Monday 27 November 2017

Science Fiction in Tunisia I

Panorama of Tunisian SF
Dr Kawthar Ayed (University of Tunis)

(Abridged and translated by Djibril al-Ayad)

In the Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction (1986), an anthology that claims to present samples of work from all over the planet, editors Brian Aldiss and Sam Lundwall stated that they found not a single work of science fiction written in Arabic.

More than 40 SF titles were published in Arab countries between 1950 and 1990. From 1950–60 we find no explicit mention of the term science fiction, they speak rather of a new literary genre. From 1960–78 the notion of “scientific novel” (al-riwayya al-ilmiyya, الرواية العلمية‎) appears, and after 1978 the term SF (khayal ‘ilmi, خيال علمي) was finally adopted by authors and editors.

I believe that with the arrival of science fiction, Arabic fantastic literature moved from the irrational which drops us into the universe of The Thousand and One Nights, where extraordinary events are explained as miracles or magic, to the rational which explores the marvels (and the mischiefs) of science and technology.

Between the 5th–10th centuries, the Arab cultural space saw the birth of a category of text that mixed the marvellous and the strange (al-‘adjib wal-gharib, العجيب والغريب) in multiple extraordinary imaginary universes. Al-Mass‘udi’s Prairies of Gold and Mines of Jewels (9th century), includes a story about Alexander the Great featuring a submarine (centuries before Jules Verne!) and terrifying hybrid sea creatures. In his 2006 dissertation, ‘Abd Allah Tādj considers The Thousand and One Nights as a foundational text of Arabic fantasy literature, full of magic and sorcery, and including in particular the story containing an ivory and wood horse built as a flying machine, with buttons on its shoulders to control altitude and acceleration.

Modern Arabic science fiction was born in Egypt, effectively starting with Mussa Salama’s 1924 novel, Introduction to an Egyptian Utopia, which may predict the Internet and eugenics. A key phenomenon of Arabic futuristic fiction was the military utopia, visible in particular in a 1986 anthology of SF edited by Nabil Faruq, an anti-expansionist genre in which stories take a defensive character, telling of perpetual struggle for freedom (of Egypt, of Earth, or even extraterrestrial peoples)—in stark contrast to, and perhaps even deliberate conflict with, the conquering hero of 1950s American science fiction.

But on to Tunisian science fiction itself. I will try to summarise the few literary productions of Tunisian SF in three categories: precursors, founders, and dabblers.

I have found traces of two precursors to the genre. Sadek Rezgui’s 1933 novel The Lost Continent, is an unfinished but important futurist utopian novel, set on a non-existent continent and featuring advanced technologies including wireless telecommunication, transport, complete police surveillance, and laser surgery. Tayeb Triki in 1977 published a collection of short stories titled Sindbad in Space, whose cover situated it in science-fictional space by featuring a cosmonaut in a cockpit preparing for take-off. These seven adventures of “Sindbad the Terran” actively recall, but remodel, Sindbad’s adventures in The Thousand and One Nights, and thus situate the fiction in an Arabo-Persian rather than Western context. The stories are full of scientific jargon, justified by the presence of academics and scientists, and so I consider this a precursor of the science fiction genre in Tunisia.

The principal founder of the genre is Hedi Thebet, who published Ghar El Jin (1999) and Djebel Alliyine (2001), two futuristic novels, followed by If Hannibal Returned in 2005, and The Temple of Tanit in 2012. The covers of three of these novels included explicit reference to science fiction (رواية قي الخيال العلمي), for the first time to my knowledge in Tunisia. Through Hannibal in particular, Thebet makes Tunisia’s glorious past into a promise of a better future, resurrecting a utopia by reconciling with our history. His texts are a vehicle for an acerbic criticism of the reality of twenty-first century Tunisia, and propose an alternative. He attempts to send a subdued, impoverished and assimilated people the message that change is possible.

I have also detected traces of texts that belong to the genre of science fiction but that did not have the label attached to them, and will present a few examples here.

Dhafer Naji’s 2006 collection of short stories, The Things, is especially interesting to consider and analyse; it bears the significant subtitle, “four imaginative stories that could come true in a century.” The first story, “The Forbidden Language” is an Orwellian dystopia in which the Arabic people are ruled by the Free State of “Zone 01” (previously known as Texas), forbidden to speak their own language, and dictated to daily with regard to the colour of clothing to wear, food to eat, and so forth—rules which they follow with mindless docility. A parable of American cultural imperialism that evokes the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the erasure of linguistic, cultural and even intellectual diversity that follows from forced “civilization” and democratization.

