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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
Pamela Sargent The Venus Trilogy is sometimes compared to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Just like the Mars Trilogy the Venus Trilogy also spans many centuries and has the terraforming of that planet as the main theme of the book. In a manner similar to Robinson’s trilogy there are also Muslim character’s in Pamela’s book as well. Here is a description of the series from ereads.
Venus of Dreams introduces Iris Angharads, a determined, independent woman who has set herself one seemingly unattainable goal: to make the poison-filled atmosphere of Venus hospitable to humans. She has worked day and night to realize her dream with only one person sharing her passion, Liang Chen. It seemed impossible to make Venus, with its intolerable air and waterless environment, into a paradise, but Iris succeeds. And in doing so, she creats a powerful dynasty beginning with her first born Benzi.
In Venus of Shadows, the Venus Project calls upon the strongest and most courageous to create a prosperous world in the dismal wilderness of Venus. Those who demonstrate the skill and the passion to embark on this adventure must transform the barren planet in the midst of political and cultural unrest. When Benzi and his sister Risa find themselves in opposing forces on the battlefield, their love and perseverance will determine the destiny of the new land.
In Child of Venus the terraforming has been going on for centuries. It will be many more years before the planet’s surface has been rendered fully habitable and its human settlers can leave their protective domes. But there are those who are foolishly unwilling to wait. In a colony still ravaged by the after-effects of a battle between two religious cults that divided families and created civil war, Mahala Liangharad, a true child of Venus, conceived from the genetic material of the rebels and brought to birth only after their deaths, is a beacon of hope.
Sargent builds imaginatively-detailed new worlds of breathtaking wonder and shows that however far humanity may travel it will overcome any challenge.
A Star Curiously Singing is a novel by Kerry Nietz which envisions a dystopian future where Muslims are in control. Sharia law is the law of the land and slavery exists again but now in a technological form, polygamy is common and women are forced to cover from head to toe. Are there any cliche’s left to be added? Here is the description of the novel from the publisher.
If he fixes the robot, will he break his world? In a future ruled by sharia law machines are managed by debuggers, who in turn are owned by masters. Sandfly is a level 12 debugger. He is sent into Earth orbit to repair a robot-a robot that went on an experimental flight into deep space… And tore itself apart. As Sandfly digs into the mystery aboard the space station, he discovers what the bot heard around that distant star. He discovers that the bot heard…singing. As Sandfly pieces together the clues, the masters spread the trap before his feet. Everyone is racing to the same conclusion, but only one side welcomes what the singing represents.
Dark Matter is an epic Science Fiction novel by a Bangladeshi-American author Dark Matter which portrays diverse aliens, delves into a solution of the Fermi-Paradox and an all round adventure. Here is the description of the book from the official website:
Dark matter, the invisible substance that constitutes the bulk of all matter in the universe, remains one of science’s greatest mysteries. But what if it actually is nothing more than ordinary matter purposely hidden from our view? What if we are only allowed to see a small fraction of the stars in our galaxy, because the vast majority of star systems are teeming with aliens who wish to remain unseen?
Marc Zemin, a brilliant student of astrophysics, is the first human to ever stumble upon this startling secret, when his experiments with wormhole travel cause aliens to land on Earth and whisk him away into space. To his astonishment, the aliens want his help in fighting a colossal galactic war that is rapidly spiraling out of control. But as he struggles to survive from battle to battle across the farthest reaches of the galaxy, he begins to uncover a horrifying conspiracy at play, striving to keep the warring civilizations in continuous conflict with each other. A desperate race against time ensues, as he and a handful of newfound alien friends try to stop the war and confront this mysterious, powerful force bent on destroying all life in the galaxy. But any hope of their success surprisingly appears to hinge on just one thing – whether or not Marc has the strength to overcome his own demons and face the shattering truth about who he really is.
Al-Akhbar has an article on Arabic Science Fiction which gives an overview of sci-fi in Arabic although there are significant omissions regarding Arabic Sci-Fi. Its still worth a read for the clueless.
