‘Launch Something!’ by Bae Myung-hoon (Review)

Having introduced us to Korean literary/sci-fi writer Bae Myung-hoon last year in the form of the bizarre world of Tower, Honford Star have just published another of his books, an excellent novel with another wonderful cover.  Once again, it reads more like a set of linked short stories, initially, at least, but there’s a story in there waiting to be revealed, and by the end of the book, you’ll be cheering on the brave collection of individuals who are there to save the day.  So, let’s go and meet them – Ascension!

*****
Launch Something! (translated by Stella Kim, review copy courtesy of the publisher) introduces us to the ROK Space Force, the fourth branch of the Korean military and very much a neglected child.  Formed as one of several contributing members of the global Allied Space Force, it doesn’t actually have that much to do, and is seen as a waste of money and a dumping ground for people not needed or wanted elsewhere.

However, that all changes when a strange object appears in the sky, an artificial second sun dubbed Pac-Man for its incomplete shape.  With the object reflecting the sun’s rays back to Earth and making for a long, hot summer, action is required, and it’s the ASF that is responsible for destroying the intruding object.  Of course, that basically means the Americans, but Gu Yemin, Chief of Staff for the ROK Space Force, takes advantage of the political climate to demand her own launch, one that will prove to be vital to the outcome of the story.

The title of the book comes from the first chapter, and the demands from a rattled world to launch something, anything, to restore stability.  That slightly chaotic feel comes across in the first half of the book, with shades of Catch-22 or M*A*S*H in the events of the Space Force launch base, where a bunch of misfits hang around, waiting for something to do:

“I do remember thinking this though: brilliant people in a stupid system.  And so every day’s like an episode of a sitcom.”
p.120 (Honford Star, 2022)

They’re not wrong.  Bae introduces us to ace pilot Han Summin (with nothing to fly), intelligence agent Um Jonghyun (parachuted into the base for no apparent reason), breezy meteorologist Suh Ga-ul (who spends most of her time making up nicknames for everyone) and the Space Force’s very own K-Pop star, Private Lee Ja-un (AKA Oste of the boy band B Density).  Highly talented individuals, one and all, left kicking their heels in the middle of nowhere.

The first half of the book, then, focuses on the micro rather than the macro.  There are hints of relationships between those on the base and an impromptu basketball game with a hidden agenda, not to mention the Autumn Military Music Festival (and Oste’s big chance to shine!).  As was the case in Tower, the writer excels in coming up with memorable scenes, loosely linked stories, that are entertaining enough, but don’t seem to be going anywhere.

Never fear – Bae knows exactly what he’s doing.  Even in the slightly zany early chapters, the seeds are sown for what’s to come, and the theme tying everything together is the existence of colonies on a terraformed Mars.  As we gradually learn more about the strained relationship between Korea and its small settlement on the (no-longer) red planet, a series of suspicious incidents occur, pointing towards something far bigger.  This is where the book turns into something of a detective story, with the Space Force crew trying to find out what’s going on before it’s too late.

As well as ratcheting up the tension between Chief Gu and a visitor from Mars, the novel cleverly looks at some intriguing questions, such as the effects on work habits of the longer Mars day (with one character starting work thirty-seven minutes later every day) and the practicalities of communication between Earth and Mars given their different orbiting speeds:

“We’re thinking of starting at the next Opposition.”
Eunkyung nodded, but Kugyong asked, “What’s that?”
Eunkyung answered, “It’s when the sun, Earth and Mars are positioned in a straight line.  You know how the Earth and Mars revolve around the sun – when these two planets are moving on the same side, it’s called Opposition.” (p.202)

Pay attention – all these astronomy lessons will prove to be vital to the plot…

Launch Something! develops nicely into a pleasing mix of the surreal and the serious.  The slower pace of the early chapters allows Bae to endear the main characters to us, introducing a number of people who will play a major role in the events leading to the story’s climax.  For those struggling to tell the characters apart (which isn’t really that hard), this translated version has an overview at the start with the names and bios of nine key characters.  Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention Jisu Choi’s outstanding work on the cover, with the little boxes with scenes from the novel recognisable to those who have read the book (including a certain cuddly toy!).

Overall, I ended up enjoying this far more than I had expected, a fun, breezy story examining a near-future scenario, culminating in a mission to save the Earth.  When the existence of our planet is threatened, rest assured that “the front line of humanity” is there to save the day (just as long as the base store doesn’t run out of mint chocolate).  I suspect Launch Something! will be a big hit, so props to Honford Star for bringing us something a little different in our translated fiction.  Quirky?  Definitely, but thoroughly entertaining all the same 🙂

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5 thoughts on “‘Launch Something!’ by Bae Myung-hoon (Review)

  1. I’d noticed Tower but wasn’t sure whether to read it or not. I’ll have a look at your review. This sounds a lot of fun. Is it trying do you think to be serious after (whatever that might be) or is the sf more a vehicle for exploring other issues?

    Love the covers on these.

    Like

    1. Max – Bae’s work (in English, at least) is kind of in between SFF and literary fiction, and I’m not sure it really fits the bill for either. Not a real problem, but some readers might wish it went a little more in either direction.

      Like

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