In a similar context, Mustapha Kilani’s 2004 Mirrors of Dead Hours, recounts a sombre dream—the narrator warns the reader in the prologue that the novel tells of a premonitory dream that he is compelled to write. He tells the story of a world seven hundred years in the future, in which the people of the global south are imprisoned within electric fences by the totalitarian northern state, their land polluted by nuclear waste and clean air rationed daily. Recounted as a nightmare, this novel captures the fears and obsessions of a people crushed by despotic regimes and haunted by ravaged, crisis-filled future.

Finally, Abdelaziz Belkhodja’s 2005 novel, 2103, The Return of the Elephant, opens with a description of the Republic of Carthage in the year 2103. Advanced technology allows the city a utopian status, and maintains stability and peace. This African utopia recalls the promise of a future that brings humans wisdom and knowledge rather than violence and hegemony. The novel alternates two messages: one that criticises the situation in countries of the third world, and another that questions the logic of the domination, thanks to their progress, of developed countries.
In conclusion, the themes addressed by Arabic science fiction echo modern reflections on humanity and the world, and often display a deep unease. Fiction reflects reality, but as it might be transformed by time. These future societies “are built on the allegory of the fears and hopes of the period of their production” (as Gianni Haver puts it in De beaux lendemains, 2002). They depict therein hypothetical societies placed in a future time-frame, by deforming or exaggerating features from reality.

In the Arab world, the twenty-first century has seen the birth of a disenchanted form of expression that accompanies the arrival in power of tyrannical systems in tandem with American military hegemony and Western cultural influence. This expression takes the form of futuristic nightmares, such as Taleb ‘Umran’s The Dark Times (Syria, 2003) and Mustapha Kilani’s Mirrors of Dead Hours (Tunisia, 2004). The restrictions on liberty, exploitation of wealth, inequality of opportunity, levels and conditions of life between people in the West and those of the third world push these authors to ask questions and to disturb the reader.

Science fiction literature is transforming into a spacecraft that transports us to worlds distant in both time and space, a time machine that casts a curious and ravenous eye on the future. Built by an imagination full of innovative ideas, this machine transcends reality to delve in the deepest depths of history and of space to question homo sapiens, to reveal our dreams and unveil our fears. It is a world literature that deserves revaluation and study—far from the ignorance and disdain with which it is often addressed.

Monday 20 November 2017

Interview with Subodhana Wijeyeratne

We are delighted to welcome on our blog Subodhana Wijeyeratne (author of the haunting story The Hulks in TFF #41), and to ask him about his Tales from the Stone Lotus (Writingale Publishing), a collection of short stories and novellas set on both our world, and others. The book follows the loves and lives of a variety of creatures, from the downtrodden underclass of humans forced to slave on a distant moon, to the fleeting insect-like inhabitants of a planet on an extreme orbit.

Born in the UK to Sri Lankan parents, and raised there and in Russia, Subo Wijeyeratne has been writing speculative fiction for nearly twenty years. His favourite writers and biggest influences are Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, James Tiptree Jr, and Isaac Asimov. He currently lives and works in Tokyo, Japan.

TFF: The title of your collection, Tales from the Stone Lotus, sounds fascinating, maybe even slightly mysterious. Where does it come from?

Subodhana Wijeyeratne: It comes from a couple of things. In the collection is a story called 'The Stone Lotus', about this peculiar object that appears in a city on the north, and the one of the men who researches it. My incredibly talented artist friend Sara Gothard (who's provided all the illustrations in the book) did a painting based on the story, which serves as the cover image. In it, there's a bunch of people gathered around it, as if listening for something. If you read the story, you'll see that one of the characters talks about only seeing things if you look for them. It occurred to me that maybe that's what the Stone Lotus does - go looking for stories, from all over the universe, for the people waiting for it back home. Hence the title!

TFF: Who would be the perfect candidate to direct a movie adaptation of Tales from the Stone Lotus, and why?

SW: Seeing as its a collection of shorts, I think I'd like to see what a few different directors make of it. I think The Best of All Seasons would look great in Terrence Malick's hands (a boy can dream). The Opal Gates would be a nice Christopher Nolan piece, and I'd love to see what Darren Aaronofsky does with As Kazanuhr Falls.

TFF: Ideally, next to what other books would you place Tales from the Stone Lotus in a bookshop (or library)?

