Category Archives: English SF

New Contributor at Islam and Science Fiction

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Islam and Science Fiction would like to welcome a new contributor to our website, Mohamed Bhimji. Here is Mohamed’s brief bio.

Mohamed Bhimji works as a Director of Customer Operations in Vancouver, BC Canada and has a strong background in Information Technology and an immense fascination with science fiction.  He has been a fan of science fiction since he can remember having read the greats and the up-and-coming writers.  His draw to science fiction has been to see where technology can ultimately take mankind, how technology and science can be used to create a better world today and for generations to come.  Science fiction also allows him to dream of a time when we may be able to travel to distant parts of the galaxy and universe.  Over the last few years being introduced to Islam and Science Fiction have taken on a new meaning – not only how technology and science can improve our lives but how religion and Islam in particular fits into the world beyond today.

Looking forward towards a future of great contributions by Mohamed Bhimji.

Bystander by Alan Foster

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Here is Arabic translation of the short story Bystander by Alan Foster translated by none other than the Arab Science Fiction author Nora Al-Nouman of the Ajwan fame. The story was published as part of a collection of short stories by Alan Foster titled … Who Needs Enemies. Here is the premise of the story from the official book cover.

Bystander (1978) Chapman was dispatched as sole crew on the rescue ship sent to evacuate the Abraxis colony to escape its flare-prone star. He’s just a backup to the tertiary backups, so when the ship awakens him early, he is himself in mortal peril. As if the upcoming freak flare weren’t enough, a mysterious Dhabian spacecraft is pacing his ship – those aliens who ordinarily refuse to have anything to do with humanity.

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Clifford Harper illustration of man with mineral water bottle

Mohsin Hamid on Global Sci-Fi

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(Image Source: The Guardian)

Priyanka Joseph interviews Mohsin Hamid over at Cafe America in MFA and the subject of Science Fiction comes up and Hamid makes an excellent point about representation in Science Fiction:

CA: So about future themes you want to explore: I was really excited when I read the science-fiction piece you wrote for the Financial Times. Have you always been a reader of science fiction? Where did the piece come from creatively?

MH: When I was younger I was a reader of sci-fi, then in the middle for a good twenty years there was a time I didn’t read sci-fi at all, till about three years ago. But I’ve always liked watching sci-fi. I’m a big fan in that sense. The problem I’ve had with reading sci-fi is that the prose is so often clumsy. Lately I’ve been reading more, and I think that it’s interesting because we have a lot of science-fiction today that is not fully sci-fi, you know, just a little off center, and I thought what about full-blown science-fiction with aliens and action? And I was drawn to it, because I can’t remember reading any South Asian, or African or Latin American science fiction. I’m sure it’s out there, but it’s not much. I mean, why are we abandoning our collective literary imagining of futuristic scenarios to people from just a handful of countries or identities? It seems like such an odd thing to have happened. So, I’m very interested in that— I don’t know if it will work, but I’m very interested in doing a sci-fi novel that isn’t understated at all about being set in the future.

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Sci-Fi with Muslim Characters in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

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The current issue (Volume 26, Number 1, Spring 2014) of Journal of Religion and Popular Culture has a couple of articles on Science Fiction with Muslim characters. Here are the abstracts of the relevant articles:

The Marvel of Islam: Reconciling Muslim Epistemologies through a New Islamic Origin Saga in Naif al-Mutawa’s The 99 
James Clements, Richard Gauvain
http://bit.ly/JRPC261c

Since its inception in 2006, Islam’s most popular comic strip, The 99, and its creator, Naif al-Mutawa, have both been the subject of much media scrutiny. Despite eschewing references to the most significant texts, figures, and symbols of Islam—readers of the comic find no mention of the Qur’an or the Prophet—neither its fiercest critics nor its most fervent supporters doubt the essentially Islamic nature of The 99. Drawing on the responses of students at the American University in Dubai (AUD), this paper explores how and why, within this modern Gulf setting, The 99 resonates as a profoundly Islamic publication. Attention is paid, first, to The 99’s origin saga, through which Muslim history is smoothed over, then re-spun in ways familiar to our students; and, second, to a number of special editions of The 99, through which al-Mutawa offers a new understanding of Islam’s role—with remarkable implications for political leadership—in contemporary society, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

The Islamic Framing in Donald Moffitt’s Science Fiction Series The Mechanical Sky 
Susanne Olsson
http://bit.ly/JRPC261d

American author Donald Moffitt’s science fiction (SF) series The Mechanical Sky, consisting of two books, Crescent in the Sky (1989) and A Gathering of Stars(1990), portrays a universe where various religious denominations exist, and where an Islamic caliphate is established, aiming at universal Islamic dominance. The purpose of this article is to analyze the series pertaining to its representations of Islam and Muslims, and to explain the Islamic framing in contextualizing the series in the historical situation when the series was produced. Moreover, another aim of the article concerns the methodological problems that such an analysis of the Islamic framing may entail. The article calls for the need to reflect seriously on interpretative perspectives when a scholar in the study of religions enters the field of SF, which has its own definitional problems and genre-specific traits that must be taken into consideration.

