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


Epic Poems You’ve Never Read: Beowulf’s Anglo-Saxon heroics

beowulf-1It’s the start of university teaching again in the UK, so this miniseries of Really Like This Book podcast script catch-ups indulges my passion for teaching epic poetry. If English literature is a forest, epic poems are the big knobbly roots that stick up out of the ground and get in the way. They’ve been there for a long time for good reason. I start in the sixth century AD, with that Anglo-Saxon epic of Danish monsters, Beowulf. Today’s link with the sixth century’s round-the-fire entertainment is The Lord of the Rings, so if you like that, you’ll like Beowulf. It’s got a superhero with a sword, it’s got the ur-monster Grendel, and his even more terrifying mother who is an underwater killing machine. It’s got a dragon, it’s got a hall of men being eaten up by a rampaging monster dripping blood, and it’s got stately kings and magnificent queens.

All that is great to read, but in reading Beowulf, we do have a problem. It’s not written in modern English, so we have to use translations unless you’ve done a year or two of Anglo-Saxon first. * Seamus Heaney’s version is very good. I like it mainly because Heaney’s version is that of a poet retelling the story while following the Anglo-Saxon poetic forms. The translations I used as a student were written by scholars of Anglo-Saxon. While they were all enthusiasts for the story and the culture it depicts, and in some cases they were also literature scholars as well as linguists, they weren’t always good poets. I got tired of clunky renderings of the exact match of sense and sound: I wanted story. Heaney gives the story in poetry.

beowulf-2When you read Beowulf, as with all poetry, it’s a good idea to read it aloud. Beowulf was an orally transmitted poem, memorised and recited as a set-piece performance in halls and at feasts. It was public entertainment, to be heard and marvelled at, and also remembered. Everyone would have known it as a familiar story, and it would have been received as an old favourite as well as a variant on an old form. The first word of Beowulf as we know it tells us this: it’s ‘Hwaet!’. That means, ‘listen, pay attention, I’m going to tell you about something worth listening to’. It’s a word designed for bellowing into a rowdy drinking hall, to make the drunks shut up and the idle pay attention. Heaney’s version starts the poem with ‘So.’, which is equally effective: a colloquial signal meaning ‘stop what you’re doing just a minute, and listen to what I’m about to say’.

The story begins in the hall of Hrothgar, a Danish king with a hall that was probably somewhere near Roskilde in modern Denmark. (There’s a huge metal music festival there now every year: is this a coincidence?) Hrothgar is a good king and a rich one; his queen is the great lady Wealhtheow, and he has a fine body of men as his war-horde. But he has a problem: he also has a monster. Something is attacking and eating his men, by night and in secret, and no-one knows where the beast lives, or how to stop it. So he sends out the word for help, and Beowulf’s ship arrives.

beowulf-3We could describe Beowulf as a professional hero, but that would be a very anachronistic view. We have to think ourselves into Anglo-Saxon culture, drawn from archaeology as well as ancient fragments of poetry and formal records. The lord of a hall offered hospitality without question to anyone who came to visit – this was a common feature of Bronze Age and Iron Age civilisations worldwide. Fighting men who had their own means – weapons, armour, servants and their own warriors, and a network of family and friendship connections – would find a welcome anywhere where they weren’t already involved with a feud or a bad kin relationship. Once the fighting man had come to visit, he might stay for a week, a month, or years, giving the lord service as required, and being treated as part of the fighting force. Beowulf is already royal, as the nephew of King Hygelac of the Geats, so he has high status, but he’s also welcome for his prowess. He’s an established hero, and the poem is full of stories of his deeds. All heroic fantasy novels, video games, films and avatar worlds that have any connection with pre-medieval swords and sorcery, are descended from Beowulf, no matter how remotely.

