REVIEW: “The Gardens of Babylon” by Hassan Blasim

Review of Hassan Blasim, Jonathan Wright (trans.), “The Gardens of Babylon”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 11-33 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

For a speculative story about how the world will be in the future, “The Gardens of Babylon” spends a lot of time looking back to the past, with the speculative (or in this case, properly science fiction) elements primarily a means of allowing the characters to not just look backwards but also experience what life then/now was like. The title itself is intended to invoke a memory of the historic wonder of the ancient world; the titular gardens in this story are very clearly presented as a new vision and interpretation of paradise.

The story is woven out of two threads: One is the story of a present-day man who worked as a translator, translating Raymond Carver stories, and the other is the story of the narrator, in the future, who is tasked with converting the stories of the past — include the tale of the translator — into an interactive game for people to enjoy in paradise. Both the narrator and the translator have similar narrative voices and styles, as well as similar goals — the narrator to preserve history through retelling it, the translator to preserve it through translating it. At times, it is difficult to keep the two speakers and the their two tales distinct; but this confusion ends up being exploited in the resolution of the story.

Two things struck me about Blasim’s vision of the future as depicted in this story:

  • First, this is the second story in the anthology wherein the dominant power is the Chinese.
  • Second, the biggest influence on the future was not the war or the fall-out from war, but rather climate change. The war is basically an afterthought, a nonevent.

This is part of what I have enjoyed so much about this collection — the sheer diversity of imagined futures.

REVIEW: “The Corporal” by Ali Bader

Review of Ali Bader, Elisabeth Jacquette (trans.), “The Corporal”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 35-60 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Many of the stories in Iraq+100 betray a deep sadness and fear about the future — but not this story. Bader’s story is a mix of exuberantly hopeful, riotously funny, and — in places — scarily prescient. Bader’s vision of the future is told through the eyes of someone from the past. The Corporal was killed by a sniper during the original invasion, and ends up in limbo while awaiting to learn whether or not his death made him a martyr (as a philosopher, I love the idea that the reason why the limbo queue in the afterlife is so long is because Socrates won’t stop asking God questions!). Eventually, though, he gets sent back to earth as a prophet — 100 years in the future. In that future, the American invasion “worked”; Iraq is now a democracy, a place of peace and calm, and a beacon of democracy in the rest of the world. The cities of Kut and Nasiriyah are quiet and clean and filled with happy people.

The speculative element of the story is quite minimal, especially in the beginning, simply there to scaffold the juxtaposition of the two Iraqs; this does not make the story any less gripping.

Reading the story, it’s hard to remember that these were written before November 2016 and the aftermath of the US election. For example, a 21st-century man explains to the Corporal:

“Just take America: now it’s an extremist state, gripped by religion…The extremists found refuge in America, and that’s the problem now. America has become an extremist state, overrun by religious intolerance…”

“Are you telling the truth, sir?”

“Yes, America is a rogue state now. It’s part of the axis of evil. The civilised world is trying to bring the country back to its senses and bring back democracy.” … “The problem is with the West — that’s right, the problem is with the West, which has been transformed into an oasis of terrorism, a haven for religious intolerance and hatred” (pp. 56-57).

It’s hard not to read this and reflect on how much truth resembles fiction sometimes.

It was a brilliant story with a brilliant ending, and one that hits a little too close to home for comfort. My favorite of the book so far.

REVIEW: “Kuszib” by Hassan Abdulrazzak

Review of Hassan Abdulrazzak, “Kuszib”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 115-138 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Of all the stories in this anthology that I’ve read so far, this one is by far the most strange. Abdulrazzak imagines a world a century from now where aliens have taken over and humans are reduced to the status of farm animals, and it is from the point of view of the aliens that the story is told (this confused me at first when wine-drinking was mentioned, but was cleared up quite quickly). Through their eyes, we are given a picture of humanity which picks up on all our flaws, our hubris, and our lack of civilization. When the aliens land at Centre Point, which used to be called “Baggy-Dad” in the archaic human language of “Arabaic”, they laugh at the fact that the people of “Newey Pork”, “Lindon”, and “Beige-inn” are all insulted that their cities were not the ones chosen as the invasion site. But “humans were never that good at logic”, the aliens are all taught, and they are uncivilized too, whatever they think. It is easy for those newly arrived conquerors to conclude that their technological superiority translates into superiority in all contexts. From there, it is an easy step to the hunting, herding, and farming of human beings, a thread running through the story whose treatment is just casual enough to make it entirely unsettling.

The story contains more erotic elements than others in the book — fair warning for anyone who would prefer to avoid anything explicit — but these elements are handled with a good measure of humor. It is refreshing to see that alien sex is amusing not because it is alien but because it is sex.

This is the first story in the collection where I have noticed some editorial issues. There is a distinct lack of commas setting off the addressee of speech, and two typos — one “it’s” for “its” on p. 124 and one “pour” for “pore” on p. 123.

REVIEW: “Operation Daniel” by Khalid Kaki

Review of Khalid Kaki, Adam Talib (trans.), “Operation Daniel”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 107-114 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

“Operation Daniel” answers the question “What would Iraq be like 100 years after the invasion” with the perhaps unexpected “ruled by China”. This answer forces the reader to consider not only how Iraq might be transformed over the next century but also the rest of the world.

