In the fiction of Jamil Nasir, worlds break and buckle under the weight of man's imagination, doors to new universes yawn open in suburban subdivisions, and dreams become deliriously—sometimes frighteningly—real.
Nasir writes slowly, perhaps a consequence of having a family and a day job, not to mention a meditation habit. He first became well-known for his stories in top-market magazines, and he has written four novels between 1995 and 2000. Mixing metaphysics with modern brain science in settings both real and fantastic, he uses fiction to explore the future of the human mind. As the late (and much lamented) Jack L. Chalker focused almost obsessively on transformations of the body, Nasir's guiding theme seems to be the transformation of consciousness.
Though his ideas are often abstruse, they have fairly easily identifiable origins in the writer's life and experiences. While many sci-fi and fantasy authors like to draw a sharp line between their writings (which are, after all, fiction) and their lives (which presumably are not), Nasir doesn't. One major factor driving his work, he says, is his Palestinian heritage.
"I think science fiction is a lot easier for people who are bi-cultural," he explains. "A lot of what science fiction does is overthrow assumptions that we have about the world, and it's much easier to do that if you've already had that experience. Being a participant in two societies, two cultures, which are so different, allows you to see that there are some things people think are cast in stone that are actually arbitrary."
"That's what science fiction is all about. The assumption that we make is that there's only one world, and that's the world that we live in; well, what if that weren't true?"
Nasir's childhood was split between the Middle East and America, and often in the center of violent and arbitrary events. His father, Sari Nasir, came from Jerusalem, his mother from Michigan. They met and married in Chicago, where Sari was studying sociology. Jamil was born in the United States, but in 1964, his father decided to take his family and return to his homeland in Palestine.
In the 1960s, Jordan included what is now the Occupied Palestinian Territory of the West Bank, and for seven years, the Nasir family lived in East Jerusalem. In 1967, when the Six-Day War broke out between Israel and the coalition of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Algeria, the battle raged quite literally across Jamil's backyard.
The family took refuge in the basement of a nearby hospital with dozens of other people who had fled the fighting. Jamil's sister Amal was born in a storeroom, with Israeli soldiers standing guard. When the fighting was over, Israel had occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the Nasir family moved again, this time to Amman, Jordan's capital. Jamil's brother Tariq, a documentary filmmaker, recently made a movie, titled belonging, about how they lost their house in Jerusalem.
Speaking on the telephone from his house in suburban Maryland, Nasir can put the chaos of his childhood into a global perspective. "There were some difficulties," he says, dryly. "But at least half the world grows up under circumstances like that, or worse. I had it a lot easier than a lot of people; there were people who lived in refugee camps and there were people who lost everything." At the time, it wasn't so easy.
"When I was young and in the Middle East, the Westerners seemed like magicians, in a way—even though we resented them enormously," he explains. "Our deep, underlying assumption was that they were invulnerable, that they were going to defeat us on every hand. I don't know how to describe it, but it was like we were just fated to be the losers, because these people had this almost magical technology. I think this is one of the sources of the bitterness of the Palestinians: they had absorbed this feeling of cultural inferiority, that we can never win, these guys are always gonna win, because they have this technology and we don't."
Comparisons to an actual alien invasion, he says, don't seem farfetched at all.
"The feelings I got as I watched [Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds] were eerily similar to the feelings that I had during the  War. That sense of panic, of helplessness, I remember so strongly. I'm not sure how he figured out how it feels, but he really captures the feeling of civilians during wartime."
In 1970, Palestinian guerrilla organizations launched a campaign of violent resistance against the Jordanian monarchy, determined to establish a Palestinian state in Jordan and use it as a launching point for war on Israel. Jordan's King Hussein fought back, and civil war engulfed the country.
During a lull in the fighting, Sari Nasir rushed his wife and children to the airport and put them on a plane bound for Michigan.
For Nasir, age fourteen, there were now two worlds. In one war raged, Palestinian fedayeen fought Bedouin soldiers in the city streets, and bodies rotted under the noonday sun. In the other it was a hot, lazy summer, the kind where a bored young man could spend hours in the library looking for something to do. And you could go from one reality to the other in the blink of an eye.
It was in that long Minnesota summer that Nasir first discovered science fiction, in the form of a battered copy of Philip K. Dick's novel of psychic war, Ubik. "It blew my mind," he recalls. "I just voraciously read Philip K. Dick, and I think from that moment I was destined to be a science fiction writer, because I was just so fascinated."
Lands of Dreams
The 1970s in America were the era when Harlan Ellison wrote to Stephen King that reality and fantasy had switched places. Nasir wasn't alone; everyone's world was being torn apart: there were lines at gas pumps in the United States and a revolution in Iran; Timothy Leary was talking openly about the joys of LSD; US troops were killing civilians in Mai Lai, Vietnam; and the President was on television saying, "I am not a crook." The boundary between the worlds was beginning to blur.
