Science fiction and speculative fiction from Iraq

iraq100I really like the concept of Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion. In 2013 Hassan Blasim and his collaborator Ra Page, the founder of Comma Press, asked well-known Iraqi writers to write speculative short stories envisioning Iraq in 2113 or thereabouts. The Introduction and Afterword are persuasive about the artistic ambitions of this project, and give a proper sense of political and humanitarian rage at the destruction of Iraq by the British and US-led coalition, in 2003. As time has moved on, new predators have emerged in Iraq, so several of the stories feature deeply-felt responses to the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. This is an anthology about what it’s like to write fiction about the future in a present that no-one wants.

Hassan Blasim by Ahmed Al-Nawas
Hassan Blasim by Ahmed Al-Nawas

There is nothing hopeful about these visions of a future Iraq. It’s impossible to quantify how science-fictiony these stories are, but their defining characteristic is anger at the present, and a recurring sense that little is going to change in 100 years except the need to look back at this time. In that context, these are not particularly good science fiction stories, but I don’t think that’s important. In how they tackle problems of an unknown future that will somehow relieve the discomfort, injustice or the tyranny of the present, they are very like early Anglophone science fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, especially that written by women. They show strong signs of an emerging artistic tradition.

Zhraa Alhaboby
Zhraa Alhaboby

Early western male sf writers focused on technological advances and ignored everything else about society, or they railed against feminists and the horrors of sexual equality. Early female sf writers from the west also focused on technology, and how it would alter their lives for the better (rather than for war, which was often the male response), but they also wrote about changing society for the better, creating social equality, and doing away with injustice. That is the common factor with these Iraqi stories, by men and women both. Hassan Blasim remarks in the Introduction that ‘Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing’. In both content and impetus, Iraqi writers have used sf in this collection to express their fears and anxieties about the present, by changing them for the better through speculative fiction, or by digging into their nature to find out what needs to be fixed.

Hassan Abdulrazzak
Hassan Abdulrazzak

The stories most aligned to modern sf are ‘Kuszib’ by playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak, with its really remarkable combination of alien eroticism and humans treated as meat; and ‘Najufa’ by Ibrahim al-Marashi, which envisions a modern and roboticised Islamic society, in and out of the mosque, in a totally climate-altered world. Other stories use a futurised society to retell the story of Scheherazade (‘Baghdad Syndrome’ by Zhraa Alhaboby), and the story of the 2013 invasion through time travel (‘The Corporal’ by Ali Bader’). There is an unsettling recurrent image of eating human bodies, in ‘Kuszib’, in ‘The Worker’ by Diaa Jubaili, also a story of a giant automaton, and in ‘Kahmarama’ by Anoud, which rages against the commodification of women by charlatan imams. For the strongest story of speculative invention glazed with horror I’d give the prize to ‘Operation Daniel’ by Khalid Kaki, in which transgressors are incinerated and archived into a glittering chip, to be attached to the robes of the Venerable Benefactor and tyrant, Gao Dong. This is the only story that reaches beyond the familiar Iraqi-US binary, and envisions a different cultural player in the future.

All these stories are about punishment and transgression. This is not a collection for comfort reading, and the stories are certainly not contemplative visions of a calm and perfect future as seen from a suburban armchair. But they’re vigorous, and exploratory, and represent a new way of writing about present-day problems by authors who really know what suffering and destruction mean. For that reason alone, this impetus should be nurtured.

Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press 2016), ISBN 9 781905 583669, £9.99


Submission and cross-dressing: Tennyson’s The Princess

tennyson-5We’re in the 19th century for the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, in the Victorian era, when the British Poet Laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published an epic poem called The Princess, on the subject of what to do about bizarre ideas about women’s education, independence, and silly things like that.

The submission of Victorian women was expected due to their supposed intellectual inferiority. A woman who tried to educate herself was violating Nature, because women were to be angels in the house, and to stay there, expecting nothing more from life than to serve their husbands (because they would all of course get married), and to raise their children as perfect souls. The artist and critic John Ruskin was particularly annoying on this subject, since he believed in some terrifying double standards. The Victorian woman must be incapable of error, incorruptible, infallible (though I’d like to know where she was to get this wisdom if she wasn’t allowed to leave the house), and would rule men in her own domestic domain. If the woman of the home allowed danger or harm to enter the house, it was her fault, because then the house would not be a home. He made no space for the possibility that a man might bring the danger home (his list included disease, crime, drink, and false religion). A man might also refuse to be ruled by his wife. Imagine that.

tennyson-1Thankfully for common sense, these ideals, though widespread, were also widely disagreed with. Many Victorian novels (including those we teach now, for their alignment with modern thinking) will show you that middle-class women in particular were disturbed by these restrictions, because the plots seem to try to winkle them out of such restricted lives and show them a different way of living, even if they all rush nervously back to the drawing-room and predictable safety.

