According to the Mayan Calendar the world as we know it is about to end – but despite the threat of impending eco-apocalypse, Sydney Travers, an impetuous blonde runaway, is determined to reinvent herself as a top hi-tec fashion model in Seoul. The glitzy Asian metropolis is also a haven for Damien Meadows, an inept drug smuggler and untrained English tutor desperate to buy a fake passport to the planet’s safest terrain. For Lee Mee Hee the road to the city is slick with tears: grieving the loss of her newborn son to famine, she lets a kind Foreign Aid medic smuggle her from North to South Korea in the bottom of a truck.
Assessing all three from a secluded mountain villa is Dr Kim Da Mi, a maverick Korean-American bioengineer with a visionary scheme to redesign humanity and survive the coming catastrophe. Mee Hee and her fellow refugees are offered sanctuary – in return for signing up as surrogate mothers – but convincing prime Caucasian specimens Sydney and Damien to donate their DNA is a more complex procedure. Over a long hot summer, seduction bleeds into coercion and mutual betrayal, until Lucifer’s hammer, the long-prophesied meteor, nears the Earth and the ruthless forces backing Dr Kim demand a sacrifice . . .
Recently I’ve found myself answering “It’s complicated.” more and more when asked how I liked a certain book and Seoul Survivors is the latest in that set. While overall I could see its potential, there were a number of elements in the book that just didn’t work for me and lots of elements that raised questions. This last isn’t really a problem, as I think one of the prime benefits of reading is expanding your mind and making you think about things you wouldn’t encounter in daily life, so Seoul Survivors did its job in that respect. But the elements that didn’t work for me, really didn’t work for me. There will be some spoilers in this review and I have to add a trigger warning for rape as well.
What I did appreciate about Seoul Survivors is the fact that it is set in a setting that isn’t common at all, South Korea, but that Foyle chose to tell her story through the eyes of outsiders: none of our viewpoint characters are South-Korean, which circumvents the risk of cultural appropriation; what our characters observe is always filtered through a foreigner’s eyes and thus probably already not interpreted the way a South-Korean would understand it. It also serves to add to the alienating nature of this future, because in the future Seoul Survivors is set in things are possible and considered as a legitimate course of profit, which would be highly illegal and mostly impossible at this point in time. Creating a better more peaceful human race through gene modification isn’t possible (yet) and if it were, I can’t imagine it being an ethically acceptable practice anywhere. Similarly, creating a model amusement park populated by angelic, almost identical children, created from the donated genetic material of two Caucasian people and carried to term by a group of desperate North-Korean refugees? Unthinkable, even if it is technically quite possible. But in Foyle’s Seoul these things don’t seem to be as unacceptable to the authorities and if they would have a problem with it, they can be convinced to look the other way via a hefty bribe.
Thus the setting and set-up of Seoul Survivors worked for me, but what didn’t were the characters. Because, of the four viewpoint characters, only Hee Mee was truly sympathetic. I could see where she was coming from and why she would settle for this life as a brood mare in what is most charitably described as a disturbed woman’s vision to achieve a better future. Both Damien and Sydney are tough characters to connect too, troubled and not always on the right side of the law, they are often selfish in their actions and viewpoint. In addition, Sydney is a young woman discovering her sexuality in a way that seemed almost obsessive and a large part of her narrative arc seemed to be sex scenes that were quite explicit, even uncomfortably so. While I can see where and why Sydney’s sexual exploration plays a big part in her story, I could have done without the explicit and numerous sex scenes. To round out our quartet of viewpoint characters, we have Johnny Sandman, Sydney’s boyfriend at the beginning of the book and Dr Kim Da Mi’s grudging partner-in-crime. And Johnny Sandman is a complete and utter sociopath. On the one hand, I was amused at the anger management course he constantly refers to when he needs to keep himself under control, but on the other hand he mostly deeply disturbed me on every level. Kim Da Mi, while not a viewpoint character is one of the main characters in the book and she’s a mix of kindly aunt and ruthless evil genius that left me quite chilled.
Beyond the character issues, there were a number of elements that were really problematic for me. First of all, why does Dr Kim need a Caucasian couple to create the embryos for her so-called Peonies, the children that will populate her VirtuWorld amusement park? Are South-Korean people really more attracted to Western physiques? Do they really think a blond- blue-eyed woman more beautiful than a woman with Korean or even more generally-speaking Asian-features? What does that say about the cultural colonisation by the West of Korea and other Asian countries? Perhaps this is exactly the point Foyle wanted to make here, but if so, it is a sad and terrible fact that Western culture and values is smothering those of the rest of the world. Secondly, and this was really the most problematic element of all for me, there is the incredibly explicit description of Sydney being raped with a foreign object right near the end of the book. It felt like an unnecessary scene as it didn’t seem vital to the story. Arguably rape never is, but in this case, it really didn’t add anything but even more trauma for Sydney. It felt like it was only a way to make her rapist seem even more depraved, but he was already so low on the scale, that he could have done without.
In a way, I’m really sad that I don’t like Seoul Survivors more than I do, because I enjoyed Foyle’s use of language and description, the premise of the story, the almost frantic pace of life in Seoul, especially with the threat of the meteor looming in the background. But I find I can’t get past the unlikeable characters and Sydney’s rape. Still, even if this story didn’t work for me, Foyle’s writing did and I’m looking forward to her next book, Astra, which is the start of a new series and sounds quite interesting.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.