SW: I'd love to see it between Ted Chiang's Tales of Your Life and Others and Jorge Luis Borges' Ficciones. They're two people I strive to emulate - particularly Borges - and I reckon the book can only be lifted by the association!

TFF: Can you tell us about a little-known author you think everyone should read?

SW: She's not necessarily little-known in a certain circle, but I think everyone should read the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. She was an 11th century Japanese courtier, and Pillow Book is basically her diary. Her writing is so fresh, and her personality so vivacious, it just blazes off the page, even after a thousand years. It's heartbreaking and hilarious in turns and I really, really recommend it.

TFF: If you were an aerospace engineer, what would you name your first spaceship?

SW: Tough one! Probably Hedonismbot because he is my spirit guide and Futurama is my Bible.

TFF: Do you think there is a theme or some sort of fil rouge that connects the stories in Stone Lotus?

SW: I think underlying all the stories is the idea of impermanence. I was raised Buddhist (though I've drifted a bit), and nothing strikes me as being truer than the idea that all things change. I'm constantly amazed by how this is true on every level of existence, but in such drastically different ways. I've often wondered how they're related. Is there something about the way energy moves in the universe that means that humans are constantly changing what their definition of 'good' or 'love' is?

TFF: And what is your current definition of "good"?

SW: I think I've had the same definition for a long time - which is to, as much as possible, avoid causing other things or people to suffer. Obviously sometimes this is unavoidable, but I often find that being unkind and not caring about how much pain you inflict on other people is a much easier road to take than being respectful and considerate -- which goes a long way towards explaining a lot about the world, I think.

TFF: If you could ask any author, living or dead, to help you brainstorm a story, who would you ask?

SW: I adore Greg Egan's imagination - his work blows me away every time I read it. I'd love to brainstorm a story with him, or with Ted Chiang.

TFF: You have spent many years living in different cultural contexts, often belonging to a minority. Do you see this experience as a continuous challenge or as something that has enriched you?

SW: It's a bit of both. Moving around constantly means its hard to hang on to friends; it's really amazing how many people just slip away and disappear when you're not looking. But I think the enrichment has been overwhelmingly the stronger experience. Other people's subjectivities - even if they can be infuriating - are fascinating to me, especially when they are far away from mine. The distinctive histories of places are also really compelling. Every time I go somewhere I learn something about that place that explains something else half a world away to me, which is the best feeling.

TFF: What is the most incredible thing you have learnt studying the history of the Japanese space program?

SW: That the Japanese developed a death ray during the Second World War! It was actually a highly powered microwave designed to blow up engine blocks. They tested it on a dog and a rabbit, but it didn't do much harm to non-organic material.

TFF: You have travelled extensively since you were a child. What is your absolutely favourite place?

SW: Japan is hands down my favourite country in the world. I love living here, am fascinated by the culture, and my body is 56.4% sushi by mass.

TFF: Has exposure to many different languages changed your literary style? In what ways?

SW: I'm so high-strung about my own writing that I've not really stopped to think about it. My pleasure reading is mostly, if not entirely, in English. But I did study medieval history at university, and have an abiding love of Middle English. As such I try to avoid overly modern turns of phrase - there's something transient and inexpressive about the way so many people speak today, it drives me mad. I'm particularly against the rise of 'of' instead of 'have' (e.g., people saying 'I should of done X'). But I also get that when it comes to stuff like this I'm mostly like Canute in the sea.

Illustration of "The Hulks" by Miguel Santos
TFF: What is your next project?

SW: I'm working on my third novel, Triangulum, which is a sci-fi piece influenced by ancient Indian texts. Yes, it is precisely as pretentious as it sounds, but I've always wanted to combine the cryptic metaphysics of texts like the Rig Veda with a sort of dark sci-fi aesthetic: huge statues on empty world, layers of history piled upon the characters like invisible chains. We'll see how it goes!

TFF: This sounds fascinating! Who would be the main characters in the story?

SW: The main characters include a criminal who gets sentenced to death, but ends up being castrated by his cellmates (for a variety of reasons). His main love interest is a 'snake-girl', whose bodily fluids are venomous, and who hence cannot be touched. Beyond that there are two characters who are male and female manifestations of the same person, and who often speak and walk in tandem. Rounding up the group of five is the central protagonist, Izme Gulthara, an otherworldly presence with an agenda that could either be transcendentally good, or utterly evil.

Thank you Subo for chatting with us, and best of luck with your projects!