It’s an all too familiar world that Kaki paints, with the repression of the local languages, culture, songs, literature, and names and the introduction of a dictator who rules under the guise of benevolence for all. It is also a macabre world, where people who don’t adhere to the rigid rules of repression are extracted, cremated, and their remains compressed into a tiny diamond to decorate the dictator’s shoes.

The narrator is quite circumscript in their telling, telling us what shouldn’t happen or what cannot happened, rather than what must and what did, and this circumscription fits well with the story. Nothing is ever addressed head-on, only aslant, and this leaves the reader with the lingering feeling that this is a future that might possibly be escaped.

The story is both forward looking (in the sense that it looks forward from the present to the imagined future, but also in that it looks forward from the imagined future) and deeply historical, rooted in the ancient history of Kirkuk — a history one need not know in order to enjoy the story, because there are informative footnotes! Can I just say how much I love reading a piece of fiction that has informative footnotes? One footnote discusses contemporary and historic geography, two discuss the history of Kirkuk, and one provides information about local music. I love informative footnotes.

REVIEW: “The Day by Day Mosque” by Mortada Gzar

Review of Mortada Gzar, Katharine Halls (trans.), “The Day by Day Mosque”, Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press, 2016): 81-85 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Gzar’s story is told with language that has a lovely lyric quality, full of beautiful imagery and clever turns of phrase; I can only admire Halls’s translation, which must have been a difficult piece in order to retain this quality of prose from the original language. “The Day by Day Mosque” is quite a short story, and though it is set in the future, I felt like I learned a lot about the present reading it, both when the narrator harkens back to their past and their history, and in the way the future is contrasted with the past, i.e., our present. This importance of the present for a story set in the future is a theme that Page picks up on in the afterword of the collection:

The best science fiction, they say, tells us more about the context it’s written in than the future it’s trying to predict” (p. 175)

Some of the stories in the anthology require the reader to have more knowledge of the current present than others; this one, unfortunately, is one of them. The main speculative thread running through the story was the “Inversion Project, which will convert south to north” (p. 84). The resulting change in orientation seems to be quite significant, but the significance of it unfortunately escaped me, without a deeper context in which to locate the story. In this particular instance, I’m willing to say the defect is in me, not the story.

REVIEW: Iraq+100, edited by Hassan Blasim

Review of Hassan Blasim, ed., Iraq+100: Stories from a Century After the Invasion, with support of Noor Hemani and Ra Page (Comma Press, 2016). Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I discovered this book last year via a random tweet and was immediately intrigued by the premise. Editor Hassan Blasim asked ten Iraqi writers to consider the question “What might Iraq look like in 2103, a century after the British/American invasion?” The result is an eclectic collection of speculative stories, in the most literal sense of the term, which nevertheless are tied together by a very clear and distinctive thread, a thread that Blasim identifies as “the tragedy of modern Iraq—the tragedy of a people that is desperate for just a solitary draught of peace”. It is a sobering read, but it is also a delightful and entertaining read.

The book begins with an introduction by Blasim, describing how the collection came about, but also discussing the state of Iraqi science fiction:

Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing and I am close to certain that this book of short stories is the first of its kind, in theme and in form, in the corpus of modern Iraqi literature (p. vi).

Blasim discusses why he hopes that this will change in the coming years, but also speaks to the question why there is such a dearth of science fiction in Arabic literature more generally. He notes that:

Perhaps the most obvious reason is that science fiction in the West was allowed to track the development of actual science from about the middle of the 19th century onwards (p. vi),

and that during this period, there was no similar corresponding technological growth in Iraq, so Iraqi science fiction is still in a sense playing catch-up.

I wonder, though, if one couldn’t dig a bit deeper. Just as the roots of contemporary western science fiction go back further than the 19th century (Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World (1666) is often hailed as a forerunner of modern science fiction), speculative stories have a long and venerable history in an Arabic tradition—it’s just that these stories weren’t necessarily written or told as fiction! Instead, the very best of historical Arabic speculative story-telling can be found in the medieval Arabic philosophical tradition. To give just one example, in his Kitab Al-Shifa (On the Soul), ibn Sina (Avicenna) begins the following story:

One of us (i.e. a human being) should be imagined as having been created in a single stroke; created perfect and complete but with his vision obscured so that he cannot perceive external entities; created falling through air or a void, in such a manner that he is not struck by the firmness of the air in any way that compels him to feel it, and with his limbs separated so that they do not come in contact with or touch each other (Read the Arabic here).

This is the beginning of the so-called “Floating Man” or “Flying Man” thought experiment, but one philosopher’s “thought experiment” is another speculative author’s “science fiction”: For what is science fiction other than a great big “What if?” thought experiment by another name?

This is all to say that if one digs just a bit deeper, there is a wealth of speculative and science fiction material ripe for the delving in the Arabic tradition. Blasim’s collection may very well be unique in its kind right now, but I dearly hope it won’t be for long. I would love to read more stories like these, by more authors like these.

Some of the stories were written in English; some of them have been translated for this collection. Below is a list of the contents; I will review each story individually and when the reviews are published, link to them from this post.