Thursday, December 1, 2016

Islamicates: Volume I, edited by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

Islamicates: Volume I
Anthology of Science Fiction short stories inspired from Muslim Cultures
Edited by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
2016, available for free here
236 pages, speculative

Personal note: 

It seems appropriate that my first post after the election concerns a book inspired by Islam and Islamic cultures. Among the many, many evils that have been drawn out of the woodwork by the new president-elect's policies, I am the most worried about the marked increase in Islamophobia. 

This freely available book presents many different perspectives on Islamic people and societies. In some stories, religion is outlawed and people must fight to continue following their beliefs. In others, religion is the problem that people are fighting against. But in all of them, Muslims are shown as they truly are: people trying to make their way in the world, fighting against circumstances outside of their control, just like everyone else. Many of these stories draw upon events that are currently happening: the war in Syria, the Refugee Crisis. Some reverse the flow of migration so that Europeans become the migrant workers. All of them speak to parts of Islamic society that many people in the West are unaware of. 

I encourage everyone to read through some of the stories in this collection, and to share them with friends who might have doubts about this religion and the people who follow it. At this historical moment more than ever, I consider it a moral duty to spread diverse literature in order to combat the prejudices, xenophobia, and, yes, White supremacy that is growing like a cancer in many parts of the world. Please join me by supporting works that combat stereotypes about People of Color and other minorities. 

In this collection published by the excellent website Islam and Science Fiction, authors from around the world have created science fiction short stories inspired by Islamic cultures. The works presented are the 12 best of those submitted for the first Islamicate Short Story contest run by the same website.

Since there are so many stories, I will only provide an analysis of the ones that really spoke to me. However, I highly encourage you to read the others as well.

“Calligraphy” by Alex Kreis (USA)

After a rivalry between two tile makers turns dark, the remaining one laments his actions.

This story uses the formal and slightly stilted language of Victorian translations from Arabic, which I quite enjoyed. Unlike the rest of the stories in this collection, it is set in the past. On the first reading I was confused about its inclusion in this collection, since it didn't seem very much like science fiction. But then it struck me that it taps into the history of scientific exploration and discovery in the Muslim world during the medieval period. The narrator sees something that he does not understand, but which was created through advanced scientific and artistic skills, and voila: a fascinating science fiction story set in the past.

“Insha’allah” by R.F. Dunham (USA)

It seems like a normal state of affairs - an adult child is more comfortable with a new technology than her parent is - but in this case the technology allows one to know the future, and the father Khafid is the inventor who has since forsworn his creation.

This story deals with the lack of intergenerational communication that can happen based on the life experiences of older family members, as well as whether all inventions are necessary. What criteria would make a technology bad (not evil, just extremely misguided)? After much reflection, Khafid has decided that his invention was a bad idea for several reasons, not least because of his faith, but he has trouble expressing that to his daughter in a way she would understand. Anyway, his daughter refuses to listen and has instead decided to improve the device by increasing its temporal range. As you can probably guess, this is a bad idea.

“Operation Miraj” by Sami Ahmad Khan (India)

Time-traveling assassins are sent by Pakistan to alter the course of Indian history.

“Connected” by Marianne Edwards (France)

Twenty some years from now, a survivor of the war in Syria and the refugee crisis now works creating “shared mindfields” – using biofeedback data to influence what an audience sees and/or feels.

I was surprised and delighted by how up-to-date this story was. The narrator’s background as a survivor of the current war and refugee crisis – as well as later natural disasters caused by global warming – bring an immediacy to the narrative that urges the reader to do something about the ongoing calamity. This is very different than the standard apocalyptic scenario, in which something catastrophic happens at some point in the near future: in this version, it has already started, is happening now, as we read it. The result is an extremely powerful narrative that casts a different light on the current human rights catastrophe(s) by highlighting the lasting psychological trauma that it will cause.

“The Day No One Died” by Gwen Bellinger (USA)

Asiya is a resident of Old Earth, which has been colonized by people from New Earth. The New Earthers consider themselves much more advanced, indications of which include: they never wear clothes, they have no religion, and they have an extra eye in the middle of their chest.

