A character awakens after dying in “That One Life,” one of the four stories in South Korean author Kim Bo-Young’s expansive, captivating collection, I’m Waiting for You. In the afterlife, he’s greeted by a god who tells him, “Every life changes the whole universe. Whether or not that life is yours.” Where does humanity end and the universe begin? What are the limits of love and hope? What is the difference between creation and destruction? These are big questions, but Bo-Young’s attempt to bring shape to them in these stories is stunning, humbling and utterly beautiful.
I’m Waiting for You’s four stories form two pairs with interwoven thematic elements. In the titular story and in “On My Way,” an engaged couple, one on Earth and one on Alpha Centauri, exchange letters about their plans to meet to get married. (Each story contains one person’s letters.) Due to the problems posed by the theory of relativity and by light-speed travel, they must carefully coordinate their departures so they can arrive together at their destination at the same time, yet each lover encounters increasingly difficult complications to their original plan. Weeks, then months, then years are added to the journey’s overall time. Can the lovers hold out hope of finally being in the same place, at the same time?
In “The Prophet of Corruption” and “That One Life,” godlike beings, the progenitors of human existence, contemplate their impact on Earth and everything in it. From the smallest rock to the largest ocean, all of creation is an extension of them. When a young god created by Naban questions whether controlling the human world is right, Naban wonders if he and his fellow divine beings have had it backward all along. What if they exist because humanity exists, rather than the other way around?
The collection’s translators, Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu, should be commended on shepherding these stories so gracefully into English. They introduce complex and ambitious ideas about space travel, philosophical and metaphysical riddles playing out in worlds inhabited by gods . . . you get the idea. But even when it’s challenging, Bo-Young’s prose is always oh-so-gorgeous.
This is some of the most beautiful science fiction writing that I’ve read recently. Not every element between the pairs of stories is analogous, but sometimes, just there, right under the surface, Bo-Young has hidden common threads. The bookended stories of lovers traveling through space in time and the feelings of longing and trust in the face of astronomically impossible circumstances are particularly lovely. Even in the huge expanse of space, the second-person voices in their letters are intimate and genuine, and the emotional power of each story’s closing moments is hefty. Grab your tissues, because you may be thoroughly moved.
I’m Waiting for You isn’t just a statement of action. It’s a promise: I’m waiting on your behalf, to be with you, to experience the universe’s purpose for me through you. If only we can live up to such a promise.