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: 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.