The genre of science fiction, with its spectacular imaginations and inventive possibilities, has enjoyed an overshadowed history in the Arab world; a history that goes back many centuries.
There are over thirty definitions on what constitutes a science fiction story. Quite fitting for a genre of such a wide breadth, with tales spanning time, reality, the human condition, and much more.
Sci-fi’s greatest power, like most fiction, lies in its ability to inspire and provoke ideas, reflecting society back onto itself. As Issac Asimov, a giant of sci-fi literature, once said, “The core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”
When examining Arabic science fiction, one inescapably stumbles into perplexing knotty questions regarding the Arab world’s relationship with fiction and science, and its mounting struggles in determining it’s political, economic, and cultural destiny. Under this context, the fate of Arabic sci-fi is holistically connected and molded by the burdens and predicaments faced by the region.
Under a Western Shadow
Despite its rich history (refer to box below), Arabic sci-fi today is not as ubiquitous as other genres. Being relatively microscopic compared to the Euro-American sci-fi behemoth, commentators like The Guardian’s Nesrine Malik have asked: What happened to Arab science fiction?
For Malik, “fatalism” and “helplessness” within Arab society has crippled imagination. She sees a persistent obsession within Arabic fiction to recapture past glories and a general public suspicion of science and science-fiction as “foreign.” Malik also points to the dominance of monotheism, which has ultimately denied Arabic sci-fi’s flowering.
Placing aside the redundant Orientalist undertones in Malik’s criticisms, there is a kernel of truth in her conclusions.
Between the heydays of proto-science fiction stories centuries ago until the the latter half of the 20th century, Arabic sci-fi stories appeared to peter out, eventually eclipsed predominately by European and North American sagas.
The decline of indigenous forms of sci-fi during this period can arguably be linked to the decline of Arab society under Ottoman rule and the brutality of Western colonialism. Added to this, censorship by various Arab governments, whether for political or religious justifications, unmistakably played a part in restraining the ability to weave and share sci-fi tales that sharply criticize the status quo.
From books, television, comic books, video games and cinema, foreign sci-fi stories resoundingly outmatch their Arab counterparts in terms of size, scope, and profit.
According to a July 2011 press release by Simba Information, a market intelligence firm which watches the publishing and entertainment media closely, in 2011 more than 3,700 sci-fi books were published in the United States alone – with 78 titles by 58 authors performing strongly in best seller lists.
Granted, foreign science fiction – particularly in the United States – has higher production values and stronger marketing drives, all wrapped in an operatic space spectacle. Nevertheless, a stage is set for an inferiority complex. Under such a monumental shadow, Arab sci-fi works are usually perceived locally and externally as feeble imitations in form, content, and consumption. Arabic science fiction, parallel to Western sci-fi’s experience, is still trying to gain mainstream legitimacy and canonization.
This unequal relationship unsurprisingly seeps into scholarships studying the genre, Arab or otherwise.
Reuven Snir, an Arab-Jewish academic for Haifa University, is one of the few within Western academia who has attempted to shed more light on Arabic sci-fi.
In an article published in 2000 for volume 77 of Der Islam, Snir noted that Western analyses of Arabic literature systematically ignore sci-fi. Out of the many academic journals and sci-fi publications he researched, only The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, published in 1995, actually acknowledged the existence of Arabic science fiction, doing so in merely four short passages.
Regarding Arab scholarship, mainly conducted by short-story writer Yousef al-Sharuni, Snir concluded that while it is naturally more detailed, such studies are usually marginalized to the fringes of literary discussions. In effect, Arabic science fiction, parallel to Western sci-fi’s experience, is still trying to gain mainstream legitimacy and canonization.
Similarly, Achmed A. W. Khammas, an Iraqi-German author and translator, noted this academic blindspot in a 2006 article for the German Internet magazine Telepolis.
Khammas pointed out that Western literary experts have only counted 35 sci-fi novels written in the Arab world up until the 21st century. “This figure,” Khammas wrote, “cannot be entirely correct, since in Egypt alone there were more than twenty novels published by the turn of the millennium…”
Suspicious of Science?