So where does that leave us with Tennyson? He published The Princess in 1847. It consists of a Prologue, and seven Books: this marks it as an epic in form alone. It’s one of Tennyson’s earlier works, but is very well-known because of some of the individual poems within it, called the ‘intercalary poems’. It’s very easy to read, because it’s written in blank verse, a classical conversational form in unrhyming iambic pentameters.

note the chaps in disguise
note the chaps in disguise

Here’s the story: Princess Ida retreats from male society and creates a university for women where nothing male may enter. This feminine intellectual paradise is infiltrated by the Prince to whom she is betrothed, plus a couple of his friends, all disguised in frocks. He tries to persuade her to relent and marry him after all, and then his aggressive father declares war on her father, and the university is turned into a war hospital. The poem ends with Ida being persuaded by the Prince that they can co-exist harmoniously in marriage.

This poem is a ‘problem poem’, but it’s designed to be a comedy (in the Shakespearian sense), in that the women are made to see the error of their ways through the gentle persuasion of love. The Princess has to surrender, although she ends the poem in a ‘triumphant union’ with the Prince. She is sad that she can’t continue her resistance to patriarchal society (conservative, brutal, instinctive, unthinking) or continue her mission of a separate educational establishment for women (an intellectual, futuristic and abstract goal).

The Princess really is a very odd poem, because it’s self-consciously archaic, and deliberately farcical in many respects. It begins with a hissy-fit by the Prince’s father, a mighty king, who is furious when Ida’s father sends a message that the Princess has decided not to marry his son. He stomps and rages, and tears things up, and vows to send an army to crush the Princess’s pride. The Prince, who seems a resourceful sort of chap, suggests that he goes to discuss things with the Princess, but his father, still in a right old temper, forbids him, Naturally, the Prince, and his two best friends Florian and Cyril – I don’t know why I can’t find the Prince’s name: perhaps he’s an Everyman character – disobey this petulant ruling, and slip out of the palace at night to travel to Princess Ida’s realm. But remember that this is a women-only realm: no men may enter. So the three gallant gentlemen dress up as women, and here’s where the farce begins. Cross-dressing is a staple ingredient in British comedy: we really do find it funny when men wear frocks. They register at the Princess’s university as gentlewomen students, and attend classes in philosophy led by, ta da!, Florian’s own sister, Psyche, with whom Cyril immediately falls in love.

photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate The Princess
photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron to illustrate The Princess

Princess Ida is treated with respect in the poem, though there is a bit of undergraduate sniggering when she first meets the three adventurers. We know that they’re men fooling the girls, and so we can enjoy the humour of the situation where Ida gravely lectures them on how unnecessary men are, and how much better a society is when it is ruled by women. Ida is a symbol of heroic will rather than a spoiled girl who won’t do what the men want. She embodies heroic comedy, rather than the domestic comedy which is what all the marriage-making is about. Marriage is a comic symbol, the ultimate in joining and making.

But is it a good poem? Is it enjoyable? It does use many different tones, which shows that, in trying to do too many things, Tennyson was never going to succeed. It’s also a right old mix of genres, using the heroic, the comic, the domestic, the epic, the lyrical, the idyllic, almost all at the same time. Good professional showmanship of technique, but is it good art? Some attempts at genre effect fail completely: the poem is framed by a Prologue and a Conclusion set in a standard mid-Victorian country-house party, and the seven Books of the poem are supposed to have been narrated by seven different speakers (to whom we were introduced in the Prologue), yet their voices are indistinguishable. They were supposed to have different personalities and points of view, yet the background society from which they come is so conventional, that in comparison with this fantasy landscape of Princes and Princesses, they are all the same.

tennyson-2Something I rather like about this poem is that it is particularly British. It uses Arthurian and chivalric ideas and terminology as a basis for the university experiment, and for the actions of the three young male invaders, who are knights errant on a quest in the service of love. It is totally fantastical, utterly unrealistic, a delirious exercise in sheer romantic silliness. The great Victorian satirists Gilbert and Sullivan saw its potential immediately, because this was the inspiration for their magnificent comic operetta Princess Ida. The Princess is fun to read; do try it.