The full test of the articles are available on the website as well. Thanks Rebecca for the pointer!

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The Golem and the Jinni

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The Golem and the Jinni is the Debut novel by Helene Wecker. combines themes from the Islamic and Jewish literature in the setting of late 19th century America.  In a way the Golem who is from Danzing Germany and the Jinni who is from Syria are immigrants to the new world. Here is what the New York Times has to say about the novel.

History, magic and religion braid together in old New York’s tenements while the lives of the widowed golem and the freed jinni unfold. Both are sleepless; both quickly find lodging and employment and receive names from the humans who accept their true natures — the golem is known as Chava, or “life”; the jinni is Ahmad. These relatively small moments open up into a languorous meditation-by-example on the nature of humanity, desire, conscience and free will.

Thanks to M.M for the pointers.

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Unravel Me by Tahereh Mafi

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Unravel Me is a Young Adult novel, part of the Shatter Me series, by the American author Tahereh Mafi which can be described as set in X-manish Dystopia where food and water are scarce. There is an organization set to reestablish order in the world but has other motives as well. Tahereh Mafi is a California-based Young Adult fiction author. Here is an interesting quote from Teenink:

“I only know now that the scientists are wrong. The world is flat. I know because I was tossed right off the edge and I’ve been trying to hold on for 17 years. I’ve been trying to climb back up for 17 years but it’s nearly impossible to beat gravity when no one is willing to give you a hand.”

Official Website:  Tahereh Writes

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Catherine Wells’ Beyond the Gates

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Wells’ story story is set on a planet inhabited by descents of Muslim colonists. The society is reflective of some of the stereotypes that many people have about Islamic societies and the story is set up as conflict between religion and science. The society on Dray’s planet forbids contact with outsiders  in the fear that they might contaminate their religion. When a mysterious creature is discovered on the planet then the establishment of the planet let in two scientists from the outside to investigate and the story of determining the origins of the creature is where all the drama lies.

 

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Thinly-Veiled Allegories About the Middle East in U.S. Science Fiction (IO9)

A few years ago IO9 has an interesting article about sci-fi in the US with themes and stand-ins for Middle Eastern Cultures. Here is the text of the article.

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If science fiction is really about the present, then it’s no surprise that the longstanding tensions between the United States and Middle Eastern countries should make itself known in tales of “desert planets.” From Tattoine to Klendathu, planets full of barren dunes are usually not-so-subtle allegorical stand-ins for a stereotyped “Middle East.” Let’s take a closer look at five science fictional tales from the United States that deal more or less openly with the relationship between that country and the Arab world to find out more.

Thinly-Veiled Allegories About the Middle East in U.S. Science Fiction

Star Wars: A New Hope

Tattoine, the remote desert planet where Luke Skywalker is raised by his Aunt and Uncle, is full of nomads and farmers who scrabble out a life among rocks and dunes. The Jawas roam around in caravans, and the Tusken Raiders are dressed in strips of towel and called only by a name (Sand People) that is probably the space version of a well-known US epithet for Arabs. The only “nice” people on the planet appear to be the transplanted (white) humans like Skywalker and Obi Wan. As usual, George Lucas serves up racial stereotypes, likes white people, and doesn’t do much else.

Thinly-Veiled Allegories About the Middle East in U.S. Science Fiction

Dune

Arakis, the desert planet whose rolling dunes shelter sandworms and a tribe of polygamous insurrectionaries known as the Fremen, is clearly set up as a Middle Eastern country that has been colonized for centuries. Arakis is the only source of “the spice,” a substance that makes interplanetary space travel possible and is mined from the sands by giant spice rigs (that look a lot like oil rigs in the films). Not only is the culture in the Dune universe intended to refer to Muslim culture — for instance, a massive war is referred to as a “Jihad” — but the economy of Arakis is similar to the Saudi, Kuwaiti or Iraqi economies. The planet is full of many oppressed tribes, and ruled by a tiny elite class that trades a single natural energy source for wealth and power. What’s interesting is that the books side with the Fremen, who are essentially the insurgents bent on overthrowing the wealthy offworlders who want Arakis’ spice.