While Khammas recognizes that the Arab public are not inherently suspicious towards science, he, like Malik, saw an apathy within Arabic culture, a lack of scientific appreciation, and the shackles of determinism as constraints. He added power politics, economic interests, and lingering traditional structures as major obstacles for sci-fi to overcome.
These problems, according to the Iraqi-German writer, are reflected in the lack of “futureness” within Arab society, where the public are unconcerned with science shaping their life. Ultimately, Khammas argued, this has caused Arabic to fail in seamlessly incorporating new scientific terminologies.
Indeed, science and fiction have their kindred problems in the Arab world. For science especially, these difficulties have ensured that Arab scientific and technological breakthroughs pale in comparison to achievements elsewhere.
The lack of scientific or technological development is perhaps the most common denominator voiced regarding the rarity of Arabic sci-fi.
The difference with Khammas, however, is that these writers saw Arabic sci-fi’s potency in nurturing imaginative scientists as a step forward in scientific and technological innovation. The dilemma was not Arab culture or Arabic itself, rather it stemmed from inadequate support from the governmental level.
Furthermore, Arabic’s limits is seen by some sci-fi writers as an opportunity to revitalize and expand the language. In one case, Emirati writer Noura al-Noman, during a casual blog interview to promote her upcoming sci-fi novel Ajwan, elaborated on how she developed a different writing style from classical Arabic, including coining new terms, in order to captivate the teenagers she was writing for.
Likewise, Maan Abutaleb, a writer whose works have been published in Al Quds Al Arabi and Jadaliyya, saw great public appeal for Arabic science fiction as long as it reflected people’s sentiments and experiences.
“I think there would be appetite for Arabic sci-fi, especially if it is relevant to the Arab world and deals with it its specificities in new and original ways,” he told Al-Akhbar through an email correspondence.
“I think Sci-Fi as a genre is perfectly capable of providing the scope needed for this sort of balance.”
Constraints of the Arab Entertainment Industry
There’s something to be said about structure of the mainstream Arab entertainment industry and market, where venues and funding are heavily controlled. Most are centered around capital; in other words, the Gulf.
Abutaleb, in his correspondence with Al-Akhbar, linked the problem affecting Arab science fiction’s visibility and regularity to the nature of the neo-liberal petrodollar mentality within the general entertainment industry. “They want for easy, nice, non-problematic content,” he wrote.
When a book is written and published, it has to deal with a weak domestic marketing infrastructure – word of mouth is essential how books become famous. Moreover, there is a desire to be acknowledged and legitimized by the West, widely perceived as a major step in being “successful.”
Like Egyptian author Ahmed Khalid Taufiq’s Utopia, a tale of dystopian Egypt in the year 2023, which has surpassed three reprints, his ascendancy as a writer is defined by the fact that his work will be translated, marketed, and sold abroad. The initiative by the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, which released an English version of Utopia last June, ensures that this trend is commercialized.
Outside of literature, Arabic sci-fi film and television faces resemblant, and possibly harder, “struggles to be seen.”
Consider the mundane art of television scheduling. Regionally, most shows clamor around the Ramadan season, where viewership is high and much profit is to be made. The ‘Ramadan entertainment industry’, as well, cautiously straddles between religiosity and amusement. Shows green-lighted during this period tend to be historical dramas or comedies, no more. Understandable, since producers and TV stations in this business are very risk-averse in experimenting with alternative genres and a good sci-fi story is not easy and is usually provocative.
In this tough scene, Ben Robinson and Sophia al-Maria, attempting to “shake-up” Arab cinema, have produced and filmed their sci-fi musical comedy called Topaz Duo: Cosmic Phoenix. The plot centers on a married pair of Egyptian lounge singers as they attempt to thwart a megalomaniac alien’s plans for world destruction.
“I was fascinated by the collision of technology and concepts of ‘the future’ in the Arab world. Especially in the Gulf, people are fixated with the future, and the rush to hyper-modernity,” Robinson wrote in an email to Al-Akhbar regarding the development of the film. But when a trailer was shown to Qatar TV in hopes to develop an on-going television series, it was “just too weird for them.”