"When I was young, the culture was all about—there were a lot of drug things, and there was a lot more interest in altered states of consciousness," he says. "[Carlos Castaneda] was very much in the mainstream when I was a kid. Already having been bi-cultural, this came as no surprise to me, this thing about different states of consciousness equals different realities."
From Philip K. Dick and Castaneda, it was an easy leap to studying Hindu myths and Eastern mysticism. When he was 17, Nasir found a teacher and started practicing transcendental meditation, something else that would become a major influence on his work. Even now, he says, his life is arranged around meditating for at least a couple hours every day.
But Nasir also became an avid reader of popular science books, dealing with topics from psychology to network mathematics to quantum theory. He doesn't have a strict science background—he works as a lawyer for a utility company—but finding connections between the mystical and the scientific soon became the engine that would power his fiction writing.
"If you look at quantum mechanics, for example, it appears that consciousness has some very basic role in reality," Nasir says. "If that's true, then the relationship between physical reality and consciousness may be much less straightforward than what we think it is."
Nasir's first novel, Quasar, is set in a cyberpunk-influenced future where brains and computers interface, and focuses on a psychic technician sent to guard a mentally unbalanced heiress, whose fractured mind contains a terrible and powerful secret. It shows clearly the influence of Philip K. Dick, weaving together false memories and bizarre conspiracies, forcing the characters to question not only what it going on around them, but who and what they really are.
Also like Dick's, Nasir's books are loaded with elements of 30s and 40s noir. It's a useful synergy, he says: the atmosphere of a mystery novel is a good setup for surprising revelations. In the hands of a science fiction author, it leads easily to the kind of reversals he loves, where characters discover their whole perception of the way the world works must be transformed.
The clearest expression of that is Nasir's next book, The Higher Space, which takes the form of a sort of metaphysical John Grisham novel. In a modern suburban setting, a utility lawyer takes on a custody case as a favor to a friend, and discovers the custody battle is more than it appears: it's part of a complicated power play originating in an ethereal dimension beyond our universe. In this book, spiritual elements emerge as Nasir explores the alternate realities of hyperspace and Native American shamanism. While Higher Space still relies on some science fiction tropes, the mental transformations the characters undergo are essentially mystical rather than technological.
It is in his third book that Nasir really stakes out his own territory as a writer. In Tower of Dreams he returns home, in a sense: to a futuristic Middle East which has been economically and ecologically ravaged by Western colonialism, and of course its own governments. As poverty-stricken nations struggle to survive, technologically aided "Image-diggers" mine humanity's collective unconscious for advertising fodder. But when one country gets perilously close to total collapse, it becomes evident that some Images from the planet's mass dreaming are more dangerous than others.
Tower of Dreams makes the best use of Nasir's biculturalism, and its Palestinian-American hero is a perfect catalyst for blending modern cultures together seamlessly into a future setting. Nasir's street-level familiarity with the Middle East comes in handy here, too, giving the story a surprisingly strong feeling of authenticity. Tower manages another successful balancing act with its technological premise, staking out a middle ground between the cyberpunk of Quasar and the slightly over-the-top mysticism of Higher Space. This book is Nasir at the top of his game; in the US, it was nominated for a Philip K. Dick award, and it won the prize for Best Foreign Novel in the French Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire.
Book four, Distance Haze, is by Nasir's own description his favorite. In it he returns to a modern-day, mystery-inspired setting, in which disappointed author Wayne Dolan travels to a small Midwestern town to investigate an unusual research center, set up for the scientific study of religion. While there, he finds himself in the grip of vivid, thrilling dreams which gradually begin to impose themselves on his reality.
This book shows off Nasir's skill with language and his ability to build bridges between modern scientific research and spiritual ideas. Nasir likes it, he says, because it was his best attempt at expressing where he wants to go: a belief that the future of humanity is essentially transformational, on a psychological level.
"The biggest change that's going to take place in our world is not going to be technological; it's going to be a change in our understanding of the big picture." he says. "What I'm most interested in is looking at the world in a different way, and seeing a different world. I'm still fascinated with that, and I'm still scratching my head about how to do that properly in a book. I thought that Distance Haze was my best effort so far on that front. I'm not really trying to figure out answers to technological questions; I'm trying to figure out answers to metaphysical questions."
Visions of Possible Futures: Transforming Modernity
Tower of Dreams and Distance Haze, Nasir's strongest works, both present visions of future transformations that are deeply influenced by the cultures in which they are set—and which may tell us something about why those cultures have such trouble building bridges.
