aged banker, as he attempts to reconstruct missing memories following a night of heavy drinking. Things are, of course, not what they appear to be. His domestic life, tranquil on the surface, begins to exhibit cracks. Wife and daughter begin to treat him differently, as if they were becoming different people. K wanders the streets of Seoul in search of answers. He encounters a wide range of sinister or eccentric characters who aid or thwart his efforts respectively. As he progresses on his quest, K comes to realize that a vast intelligence, inhuman but capable of taking human form, is guiding events.
From the summary, you would be forgiven for thinking Another Man’s City to be the work of Haruki Murakami, and the similarities between Ch’oe’s novel and those of his famous Japanese contemporary deserve some further attention. First of all, there’s K. Like many of Murakami’s protagonists, he’s a rather colorless figure. And his crisis of identity, however mysterious, is firmly rooted within the drab realities of a middling professional man, a type recognizable in Seoul, Tokyo, New York, or wherever.
And also like Murakami, Ch’oe generously borrows elements from popular culture, not only as a way of rooting the narrative in contemporary life but as a crucial element in the plot itself. It may seem perverse, having existential questions hinge on details from Sailor Moon and the Power Rangers, but in that regard K seems quite plausible. It’s a distinct fact of contemporary life that grown men and women will use children’s entertainment as a key to deciphering their lives.
Where Ch’oe and Murakami diverge sharply is on matters of faith. The Japanese novelist prefers to investigate its more sinister aspects, especially in Underground, his investigation of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and their 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. In contrast, Ch’oe’s protagonist is conventionally religious. He attends Catholic mass and believes in the teachings of the Church regarding sin and absolution. And though K does not narrate, his faith tints the perspective of the novel with Christian values, which form the negative and positive poles of the book.
The bad first: the protagonist’s distinct revulsion toward sex. As a more or less conventional believer, K is disturbed by unrestrained carnality. Yet the narrative tone doesn’t quite work, with its moralizing bent sliding too easily into scolding. Early in the novel, the protagonist finds himself in an empty movie theater where a man and a woman are copulating in the darkness. K’s own antipathy spills over into poorly stated condemnation of social license in general. “They were like drug addicts seeking a place to inject the poison of artificial pleasure—a public toilet, an alley, a fire escape, a rooftop, seat H15, seat J23. Or like gay men looking for a place to plant themselves in each other’s rosy sphincters.” This ugly priggishness rears its head at points elsewhere, often enough to trigger doubt as to what’s at issue. Is it K’s position as believer in a liberal, secular society? If so, one would do better in reading other Catholic conservatives like Walker Percy, Muriel Spark, or Shūsaku Endō.
For the good, let’s return to the theme of mystical communion, where Ch’oe follows in Philip K. Dick’s tradition. K is on a spiritual rather than material journey, and this raises the stakes of the novel, becoming more than just another tale of an aimless, middle-aged man trying to solve the riddle of himself. After attending mass, K thinks of what an accurate representation of his soul might look like. A Möbius strip, he decides, but that’s not quite all.
And the cross is exactly the same—can’t tell inside from outside, beginning from end, or right from left—it’s a Jesus strip. The two members of the cross intersect, but the image of Jesus has no boundary between inner and outer, beginning and end, alpha and omega. But doesn’t the anti-Christ also use that cross as his trademark? Just like counterfeiters focus all their efforts on faking the authenticity of a brand?
K then epitomizes what the psychologist William James called “the sick soul” who yearns to be made whole again. Missing memory is the least of his problems. As he approaches the truth of what happened to him while having a night on the town, K realizes that the people around him, his family and friends, even K himself, are merely elements in an artificially created environment. The simulacra he encounters represent elements in a spiritual machine, which exists outside time and space. K’s encounter with the divine might not resonate with too many readers, but it vividly shows the strange directions that religious belief might take in a world of omnipresent technology and globalized popular culture.
Matthew Spencer is a writer, born and raised in western Colorado, who lives in Seattle, Washington. He worked as an English-language teaching assistant for the 2013-14 academic year in the town of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria. He blogs about art, music, history, and literature at Unpaginated.