Here is a digression into book history, and the extraordinary survival power of stories. Beowulf was an orally-transmitted poem, and is around 1500 years old. It’s the oldest text in English literature. It was probably first created in the Anglian dialect, from the East of England. At some time in about 750 AD a written version was made using a different dialect of Old English, from the north or west of England. This was copied and recopied by different scribes for different clients, in different parts of the linguistic patchwork of the British Isles. The earliest copy of the poem that exists now dates from 1000 AD, and that was written in a Kentish dialect. So the poem was an English poem, it travelled around and existed outside the borders of small kingdoms. That single copy of the poem was the only one that survived, for 1000 years, without being burned, used as fish wrapping, or stolen and lost in a river at night, as probably happened to other copies that undoubtedly also existed. Finally, this ancient survivor was copied in the early eighteenth century on the instruction of its then owner, because the 1000-year old parchment was decaying fast, and it had been damaged in a fire. These eighteenth-century copies preserved the poem for modern study, and released Anglo-Saxon culture as an imaginative cultural force into modern society. Pause for a moment to think of all the other Anglo-Saxon poetry and stories and jokes and songs that were never written down, and have disappeared for ever.

beowulf-5Back to the plot: Beowulf makes his plan and lies in wait for the monster. At this point in the story, the Christian concept of ‘demon’ is used as a description of the man-eating monster, showing that the society that enjoyed the poem enough to write it down was also Christian. When the monster enters the hall for its nightly snack, Beowulf wrestles with it as it scoops up men to eat, and wrenches its arm off at the shoulder. Consider this for a moment: the poem has already mentioned Beowulf’s stupendous battles with underwater creatures, and his beyond-human prowess in war, so we know he’s a little bit supernatural. But here we’re hearing about physical strength, endurance, immense wrestling power, all without weapons: Beowulf must be a man-monster himself, but luckily for Hrothgar he’s on the right side.

beowulf-7So Grendel the monster (for it is he) is defeated, and runs back to his lair wailing, to die. The warriors feast in triumph, there is much rejoicing, but on the next night, a far worse terror enters the hall: Grendel’s mother. I have to say, the concept of a bully’s mother being more terrible than the bully itself seems a joke now, because Monty Python have massacred that idea into silliness. But if we read this from the Anglo-Saxon perspective, the mother of a monster has got to be worse than the monster itself, because of kinship laws and the transmission of a feud between child and parent. From the Christian perspective, Grendel wasn’t any old monster-demon: he was the son of Cain, so Grendel’s mother could be connected with one of the Old Testament demons like Lilith, which Jewish folklore later connected with Adam, Cain’s father. In any case, a female demon is more formidable than a male one. The fear of a powerful female who can defeat men, even eat them up, goes a very long way back in human culture.

beowulf-4Beowulf takes on Grendel’s mother in an underwater battle in the slime, and their combat is epic, lengthy and bloody. When it is over, the world returns to normal, the hero is feasted, and he sails away. But the poem is not yet finished. Many years later, Beowulf has become king of the Geats (the poem is very precise about details of Scandinavian ruling dynasties, because it also functioned as a history lesson for its original listeners). He has got to fight a dragon, because some thief or other has stolen a golden cup from the dragon’s hoard. Anyone who’s read The Hobbit will now be pricking up their ears: this is where Tolkien got the idea from for Smaug, and for Bilbo’s theft. Beowulf goes forth to attack and beat the dragon, and he dies.

The thing I particularly love about the dragon part of Beowulf is that it was the first known best-seller. The manuscript of the dragon part of the single surviving earliest copy of Beowulf is significantly more worn, and faded, and handled, than the earlier parts. The dragon part was almost illegible in the eighteenth century, and was obviously much more popular than the earlier parts since it had been used and copied from and simply touched by many more hands. That battle was epic, but it was also tragic, and noble. Interesting fact for medievalists: the death of Beowulf, and his conversations with his faithful warrior Wiglaf while dying, have a lot of similarities with the Malorian version of the death of King Arthur.

Any dragon in English literature is descended from Beowulf’s dragon, which itself came from Norse mythology, but there are other things in Beowulf the poem that we recognise today. Tolkien was a world-class scholar of northern languages and myth, and wrote many highly influential scholarly works dealing with dragons and northern mythology, as well as with the language and literature of that period and later. He too translated Beowulf (see the image posted above) with an extensive commentary. In The Lord of the Rings the Riders of Rohan and the culture of the Rohirrim are lifted straight from Beowulf, as are the names of Éomer and Hàma. The defence at Helm’s Deep is partially lifted from the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Fight at Finnsburgh’. When Beowulf and his men arrive at Heorot they are asked to stack their weapons at the door. When Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli arrive at Édoras, Hàma the doorwarden asks them to do this too. Wealhtheow, the queen of Hrothgar’s hall, and Hygelac’s queen Hygd, are the Éowyns of their day, and Éowyn’s offering of the guest-cup to Aragorn comes directly from Wealhtheow doing to same to Beowulf in Hrothgar’s hall. The lament of the Rohirrim that Aragorn sings to Frodo is a Tolkienised version of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wanderer’. Beowulf’s sword that dissolves in Grendel’s mother is startlingly close to the sword that the Witch-King of Amgmar stuck into Frodo.