“We [then] screened the trailer at the recent first comic convention in Dubai, where all the science-fiction, horror, comic-book and fantasy fans met for the first time and realized that we’re one big family. The trailer went down very well, so we know there is an audience for Arab sci-fi,” Robinson added.
Topaz Duo: Cosmic Phoenix may not be as extravagant as the Avengers, an American superhero sci-fi film that has already scored more than one billion dollars internationally since its release early May, nevertheless, the film is a modest, telling step for Arab sci-fi’s headway on the silver screen.
Robinson is not the only one, either. He made reference to a number of low-key Qatari sci-fi films such as The Package and Lockdown: Red Moon Escape both directed by Mohammed al-Ibrahim as ones to watch out for.
What Happened to Arab Sci-Fi?
This past decade has seen a shift in the Arab zeitgeist.
There is an acute confidence among creators and audiences which is propelling Arabic sci-fi forward. Over the past years, more writers, filmmakers, artists and many others have utilized the genre in a number of fascinating, creative ways to overcome the various political, economic, and social restrictions in place and be heard.
The internet, its effects on society yet unfathomable, has allowed alternative spaces for creators and their audience to connect beyond traditional, restrictive routes. The various uprisings in the region has opened brave new worlds for artists and thinkers to explore, the tropes of sci-fi appropriately tailor-made for the journey.
Meanwhile on the macro-level, the first number of symposiums and conferences dealing with sci-fi have been held in Morocco, Syria, and the Gulf. The Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO) announced plans at the end of the 2009 sci-fi conference held in Damascus to bolster support towards Arab sci-fi, including establishing a literary prize exclusively for the genre, which has yet to be actualized.
What happened to Arab science fiction?
It’s in middle of a resurrection.
Arab Sci-Fi: A Brief Journey through TimeSci-fi is not something novel or strange to Arab culture. Indeed, some of the early proto-sci-fi stories were produced regionally, with some claiming the Epic of Gilgamesh as a foundation.
One commonly noted example is the work of second century author Lucian of Samosata called A True Story, in which he wrote of tales of voyages to space, wars between celestial planetary bodies, and interactions with alien life as a parody of Homer’s Iliad.
Others describe Ibn al-Nafis’s Theologus Autodidactus, written in 1270, as one of the first theological sci-fi novels. It’s of a story of a feral child on a deserted island. As the tale progresses, elements of futurology, apocalyptic destruction and other wild concepts arise, all explained by Ibn al-Nafis through scientific concepts.
The most iconic example of proto-science fiction tales are recounted within One Thousand and One Nights that include fantastical journeys through the cosmos, brass robots, and an adventure under-sea to a community governed by a primitive form of communism.
After the glorified era until the mid-twentieth century, Arab production of science fiction gradually became dominated by translations of European and North American sci-fi stories, particularly during the last two centuries.
Egypt, a trend-setter as always, was the scene for the first modern Arab sci-fi awakening during the 1950s and onwards. During this period, Yousef Izzedeen Issa wrote and produced a popular sci-fi radio series broadcast on Egyptian radio. Mustafa Mahmood, cited as “the father of modern Arab sci-fi literature,” wrote a number of famous novels including The Spider (1964) and A Man Under Zero (1967) which encouraged other Egyptian writers to dive in, such as Nabil Farouq, Ahmad Suwailem, Omayma Khafaji, Nihad Sharif, and Muhammad al-Ashry.
The growth of Egyptian sci-fi inspired other Arab writers throughout the region. The list goes on and on, including the Moroccan author Mohammed Aziz al-Habbabi, Iraqi author Kassem al-Khattat, Kuwaiti author Tiba Ahmad al-Ibrahim, and a number of Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Bahraini, and Saudi Arabian writers such as Kassem Kassem, Lina al-Kailani, Taleb Omaran, Sulaiman Mohammed al-Khalil, Abdallah Khalifa, and Ashraf Faqih.