Nasir, like many writers before him, from Harlan Ellison and John Brunner to William Gibson, holds to the idea that the world we're living in is already the stuff of science fiction. New technologies, new ideas and ideologies, are coming at a rate that makes even the savvy feel left out, he says, while much of mainstream fiction has already become "nostalgic."
"Detective books and mystery books are all out of date. They would even be out of date if they'd been written by someone who had studied the technology, because in the year that it takes a book to come out, the technology would have moved on. But most folks don't study the technology; they're still doing what they were doing 10 years ago. . . . There's a system, I think it's in Boston, where they have sensors on some of the buildings, and if there's a gunshot they can tell exactly where it came from, because they triangulate it. You don't see that in Kay Scarpetta!
"If you're not writing science fiction, you have to take a deep breath and decide what you're doing," he concludes.
Distance Haze applies this palpable futurism to Urban American life, but through the lens of Nasir's particular fixation: that the way we see things essentially determines who we are.
"There's always been this thing called 'Human Nature,'" he explains. "Circumstances change and cultures change, 'human nature' always stays the same—that's the presumption that a lot of people work under. And it's a comforting presumption, because at least something is constant. However it seems to me you have to imagine that human nature is really based on physiology. If we can change ourselves at the physical level—the brain, the body, the glands and the chemistry and all the neurological wiring—we can change Human Nature.
"In the future there may not be such a thing as human nature, because there may no longer be one genetic grouping that's exclusively human. Maybe some people will have a huge computer attached to their brain, and the body of a lion and the instinct of a lizard. The range of possibilities is just mindboggling. While we're scrambling around trying to figure out who is going to have this little piece of earth, and how much our taxes are going to be, there are these changes in the offing that are just seismic, and are going to make all this other stuff look unimportant."
As in all of Nasir's books, what is developed is a tension between the ideas of 'dream' and 'transformation': dreams (in the literal sense) have the potential to either become real or affect the physical world; at the same time, our ability to transform the world around us is a way of giving tangible reality to our dreams (in both the literal and the broader uses of the word). In Quasar, dreaming has already become reality through the medium of cyberspace. In Higher Space, dreams are pomps linking mankind with supernatural dimensions; when the worlds collide, nightmarish elements manifest themselves in the phenomenal world.
In Distance Haze, the metaphor becomes more literal: Dolan's dreams herald the presence of another reality, but they are not "manifestations," this alternate world is our own, and the dreams are not (as the book's tagline suggests) doorways: they are an expression of the way things really are. In Higher Space, there must still be a reality shift: a door must be opened. For the characters in Distance Haze, nothing changes except the way they see.
Nasir explains the central idea with the metaphor of a known psychological phenomenon, "blind-sight."
"It turns out that people with certain kinds of neurological damage can't consciously see, but they can navigate through rooms," he says. If you ask them how they do it, they will often respond with, 'Well, I just had a feeling.'
"At some level, obviously, these people are seeing," Nasir says. "But they're not doing so consciously. And sometimes I wonder whether the spiritual realm—whether there's a kind of blind-sight that allows us to sense more to this world than we see consciously. And that that's what's given expression in religion, and spirituality, and so forth. But of course, once it becomes time for us to point to what it is we think we see, we can't do it."
Without giving too much of the plot away, it's safe to say that, despite transcendentalist elements, the story of Distance Haze falls firmly in the arena of the technological positivism that has inspired so much of science fiction. The conclusion is that mankind can change, and while that change may not be easy, it may also promise a brighter future.
Visions of Possible Futures: The Power of Nightmares
Not all of Nasir's fiction is so upbeat. If dreams are Nasir's obsession, there must, sooner or later, be a book on nightmares. Tower of Dreams is it. It contrasts the rational positivism of Distance Haze with a terrifying, disjointed world in which the present (and presumably, the future) is controlled by the past, with dreaming as a mechanism. But this world has its roots in the Arab portions of Nasir's own upbringing.
Arab science fiction remains a rarity, in a world where sci-fi is nearly everywhere. Former Soviet Bloc states boast writers from Stanislaw Lem and Karel Capek to Sergei Lukyanenko; a torrent of great new sci-fi films are pouring out of Chinese and Korean studios. But there are only a handful of Arab or Muslim authors writing in the genre, and still fewer working in Arabic. Even closely-linked genres like fantasy and alternate history are sparse.
Translation of Western science fiction also remains limited. Many scholars have bemoaned the lack of literary translation between English and Arabic, and for good reason: reading the same novels is as effective a shortcut to understanding as any. How can cultures that do not understand each other's dreams share each other's reality? Even Dune has never been translated in Arabic (according to several Middle Eastern publishers), and the only way the Fremen can be known to the Bedouin who inspired them is through badly subtitled rip-offs of David Lynch's movie.
