2024 Sejong Writing Competition

Winning Entries :: Essays :: Senior first place


Science fiction has always been born out of hope. Although its creators commonly depict an apocalyptic future, the flashy technological advancements serve as a manifestation of hope: a hope that something will exist with the potential to right the wrongs of the past. In the 1995 film “12 Monkeys,” for example, time travel can potentially be used to undo the wrongs of the past. Set in a post-apocalyptic society of 2035, the majority of Earth’s population perished to a man-made virus in 1996, and forced the few survivors deep underneath the surface. Prisoner James Cole is promised freedom in exchange for finding the virus’s origin by going back to 1996. In Kim Bo-Young’s epistolary short story “I’m Waiting for You,” time travel also acts as a symbol of hope, similar to its predecessors in the science fiction genre.

Inside the world of the story, time travel is possible, but only by boarding a spaceship traveling at the speed of light, which causes the passengers to advance further into the future in their own perceived time. Notably, time travel into the past is not possible. An unnamed male protagonist waits for his fiancée to return to Earth from her home solar system. To kill time, he goes on a roundtrip of time travel, which lasts four and a half Earth years, but only two months for him. When both return from their respective travels at the same time, they plan to marry; they have even booked a wedding venue.

While reflecting upon himself and the other passengers on the ship, the man writes, “The year we all end up arriving in will be better than the one we left” (5). The passengers are, in this sense, not unlike the creators of more traditional science fiction—they see in the future a potential for improvement, a potential solution for the problems of the past. A savior. Except, in this story, they are able to actually travel to it. The protagonist also thinks the future has an improvement for him: a reunion with his lover, and marriage.

But despite the idealistic hope futuristic technologies represent, science fiction has always been starkly realistic, and “I’m Waiting for You” is no exception.

At the end of “12 Monkeys,” despite Cole and others’ best efforts, the virus spreads and the apocalypse happens once more. Time travel cannot change the past.

This kind of message is frequent in science fiction. Although the vessels of hope are such an integral part of their stories, they remind their audiences that while hope is good, there is no singular savior that will make hope into a perfect reality. It is not far into “I’m Waiting for You” when reality first strikes, with the fiancée’s ship having to respond to a distress call that delays her arrival date by three Earth months. Then, attempting to reduce the gap between his arrival and her arrival, the man transfers to another ship that is set to arrive on Earth three months later; but the new ship’s captain makes a calculation mistake and reveals they will actually arrive three Earth years later.

The delay grows from two years to seven, then thirteen, seventy-four, two hundred, and eventually the man can no longer keep track anymore.

The direness of reality is amplified through the limitations and distortions the lovers’ communication through technology causes, another common theme throughout science fiction. In “12 Monkeys,” a panel of scientists interrogate Cole repeatedly throughout the course of the movie via a convoluted gadget and amplified voices distorted by the speaker, despite being in the same room as Cole. The distortion of communication appears in “I’m Waiting for You” too. A particularly illuminating instance of this is when he receives a voicemail from her that delivers the news of an eleven-year delay to her arrival time.

The voicemail had gone through a complicated and unclear process to reach him, due to the new ship’s old age, having ultimately been read and transmitted to the ship in a man’s voice. The protagonist writes, “It sounded like he didn’t understand the content of what he was reading, like he was just looking at phonetic symbols and sounding them out” (13).

The man in the voicemail becomes a personification of technology. He, like technology, does not understand the contents of the message, and the mechanical emotionless process is further emphasized by the use of the term “phonetic symbols.” It indicates a degradation of the language of the message into simple technical information to be processed and transmitted, where it is put back together again without nuance or emotion that the original had. This is exemplified with “huk-huk-huk” sounds in the voicemail that are interpreted by the man as the sounds of her crying.

Despite the technological restrictions on their communication, the two show their hope by continuing to exchange electronically distorted letters to each other. And eventually, the protagonist loses contact with her due to being too far away, both in terms of time and distance. But still, he continues to write letters for her.

Apart from narrative elements, “I’m Waiting for You” also shows the influence of its genre on a deeper level—through the language and formatting itself.

Science fiction has never been perceived as a very highbrow genre, never able to compete with the literary fiction and arthouse films with their eccentric metaphors and elaborate language. It was too direct, too mainstream, but the mainstream nature of the genre signaled that it was able to connect with a large number of individuals easily.

The language used in “I’m Waiting for You” is, too, very direct. The prose is conversational and its vocabulary is simple, in contrast to literary fiction. Its epistolary nature amplifies this characteristic. There is very little use of extended metaphors and symbolism throughout the story, and the few instances that are present are depicted in a vividly visual manner that is reminiscent of filmic techniques and tropes.

As for the formatting, at the story’s emotional climax, when the man visits the church where the two intended to marry, bits of paper are stuck on the wall, all saying something along the lines of “I’m waiting for you” (56-57). However, instead of textual descriptions of the papers, there is a full-spread illustration (at least in the short story collection’s paperback).

The contrast between the highly compacted lines of text and a large, expansive illustration causes this moment in the book to feel like a zoom-out shot from a film. The location of this deliberate formatting choice helps heighten the emotional payoff for the reader. At the core of Kim Bo-Young’s “I’m Waiting for You” is hope, much like the science fiction films that precede it. Borrowing inspiration from them for both its narrative elements and unique formatting, they all come together to build a grand, cinematic emotional climax centered around hope, even in the most desolate situations.