Other worlds aren’t unimaginable in the boring, cerebral sense; yes you are able to imagine a life with the possibility of happiness. Instead, they’re unimaginable in the sense that you forbid yourself from imagining them—because they’ll give you false hope, or more likely, they’ll torment you with a parallel universe of technically possible happiness, break your heart with their demonstration of a happiness that you cannot obtain, like that happiness that occurred in the past, and so to dwell on those worlds is in fact a way to make yourself grieve. Or simply because those worlds seem so dependent on make-believe, would need such fundamental changes in history, culture, and community, that they cannot help but hammer home the trap-like nature of your present situation, and so to look out at the future becomes only a way of looking at the bars that frame your view of it.
Would it be surprising if the writers of Iraq were among the world’s most pessimistic? The country, as Hassan Blasim reminds us in his foreword to Iraq + 100, “has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” And though each of the writers of this collection have dreamed up their country as it might be in a hundred years' time, co-editor Ra Page in the afterword gives us the old saw of the best science fiction stories really being about (essentially having to be about?) the present; that is, about the bars.
Still, peace and even freedom are not necessary conditions for imagining other worlds. Like the Governor argues in his “Sermon of Justification” in Diaa Jubaili's story “The Worker” (translated by Andrew Leber), people have sustained themselves through worse times; so too their writers. Censorship can be the mother of metaphor.
But maybe that was Borges’s way of justifying his accommodations with tyranny; maybe for Blasim and his fellow writers the desire to escape “the here and now prison,” as Jalal Hassan’s story puts it, is what will give shape to this regional variant of the genre. The choice of science fiction is not, or is not only, to get the writers to represent through metaphor the present plight of their country, or even to extrapolate the downward trends. A defence, then, of “escapism”: by imagining what futures might come out of this history, the writers permit themselves to turn bars into scaffolding. Escapism, to paraphrase Blasim on the new generation of Iraqis, as the impatience of freedom.
In the story “Operation Daniel” by Khalid Kaki (translated by Adam Talib), reoccupied and recolonised Iraqis sing forbidden songs, songs which are, however, not rebellious—the regime has taken away the languages and context that would’ve given the songs any meaning. Although three stories in Iraq + 100 have been written in English, the rest are in translation; when we evaluate them from outside the Iraqi experience, how far are we, really, from those oblivious singers?
What’s more, the stories appear to be at the starting point of a history, without obvious predecessors to judge them against; Blasim himself is close to certain that the book is the first of its kind. For this, he blames not only war, and its neverending consequences, but political and religious repression, too, and stifling Arab literary tradition. Though he concedes that science fiction isn’t “entirely absent” from this tradition, he warns against falling back on the Arab and Mesopotamian “dependable myth-kitty” (which itself raises the question of how much continuity there really is between myth and legend on the one hand, and science fiction and fantasy on the other).
But if anything, the language differences, and the question of where and in which traditions these stories sit are not calls for a hedged assessment, but the opposite. The stories of Iraq + 100 are not nascent science fiction, but science fiction being published from a region for the first time in a wider world in which it already exists; of course science fiction has been part of Iraqi culture, for a long time, through the exchange and influence of books, movies, comics, TV, and so on from other regions and languages.
In The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera wrote about Herman Broch protesting that his novels were being compared only with those of fellow Central Europeans, rather than more generally with Western literature. Kundera: “He was only saying that national, regional contexts are useless for apprehending the meaning and value of a work.” The stories of Iraq + 100 may be works of translated fiction, but translation is in a sense just co-authorship with a time lag; the stories come from several traditions at once. It is in fact through translation that we can recognise them as joining a broader history of science fiction. Broch: “if [I] must be compared to someone, let it be Gide and Joyce!”
Let it be Clarke and Lem!
In one tale a mysterious figure; in another tale the sudden appearance; a woman; a man—the danger of listing the plots of short stories is that it verges on marketing cliché, the presentation of a taster menu of fable-like delights; but worse, it distracts from the overall conceit of the work, which is key both to the writing and the reading of it.
The conceit of Iraq + 100 is in the title; though to specify, these are more than stories set a hundred years after the invasion, they are set in specific Iraqi cities, the ones known in the West mainly through grim footage or as words mispronounced by news presenters. One way to evaluate the stories will be to work out how each writer has responded to this “spacetimeframe” conceit.
Take “The Corporal” by Ali Bader (translated by Elisabeth Jaquette) in which a soldier who was killed in the war returns from the afterlife to see how his dusty city of Kut has changed. What seems to be a story really about the 2003 war that happens to have a 2103 framing device, then tweaks our expectations; it moves beyond this frame to accomplish its ending: a satirical reversal of our corporal’s American dreams which he learns through the fortunes of his hometown. On the other hand, there is “Najufa” by Ibrahim al-Marashi, a kind of confusing patrilineal genealogy of pilgrimages to the tomb of Ali, with a grandfather telling his grandson about the time his own grandfather made the pilgrimage with his son. The story is named after the new city it centres around (Najaf now merged with Kufa), and it uses science fictional trappings to stylise its narrator’s closing dilemma. But the structure of the story is not essentially determined by the + 100 years conceit. If part of this project is to use science fiction as an escape route out of the trap of the present, the stories are also going to have to deal with science fiction’s own traps and trappings.