The Early Life of James McBey: An Autobiography

self-portrait, copyright The Mitchell Library, University of Glasgow

When I had a paper-round in Aberdeen at the age of 13, I regularly delivered the local free sheet to an ordinary Victorian terraced house in the west end that was then called James McBey House. I had no idea why the house had been called that, and I still don’t, since McBey, the First World War artist and renowned etcher, had lived in a completely different part of Aberdeen. McBey is the most famous artist of his period associated with Aberdeen, and the Art Gallery’s drawings room is named after him, holding as it does a lot of his work. This summer in Edinburgh (not a city where Aberdeen is much regarded), looking in vain for a book that wasn’t about Sir Walter Scott, I found McBey’s Autobiography, and was transported back to dark winter mornings and a heavy bag of newsprint across my back. Naturally, I bought it for holiday reading.

mcbey-3Nineteenth-century Aberdeenshire life and rural society is a niche interest, I know, but McBey’s writing is vivid, succinct, unmoralising, and very immediate. His pared-down style is astonishingly modern, and its spareness fits his tough childhood and early adult occupation as a bank clerk when modern boys of his age would barely be thinking about their first exams. He was the illegitimate son of a Newmachar blacksmith’s daughter, and he saw his father perhaps three times in his life. He was acknowledged, but more or less ignored until the elder McBey’s death, when McBey found himself a legatee and executor of a sheep farming estate in Surrey, of all places. McBey grew up in Newmachar with his silently raging mother, whom he always called Annie, and who never referred to the fact that she was his mother, and his loving grandmother Mary Gillespie. The three moved to Aberdeen in 1899 when McBey became their breadwinner at the age of fourteen, as an apprentice clerk in the Aberdeen branch of the North of Scotland bank. He stayed with the bank for eleven years, rising in its complicated hierarchies due to his hard work, reliability, and conscientiousness. His descriptions of Victorian banking practice as he was moved around Scotland and the UK as a reliable trouble-shooter, the close-mouthed taciturnity of Aberdonians, the strange psychological sufferings of his mother as she became blind, and the kindness of individuals – such as the police inspector who managed the case to keep the press at bay in a case of suicide –make marvellous reading. McBey’s writing voice brings the past to life, straightforward and thoughtful: an ordinary man recalling a life long gone by.

McBey wrote this autobiography when he had become an established painter, with fame and a distinguished war record. He wrote the account in 1947, when he was living in Morocco, and deliberately ended the story at the point he began his career, since the later part of his life was then much more widely known. But no publisher wanted his early life, and the manuscript stayed unnoticed and forgotten in the drawer in which McBey kept his working collection of soft white paper. After his death the Houghton Library at Harvard University was offered the paper, and the manuscript of the autobiography was rediscovered. It was first published in 1977.

McBey's portrait of T E Lawrence, 1918
McBey’s portrait of T E Lawrence, 1918

It’s hard to pull out one particular instance that epitomises the style and warmth of the writing that bring to life this eager, dutiful, diligent boy and man. He seemed to have nothing else in mind but drawing, or doing his homework and bank duties properly. His early drawing attracted attention very early on, because he was so young to demonstrate such innate skill, with no art education whatsoever. His later painting and etching attracted aggressive indifference, since how could a bank clerk presume to be an artist? He learned not to draw attention to himself, and learned his art where and when he could, from other artists (even if he did not care for what they produced), and the books in Aberdeen’s Public Library. He began to exhibit, eventually in Edinburgh, and to sell etchings. He became a stand-in bank manager in Fife solely so he could catch the Saturday lunchtime train to Edinburgh every week to visit the Whistler exhibition. He was deputed as the escort to the bank’s biannual gold consignment to the Bank of England, and had a week free in which he rushed to Paris to see as much art as he could manage, barely eating or sleeping in order to cram it all in.

Mary Gillespie, 1902
McBey’s portrait of his grandmother, Mary Gillespie, 1901

The most heartening image in the book is McBey’s first oil painting, done of his grandmother in 1901. It was returned to him in the 1950s, due to a note he had carefully inserted between the canvas and the frame, authenticating his work, and asking for its return. The old woman’s eager expression and hopeful countenance tells you everything that you need to know about how she felt about her grandson, such a dutiful and reliable boy, who supported her for the rest of her life. You can’t help but feel warmly towards him, seeing the image he made of the most important person in his life.

The Early Life of James McBey: An Autobiography, edited and introduced by Nicolas Barker (1977, Canongate 1993), ISBN 0 86241 445 8