Counterweight: A Novel

  • By Djuna; translated by Anton Hur
  • Pantheon
  • 176 pp.

Multiple characters and plotlines propel this futuristic Korean page-turner.

Counterweight: A Novel

Djuna’s Counterweight packs more corporate intrigue into its 176 pages than most stories manage in three times the space. This sci-fi mystery is dense with false personas, hidden motives, and unexpected connections, making it a complex and compact American debut for South Korea’s prolific, popular, and somehow still anonymous Djuna.

Like everyone who works at LK, a massive Korean conglomerate, Mac, the novel’s narrator, has a Worm in his brain. Worms are interfaces between humans and artificial intelligences. They’re also used to keep an eye on employees. As the head of LK’s External Affairs, Mac is accustomed to this type of surveillance. He prefers to have his aesthetic sense minced by uncomfortable things, like a hideous oil painting he keeps around for its depiction of Yellowstone National Park before the Great Explosion. Such a close point-of-view as Mac’s is bound to hide some truths and dole out others.

Told at a staccato pace with short chapters and quick scene changes, Counterweight is full of plot and doesn’t waste time on complex feelings. How humanity interacts with advanced information technology forms its heart.

LK’s biggest achievement is its construction of a fully functional space elevator (able to ascend into Earth’s orbit), the only one in the world. The late Han Junghyuk, LK’s first president, made the elevator a reality. He believed that “the role of human beings, in the near future, would be to boost the machine civilization that’s on its way.” President Han, who may have been murdered, didn’t believe people could live in harmony with nature. As his right-hand man, Mac knew better than to argue with Han Junghyuk’s views.

Imagining life in Djuna’s future is easy. Unchecked corporate power leads to places where companies control the laws and the police. Egomania in corporate titans lets them believe they are, if not gods, then at least dictators with a good shot at immortality.

To build the space elevator on the (fictional) island of Patusan, President Han forced the relocation of most of its inhabitants. Those who remained saw their power reduced to almost nothing. Eventually, LK’s continued suppression of local calls for justice spurred the formation of the Patusan Liberation Front.

With Han Junghyuk’s death, Mac no longer has a powerful protector. He isn’t helpless, though. He simply must choose how to use what he knows. He is privy to troves of secrets, including about how the corporation murders, tortures, and extracts Worms from Patusan residents’ brains. The head of LK security, Rex Tamaki, has been acting with increasing impunity since Han Junghyuk’s death and the succession tussle led by the deceased president’s heir, Han Suhyun. Rex doesn’t like Mac. Neither does Han Suhyun. And now the Patusan Liberation Front may be behind an explosion on the island.

Into this mess wanders Choi Gangwu. Only three things in life matter to him: his sister, butterflies, and the space elevator. Listening to him talk about the elevator is like stepping “into one of those Korean Evangelical churches in an old film.” Despite being an otherwise below-average candidate for employment, Choi Gangwu aced a series of space-elevator-related tests and now works at LK. His thorough knowledge of elevator operations contrasts with his remarkable lack of enthusiasm for the types of things that usually make LK staffers successful. Choi Gangwu’s boss describes him as “not a team player,” but Choi Gangwu is also unusual in another way: He knows far too much about the life of President Han.

Because of Patusan’s ubiquitous electronic surveillance, Mac knows immediately that “Damon Chu” has illegally entered Mac’s hidden trailer full of stolen objects. The mystifying part is that Damon Chu isn’t real. He’s a persona Mac created with President Han, yet someone has assumed his identity. Mac doesn’t know who, or why, or if the break-in is connected to the Patusan Liberation Front.

Just when it seems more layers of intrigue couldn’t possibly be added to Counterweight, another one is. The company Green Fairy has a name that suggests it “sells liquor, but…they’re basically spies for hire.” The so-called Green Witch, Sumac Graaskamp, leads the organization. She’s as devious and powerful as anyone at LK. Also, her fighting kit is sophisticated and successful.

Mac isn’t sure if Choi Gangwu’s apparent lack of interest in the Patusan Liberation Front is sincere. Then there’s Zachary Sekewael, who has “the face of a con artist,” works for Green Fairy, and for some reason shows too much interest in Choi Gangwu. Maybe Sekewael is really working for the Patusan Liberation Front. If so, either Green Fairy forces are aligning with the Patusan Liberation Front, or the thug in question is a rogue operator. Mac can’t tell which it is.

Forget about blinking while reading this book. If you do, you might miss the lines explaining how Han Junghyuk is related to Han Suhyun, or who Han Bugyeom is. Love interests come into play, too, with all their associated lineages, accomplishments, and grievances. Not all mysteries will be resolved by the novel’s end, but that doesn’t matter. Fast-paced and exhilarating, Counterweight is worth the ride.

Andrea M. Pawley lives and writes in Washington, DC, her favorite city in the whole world.

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