Most of all, they’ll have to deal with perhaps the central problem of the genre: the problem of exposition. Even the most garrulous, spelling-it-out-for-you writer of fiction set in the “real world” doesn’t (usually) explain who the FBI are, what the Second World War was. A writer of science fiction, however, needs to decide how much to tell you about the Temporal Bureau of Investigation, how much information to dump about the Neo-Peloponnesian Wars. In such stories, the gaps between what can be taken for granted can seem to be too large, and so in the absence of something from “reality” to fill in the blanks, writers specify, fill the blanks with words; worse still, become confused about which specifications might bear on the story, and which do not.
This realist-hangover of writers, this mistrust of their readers even, is part of a curious paradox. The writer feels the need to explain the extraordinary and unfamiliar but without letting on that the only reason they are doing so is because those things are extraordinary and unfamiliar. Mention an “aquadroid” in too offhand a fashion and its unreality might send the reader’s disbelief crashing back to Earth. And yet, the more you explain it, the more you just highlight the unrealism, fulfilling your fear anyway that the reader would notice that the taps don’t run, that all the books on the shelf are just spines…
In “The Here and Now Prison” (Jalal Hassan, translated by Max Weiss), the mention of the aquadroid is in fact em-dashed to an overly solicitous definition (“—a laser hologram projected onto a cloud of smart-vapour”). Later, the author tries to get around the paradox through dialogue:
“My father was one of the first doctors to study the disease …”
“I know,” said Helen. “I watched the blog-doc about him and how the first case, the swimmer who peeled to nothing in front of hundreds of spectators, had been his patient. That clip went viral at the time.”
Unfortunately this just comes across like the moment in Mulholland Drive where a detective recaps the scene of an accident to another, who responds dryly, “Yeah you showed me...” In an earlier story of the same name (by Zhraa Alhaboby, translated by Emre Bennett), a narrator makes his way “towards the pile of letters about ‘Baghdad Syndrome’ despite already knowing most of their contents …” Often it’s with terms like “despite”—or “as you know,” “famously,” “of course,”—that writers try to palm away what they’re doing, but since these terms are almost the Keywords of Exposition, it can be like a magician attempting a sleight of hand in a pair of ski gloves.
More effective is when the writers establish how real or artificial they intend their story to be via the POV from which it’s being told. Although “The Gardens of Babylon” by Hassan Blasim (translated by Jonathan Wright) has a fantastical setting and a psychedelic climax, it is still a realist story told from the first person. Which is why when the narrator explains how the dome-city of new Babylon came about, you have to wonder whom he is addressing that information to. Contrast how other stories have come up with solutions to what we might call the “Why are you telling me this?” problem. The writers of “The Day by Day Mosque” (Mortada Gzar, translated by Katharine Halls) and of “Operation Daniel” have freed themselves from the constraints of “realistic” science fiction, and freed themselves too from the trends of first-person or free indirect third-person POVs; instead they return us to the possibilities offered by explicit narration. The narrators of these stories are more than the thoughts of the main character or the impersonal consciousness of the text—for “Operation Daniel,” it is a removed ironic voice; for “The Day by Day Mosque,” it’s cryptic but playful. These stories let us enjoy being told a story, rather than indulging our desire to imagine ourselves into a slice of life via a story. The details of a future world might rightly remain mundane for the characters; but they need not therefore also be for the reader and writer; reader-experience is not always something that has to be massaged into verisimilitude. Instead these writers have focussed on the strangeness of Chinese-ruled Kirkuk, of polar-reversed Basra, as part of the whole deal—and so they enhance the dream, rather than pop it.
It should be stressed that the goal of some of the writers in this collection to write “realistic” science fiction is not pointless or impossible; nor are the devices they use destined to sabotage such a goal. Some stories do veer into hokiness with their overuse of made-up acronyms; but, for example, “Kahramana” by Anoud gets away with the same trick by making the exposition do more than one thing at a time; its oddly named Nations United League not only combines and recalls the failed League of Nations and failing United Nations, but summarises their efficacy with the acronym NUL. Similarly, while some stories try to supply information in parenthesis but in a way that just comes across as a clunky aside, in “The Day by Day Mosque,” the writer uses the same device when playing on the fact that we probably know what the River Tigris is, surprising us with information we were not expecting and thereby giving us a flavour of the story and its world:
It’s said that his great-grandfather was deaf and mute as a child, and spent the hot afternoons on the banks of the Tigris (the Tigris was a small river which some theologians have speculated never existed and was in fact dreamed up by sinners, rakes and watermelon-juice drinkers).
