“Then, and There” by Lee Kyung-hee / Courtesy of Safehouse
By Park Han-sol
Author Lee Kyung-hee / Courtesy of Lee Kyung-hee
The desire to go back in time and change the past has never been limited to a specific group of people. To some, the feeling becomes so powerful that they become stuck in an endless cycle of regrets about the words they shouldn’t have uttered then or the things they should’ve done differently there.
This is no exception for Hae-mi and Da-mi, who are sisters living in Seoul in the year 2045, in Lee Kyung-hee’s new book “Then, and There.” One summer two decades ago, a family trip to Haeundae, Busan, turned into a nightmare when the two lost their mother Jin Soo-ah in a nuclear disaster that occurred at a nearby power plant.
Since then, the sisters have suffered for two decades in an agonizing entanglement of longing, guilt and self-hatred. Although Hae-mi chose to become a rescue diver to prevent tragedies from happening to other families, her constant encounters with others’ dying only serves to remind her of her own trauma.
One day, the two are given a chance never imagined ― to “time-dive” into the day of the nuclear disaster in August 2025, and secretly help their mother spot the young Hae-mi, who got lost back then amid the chaotic crowd, so that they can get to safety together.
As in many other time travel (or in this case, “time-dive”) stories, somewhat of a staple in the science fiction genre, their simple mission goes awry when their carefully thought out plans are thwarted one after another. As the two sisters’ unwitting mother never follows their plan in which she is an oblivious pawn, readers come to question if meeting her demise then and there was her fate all along.
Despite the complex concepts revolving around quantum mechanics, temporal paradoxes and parallel universes, Lee’s “Then, and There” presents scenes in a visually vibrant, action-based way, which makes the book a page turner all the way through to the unpredictable ending.
But the book’s real charm comes from its delicate, humanist story centering on women and family that lies behind the time travel narrative. At times, the story muses on the complex nature of motherhood. At other times, it builds a sense of solidarity between women of different generations ― the mother’s life as a scientist amid disparaging remarks that female brains are not made to practice math or physics and one daughter’s life as an athlete amid sexual harassment and unwarranted comparisons made between her and her male colleagues.
And although the story hints at other national calamities, such as the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in 1995 and the Sewol Ferry disaster in 2014, the author never sensationalizes or puts them under an unnecessary spotlight. Instead, Lee urges readers to think about the efforts that could be made to prevent the same mistakes from being made again.
“The important thing is not about changing the past but healing the wounds. The time we struggled again and again isn’t worthless,” Da-mi says in one of her time-dives. “Someone must remember all this: that we have made efforts for each other.”
Time travel can’t prevent the calamity from occurring in the first place, but through the story, the author suggests we can bring change to our ways to view and handle possible disasters in the future, eventually severing an endless loop of tragedy.
“Then, and There” is Lee’s second full-length sci-fi novel after “Theseus’s Paradox.” Exploring the path of science fiction and fantasy, he has also published short stories “The Legend of the White Magic Fox Without a Tail” and “The Night of the Living Ancestors.”