"Other than my parents, of course, who think everything I do is perfect, I don't think I've ever met an Arab who liked science fiction," Nasir says. "I think [part of] the reason for that is because Arab culture is a traditional culture, and Arabs are very oriented towards the past."
"My sister-in-law is Palestinian, she lives in America now with my brother," he continues, by way of example. "She's a pediatrician, she's very smart. I gave her a story of mine to read, and she read it, and she came back and told me, very diplomatically, 'Wow, this is really fiction. Fiksion al Akher,' [Arabic for], 'This is fiction to the very last drop.' And it was disturbing to her."
Nasir admits this is still a bit of a mystery. After all, if science fiction is inspired by the very quality of the age we live in, isn't the world even more science fictional for people from a traditional society, many of whom have gone in a single generation from a world without cars and running water to text messaging and NGO-sponsored Internet training? And if many Arabs have lived through the very experience that H. G. Wells so famously imagined, why is there no Arab War of the Worlds?
Nasir can isolate a few reasons, from his experience, though they don't define the phenomenon in themselves. The traditional nature of Arabic culture is one thing that keeps people looking to the past, he says. Some anthropologists have theorized that harsher environments lead to the evolution of more conservative cultures, a theory that may have some bearing. Also, there is the fact that the "glory days" of Arab empires, when the Middle East led the world in science and literature, are now centuries in the past. The impact of colonialism may be another factor, as is the difficulty of translation to and from Arabic. Some of it may simply be unfamiliarity.
"One of the reasons I think sci-fi is in a slump [globally], in terms of sales, is people are already—are overwhelmed by the strange," Nasir says. "They want to rest, sometimes. So they read romances or something."
"Culturally, Arabs have a lot of anxiety about the future, because they don't see it, the way that Americans are always 'looking to the future,'" he adds. "That has its own problems, because then we go and do things like attack Iraq without having any idea what we're doing. Because we don't pay attention to history. So there's a real downside to not paying attention to the past, but there's also a downside to being focused too much on the past. I'm not sure it's a very auspicious harbinger for the future."
In Tower of Dreams, Nasir presents a future world that is dominated by the past. This works on several levels. On the metaphorical level, nations that have been destroyed by years of misgovernment, corruption, and war are seen as still being in the grip of or suffering from the errors of previous generations. But in Nasir's hands the metaphor approaches the literal: the terrible nightmares that assail the Image-diggers bear strong similarities to ancient superstitions and religious beliefs—and as an entire portion of the world totters on the brink of destruction, those nightmares begin to become real.
"[Tower of Dreams] was a hard book to write: trying to draw together Arab culture and the future was a challenge, and as you can see, it's not a very happy picture."
So the author presents a world which is (or is seen as) being divided into different poles, by the way people address the ideas of past and future. This schism is reflected in Nasir's fiction: in Tower of Dreams, the Middle East is consumed by its own nightmares, while in Distance Haze, waking dreams offer a path to enlightenment for scientists in a small Midwestern town. In one context, the future is open and bright; in another, dark and full of menace.
Accepting or rejecting this dichotomy is, of course, the choice of the reader. But given who Nasir is, and the experiences he has lived through, it seems reasonable to suggest that these ideas may be part of the dichotomy between Arab and American. We may, really, all be the same underneath. (Transcendental meditation, such as the kind Nasir practices, often aims to strip away learned differences and reveal a level of luminous consciousness that is common to all humanity.) But the things we all have in common may lie much deeper in our consciousness than we're used to thinking—and there may be many more differences among civilizations than we in the West are ready to accept.
And almost by definition, the clash of civilizations not only means we don't understand each other, but we don't understand why we don't understand each other. It is Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns" come amongst us—science fiction monsters if ever there were such, thawed from their icy graves and hungering for blood. If there is, indeed, to be a clash of cultures between East and West, it will come not from our fundamental inability to understand each other, but from our unwillingness to investigate the reasons why we don't understand each other. Or so Nasir seems to suggest.
But in the end, there is hope in Tower of Dreams, too: hope that with understanding and study, we can overcome the nightmares, or find in them a common cause that can be combated. Of course that won't be easy, either.
"In the United States, we've had a very comfortable life for a very long time," he says. "People have gotten used to being taken care of, by scientists, by politicians. And now, things are happening that require us to get up off our duffs and do something: elect new governments, new kinds of governments, try to figure out where our money is going, try to figure out whether we can keep our government from starting wars all over the place. And a lot of people are very reluctant to do that. I know I'm reluctant too."
But if there is a message in Nasir's fiction, it is that making the effort to look beyond, to understand the inexplicable, might at some point pay off beyond our wildest dreams. And that was really where the whole thing started—wasn't it?
Jamil Nasir's fifth novel, The Houses of Time, will be available on April 1, 2008, from Tor Books.