beowulf-6We could go on hunting Anglo-Saxonness in Tolkien, and several people, principally Tom Shippey, have done so. Everywhere you look in Anglo-Saxon poetry, you can find things that Tolkien reused in Middle-Earth. But start with Beowulf: it’s the best and most direct way to return to the society Tolkien had in mind when he wrote his Rohan chapters. But read Beowulf for itself: it’s a grand poem, it won’t take you long (epic does not necessarily mean long), and it’s a window into a different world.

* The late Professor Duncan Macrae-Gibson taught me Anglo-Saxon, and recited the first stanzas of Beowulf to a harp (possibly also wearing Anglo-Saxon costume, but I’m not sure about that now), to open his first lecture. That is how to get your students’ attention.



Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book

Willis 1I fell into Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book with passionate gratitude, after wading through a run of disappointing novels. This novel, as Jo Walton has apparently said, is the one in which Willis got everything right, and it is superb. It won three awards, including the 1992 Hugo and the 1993 Nebula, and is a time travel novel in which an Oxford PhD student is sent back to the 1348 outbreak of the Black Death by mistake. Its structure reminded me immediately of Julian May’s The Many-Coloured Land (1981), in which characters go voluntarily back in time and find it rather different to how they had imagined it would be. Interspersed are episodes set in the present day, in which the evolving plot makes the fundamental problem, of not being able to communicate with the person in the past, a massive design flaw.

Willis recreates Oxford University academic arrogance so well, caricaturing just enough of the confident assertions of the Middle English tutor and the archaeologist that things will be exactly as they teach in tutorials. Nothing can possibly go wrong if Kivrin learns enough medieval Latin. Kivrin is eager, earnest and exceptionally hardworking. She has learnt dyeing and weaving in preparation for her role as a noble lady, memorised her languages, understands her cultural idioms and volunteers on an excavation of a tomb from the right period to get the hang of the church architecture. So does the tech specialist whose developing fever will skew his calculations to send her back in time by about thirty years, and so do some visiting students who later go to a dance in the city. Who could have thought that a virus could live so long?

willis 2For a novel with such a vast body count, it is unexpectedly funny, in the Oxford parts at least. The humour wells up first from the hysterical backbiting between academics determined to pull rank and gain position. It becomes darker as people begin to get ill and the city is put into quarantine, exasperation running ahead of desperation. It is positively graveyard when the bodies are piling up and still Mr Finch is worrying about the college running out of toilet paper and bacon. The visiting handbell group from the United States are mostly ludicrous, but their bells are essential for the plot. Tolling and chiming bells signify death and the passing of time, to remind us of the time passing for Kivrin in the plague period, and her deadline for catching the link back to the present day. Contrasted to this undernote of dread, the insouciance of the teenage Colin negotiating law, order and Oxford hospital nurses is simply joyous, an affirmation of nous and chutzpah all rolled up in polite Home Counties cheeriness.

willis 4Kivrin’s sojourn in 1348 is oppressive and unnerving. It is so beautifully written, we can feel the snapping frost, hear the cracking logs and frozen mud under the horses’ hooves, and imagine the textures of the clothes she has to borrow, and the filth in which they are caked. Kivrin arrives in medieval England with more than just a head cold. There are no drugs and no antibiotics to help her, other than the hi-tech boosters and immunisations she’s been given in the twentieth century. Surviving whatever it was that had knocked her flat for days, she becomes a children’s nanny, and then a makeshift hospital nurse, stacking up furs and blankets for the household to die in, and fighting for their survival alongside the dogged parish priest. She does all this because she cares so passionately for the people who saved her, and we come to care for them too, since every character is a person.

The children of this noble household are particularly heartbreaking: the enchanting six-year old Agnes who is everywhere she should not be, and the haughty, terrified Rosemund, destined to be married to a fifty-year old neighbour at the age of twelve. Against all the deaths and the inevitability of dying of plague, the hopeless feelings Gawayn the knight and Eliwys the lady of the manor have for each other are both futile and necessary: we all have to live for something or someone.