The three most beautiful stories then in the collection are ones in which these kinds of weird inklings and imagery take precedence over any spelt-out world or idea. In “Operation Daniel” the new battleground of Kirkuk is the media of its past. The ironic tone of the narrator, explaining how the future Chinese regime is not at all oppressive, almost becomes sarcasm, making the repeated use of the term “of course” no longer awkward exposition but funny (similarly when the narrator addresses the reader with phrases like “you ask” or “For those who don’t know”). The story’s central, macabre idea is the method that the the country’s latest dictator uses to punish dissidents, a method which however becomes a way for the citizens of Kirkuk to escape him, not with their lives, not even with hope, but with that last resort, beauty.
Related to this idea of what might be captured at death is the story “Kuszib,” by Hassan Abdulrazzak. In it, we are reminded of the strangeness of the obvious in everything from wine to war: at the entrance to a food festival giant puppies eat terrorist bombs: simultaneously a striking image, a misdirect, and a nod to a wider world that intrigues but doesn’t explain. (Are our LOL-wearing assassins any more plausible?) Cleverly, the story uses your potential regional knowledge against you—the character Ur indeed has a name of Sumerian origin … And the story communicates a stern point through layers of irony and recurring and escalating violent imagery: what the psychology of cultural chauvinism is, and how it lays the plausibility-groundwork for war. For in “Kuszib,” cultural chauvinism is in fact a symptom of material chauvinism, but with the former helping resolve any anxiety about the latter. Or as the story puts it, in a scene where Ur risks empathy with his “inferiors”: “It was only when this feeling of superiority had a physical manifestation—a shudder of revulsion—that balance to his psyche was restored.”
Most troubling though is the way the story demonstrates how the happiness of the materially superior is premised on suffering, suffering to which even the most liberal-minded person ultimately acquiesces: “Ona felt sorry for them but concluded, in the end, that what mattered was her happiness.” And in the end, it is the consumption of moments of the oppressed’s love and pain that salves the characters, in order that their consciences can be freed up to deal with their more everyday problems; here the satire becomes meta, seeing as we the readers are also, sympathetically and comfortably, consuming these stories of other people’s horror. After all, for those of us in the richer parts of the world, the advice to “Just enjoy life!” must on some level also mean “Accept the bloodshed!”
The story’s only weak note is its introduction towards the end of its titular character, the polymorphously perverse alien type—in this case, a hermaphrodite who prefers “she” because it's more romantically fertile—and who is all elbow-jabs and salty puns and public displays of auto-erotica. (“When in doubt, go exotic, that’s what I always say. To be honest, I’ve never said that but it sounds like the sort of thing I would say.”) Then again, balancing violent horror, moral outrage, and sex comedy can be a tricky thing to pull off.
More successfully balanced is “The Day by Day Mosque”; at three pages it’s the shortest in the collection, but still a magical little construct. Whereas stories like “Baghdad Syndrome” explored the looting of antiquities, and “The Worker” the selling off of the country’s metals, “The Day by Day Mosque” takes the commodification theme even further; now, Iraqis are selling their own snot.
The story draws attention to how it is a story by the way it fools around with how it is being told: of one character's unexpected trait, the narrator says: “(should I have mentioned this sooner?).” And it's full of unexpected psychologisation—its snot-collector leaves in a huff because his snot-donor has been honking too loudly, in order to boast of his virility, and in doing so has attracted the nosiness of the man next door. But the real blessing of the story is the way that it’s precisely ambiguous—i.e. ambiguous for a reason. Just what is “the Inversion Project”? We’re given few details other than comic mentions of people needing to learn how to tie their shoes the wrong way. How is the polar reversal of the qibla in the mosque linked to the narrator’s childhood prank of reversing the arrow direction on lovers’ carvings on tree trunks? Contrast the charm created by this ambiguity with, say, the diseases of “Baghdad Syndrome” or the “Here and Now Prison,” both presented with a surfeit of dates and symptoms recounted by those who already know to those who already should know. “The Day by Day Mosque” resists both explanation and interpretation, not sullenly, but like something too light to catch.
J G Ballard wrote in his prose poem / artist’s manifesto:
I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
The narrator of a story in Hassan Blasim’s short story collection, The Madman of Freedom Square, says the “important thing is to have an imagination which is not melodramatic but malicious and extremely serious, and to have an ascetic spirit that is close to death.” With many of the stories in Iraq + 100, including Blasim’s own, the imagination of the future is suitably “malicious and serious.” The best ones claim too some of that power that Ballard describes. They do this by revelling in their otherworldliness of subject matter, by their refusal of lifelikeness in form.
An instinct here might be to worry that this is a suspect comment to make about translated fiction. But with translated science fiction, we can be liberated from our awkwardness in praising the unfamiliarity of foreign books: because the impulse is no longer to exoticise but to make concrete. Though art can’t redeem history, let alone bring much solace, the most artful stories in Iraq + 100 can show what is specifically strange about the misery and hope that Iraqi writers, their compatriots, and their readers have been left to deal with—in the here and now, and for the centuries to come.