Stargate (the movie)

While the Stargate television series deal with many different worlds, the original film is focused on only one: Abydos, a land of space Egyptians, ruled by an alien named Ra. According to Stargate lore, Ra came to Earth during the Egyptian era to steal slaves for Abydos. So the culture of the desert planet is a direct descendant of early Middle Eastern culture on Earth. Weirdly, it hasn’t developed in the centuries since its transplantation, though of course modern Egypt on Earth is far more technologically advanced than ancient Egypt. It’s as if the people on Abydos have just been waiting for some white dude to come and rescue them.

Starship Troopers (the movie)

In the first Starship Troopers film, and the book, our Earth soldiers first attempt to mow down the alien bugs on their home planet of Klendathu. It’s a desert planet, much like Planet P where the bugs and humans do most of their fighting in the first movie. While there is no direct connection between the culture of the bugs and Middle Eastern cultures, the desert surroundings definitely suggest it. The bugs are the ultimate, dehumanized “enemy,” and therefore it’s tempting to say they stand in for Iraqis since the films were all made during a period in history when there was tension between Iraq and the United States. Still, it would be just as easy to say the bugs stand in for other “enemies” in desert regions. So the connection in this franchise between a desert planet and the Middle East is weaker than in the previous three, though it’s still there. Especially because so much wartime propaganda is about dehumanizing the enemy.

The Years of Rice and Salt

This novel by Kim Stanley Robinson is not set on another planet — instead, it’s set on a very different Earth from our own. It’s an Earth where the plagues of the middle ages wiped out nearly all of Christian Europe, and where Islam became the dominant religion in the West. So it’s not about the Middle East, but instead a brilliant thought-experiment in which what many people think of as “Middle Eastern culture” has been superimposed on what many think of as “Western culture.” The results? Muslim feminism, for one thing. And India colonizes Europe rather than the other way around.

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The Lighter Side of Islam and Sci-Fi

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(Image Source: Abu Pokemon)

A sub-genre of Science Fiction that deserve more attention is Comedy Science Fiction or Science Fiction with more humor. I recently came across this now defunct Muslim humor website Abu Pokemon which narrates stories with Lego and found one with can be described as Science Fiction. It is an absurdist humor take on an absurd fatwa that came out of Egypt a few years ago and was widely condemned by most Muslim scholars in the region. The following link has the visual story in full form. Enjoy!

Time Traveling for What!

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Jaymee Goh on Malaysian Science Fiction

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In preparation of Malaysian Science Fiction week series here is an overview of Malaysian Science Fiction. Jaymee Goh had an article on Malaysian Science Fiction a few years ago which is worth checking out. Here is an excerpt:

Firstly, our folklore is rich with talking animals, mystical people, daring adventures, and heroes. Much of it is based on animistic beliefs, leftover from the days before Islam came to our shores. (Much of what is recognized as the Malaysian peninsular was under various Hindu empires for several centuries.) As a result, myths and legends provide a rich source for imaginary romps. Unfortunately, much of these myths and legends aren’t always transmitted, as Malay supremacy, tied with Islamism, is on the rise and wants to do away with animistic traditions (our political situation is fairly fraught).

Secondly, our history of colonialism has affected us, deeply. Some of you may remember reading Deepa D.’s I Didn’t Dream of Dragons, which articulates wonderfully the wounds left on the psyche of colonized peoples long after the British empire receded from our shores. The same issues affect Malaysians.

Thirdly, it is incredibly difficult to find South-east Asian science fiction / fantasy in English. If I find something, it’s usually a collection of myths and legends, rather than a new, original novel.

If you were to wander into a Malaysian bookstore, you would find that most of the books sold are in English. Part of it is because despite Malay being our official language, much cross-cultural communication occurs in English, although we have a basilect that takes on the grammatical structures and vocabulary of Malay, Chinese and Tamil, depending on who you talk to (we Malaysians are very good at code-switching).

If you look into the science fiction / fantasy sections, young adult, horror, and romance, you would note that all books have been brought in from overseas. Tolkien is always in stock, alongside other classic fantasy mainstays. The young adult stocks all the latest books. Most of them are from U.S. American publishers. And noticeably, U.S. American white authours.