Stone stories: N K Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate

gorgeous colours and intricate work
gorgeous colours and intricate work

When Terry Pratchett wanted to explore how trolls might name themselves, he used mineralogy. Jade was one of the first Pratchett trolls to have a name. It was curiously dignifying as well as amusingly paradoxical (how could a lump of rock have a name, ho ho ho). Pratchett continued to dignify his troll characters rather than just generating cheap laughs, because naming confers identity as well as personality: Bauxite, Beryl, Mica, Flint and the greatest of all, Mr Shine: him Diamond.

In N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) [update: which won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel] there was a similar geological component in the storytelling that produces dignity rather than jokes. On completing their first phase of training orogenes name themselves for precious and ornamental stones: Alabaster, and Syenite. Their job is to sense and work with the movements of the earth, to quell earthquakes, shape landscapes, create islands and bury cities. Because of their phenomenal destructive capabilities they are hated and feared by people without that power. In that excellent novel we also met stone-eaters, creatures who move through earth and rock, and eat stone, even stone that was once human. When the Fifth Season begins – a period of violent climatic change brought about by catastrophic eruptions and earthquakes – Essun, an orogene who is trying to find her lost daughter, meets Hoa. She assumes by his name that he is the lost small boy he looks like, although the reader has seen him emerge from a stone nodule. But Hoa is not a mineral name.

In The Obelisk Gate, as Essun struggles to survive after the apocalypse of The Fifth Season, she encounters other stone-eaters. They attach themselves to orogenes, as disconcerting guardians and bodyguards. They exude danger and power in a way that Pratchett’s trolls could not, though Hoa, for one, does have a sense of humour. Essun’s names for them are not particularly beautiful, or respectful: Ruby Hair, Butter Marble, Ugly Dress, Toothshine, Grey Man. Hoa has different names for them, and Essun does call the sternly imposing Antimony by her name for good reason. But these sloppy nick-names reflect Essun’s state of mind when she meets them: usually exhausted, and enraged at how little she understands of what is going on in her community, and in the world, now that everything is made different.

Perhaps it’s the gravity of the situation in The Obelisk Gate that makes the stone-eaters so grim, and so watchful, assembling silently in the plot with a sense of simmering excitement. (Is it food? More of their kind?) The earth has moved in several places, and Essun has learned to summon the obelisks, the gigantic hovering mineral rhomboids in the sky that magnify and amplify her mental earth-moving powers. Alabaster is trying to teach her how to work with them, but he is a terrible teacher, impatient and elliptical, and he is weakening because he is turning into stone. The other orogenes in the underground community of Castrima where Essun is living are only concerned with keeping the people safe and fed, and keeping the life support systems running. But on the surface, where ashfall is preventing crops from growing and killing the trees, other people are coming to find Castrima, and they are not interested in sharing.

The Obelisk Gate continues to develop Jemisin’s rich and complicated world. There is so much that the reader doesn’t and can’t know, yet the pace of the events drags us past unanswered questions. It’s like riding a white-water raft through plot points and characters. Essun spends the entire novel in Castrima, keeping her community alive, but what she doesn’t know is that several other characters are struggling to survive elsewhere on the continent, and she needs most desperately to find them before truly terrible things happen. Really terrible things happen throughout the novel, at the human scale, but Essun’s focus is planetary now, and the reader’s empathy is switched rapidly between small children and whole land masses.

Jemisin’s handling of several strands of narration simultaneously is expert, occasionally with deliberate tangles. As she did in The Fifth Season, in The Obelisk Gate she uses a challenging second-person narration to make us not quite sure who ‘you’ is, and who is saying ‘you’. The multiple narratives tease out the major new development in this novel, a new thing that orogenes can do, which brings magic into the plot, and the series. I was unsure how the integration of sf and fantasy would work, but because Jemisin describes the magical elements in grounded scientific terms, it works for me. What the orogenes do is of course totally fantastical, but by clothing its functionality in words from biology and geology, Jemisin cuts off any possibility of elves and unicorns. We only have the stone angels to contend with instead.

N K Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate (2016, Orbit Books) ISBN 978-0-356-50836-8, £8.99