This story is a fascinating examination of the perils of religious and colonial oppression, using the example of extraterrestrial colonizers. The New Earthers not only do not follow religion themselves: they have outlawed it for everyone else as well. This story reminded me of some of the best writing by Ursula LeGuin (especially her Hainish Cycle) and A Planet for Rent by the Cuban author Yoss.

“Searching for Azrail” by Nick ‘Nasr’ Pierce (USA)

In a steampunk-inspired setting, Hani is the very young heir to the sultanate. His father has just died, and he is trying to understand what is happening.

I have wondered, in the past, about the emotional implications of becoming a ruler as a small child – especially if there is an ensuing civil war. This story does a good job of exploring this situation from the eyes of the child, who cannot comprehend where his father has gone or why there is suddenly fighting all around him.

“Watching the Heavens” by Peter Henderson (UK)

Aliens have begun using the Earth as a stop on their trade routes, with their bases in the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa. Our narrator has joined the flood of undocumented immigrants from Europe looking for jobs in these Muslim countries after the collapse of the global economy.

I liked this critical take on undocumented immigration/migration: in this version, the flow runs opposite to the Syrian refugees and other current migrations, and the White migrants are treated about the same way the black and brown migrants are treated now. This leads to a question: do you feel worse about these White migrants' predicament? And what does that say about your implicit racial biases (which everyone has, because we have been conditioned that way by society). However, I thought it was problematic that the Muslim countries had chosen to collude with aliens for financial reasons and the Christian countries are leading the resistance. This does two things: a) it leaves out a lot of people who do not fit into either of those categories, and b) it re-entrenches the idea of an ongoing cultural/religious war between Islam and Christianity. It would have been nice to see a little more nuance.

“The Answer” by Niloufar Behrooz (Iran)

The narrator is kidnapped by people who are made out of concrete, and must discover why.

“The Last Map Reader” by Sazida Desai (UK)

Zeb’s grandmother has died, and his cousin has started her first period – so in the space of a day, he has lost the two most important people in his life. During the funeral, his services are enlisted by the police, who need a special skill that he has learned from his grandmother: the ability to interpret a map.

I really liked this story about how using too much technology can make us lose important skills. One thing that could use more discussion was the cultural situation that Zeb’s cousin is encountering. They are related, so why would menstruation mean that they could no longer communicate in any way?

“The End of the World” by Nora Salem (Middle East/USA)

After a huge environmental catastrophe, Nouari Tarkou is fending for himself in an abandoned city only to be caught by a gang of young hooligans. His only hope for survival is making contact with others outside of the disaster zone.

This story is set in an abandoned Spain, and features a highly educated Muslim main character. If that is not enough to make you interested in reading it, then I don’t know what else I can tell you.

“Congruence” by Jehanzeb Dar (Pakistan/USA)

A South Asian teenager makes an appointment with a South Asian therapist in an overwhelmingly white part of the US. It turns out that they have some kind of relationship in the future, and the younger woman has come to enlist the therapist’s help in escaping from a time loop.

I loved the interaction between these two characters and the therapy setting. Although this story uses several tropes that have become somewhat cliché (time travel, trying to prevent a war-torn future), I enjoyed their relationship and the way they worked together to figure out a solution.

“Pilgrims Descent” by JP Heeley (UK)

Muslim pilgrims make their way across the lunar surface in the hope that they will survive and be chosen to continue.

This is one of my favorite stories in this collection: a truly original use of Islamic practices combined with living in space and environmental catastrophe. If you do not read any of the other stories in this collection, please read this one.

Overall thoughts

One of the recurring themes in this collection is environmental destruction and the demographic shifts and migrations caused by it. We should choose to take this as both a warning and a critique: the current changes in the environment will cause a lot of upheaval, and not just in the Global South. How we choose to deal with both the environment and population shifts will determine the course of the future. Based on the policies of the new president-elect, this message cannot come at a better time.

I appreciated the idea behind this collection: let’s encourage more people to write speculative stories based on/in Islamic societies. This is a wonderful idea, especially because Islamic societies make up a huge part of the world’s population. This can help people understand the current crisis that Muslims are dealing with, and hopefully thereby fighting against the growing Islamophobia.

That being said, I noticed that a majority of the writers are from or currently live in the West, particularly the US or UK. In the future (and more volumes of this collection are planned!) I would love to see more writers who are originally from and currently live in historically Islamic or Muslim-majority countries.

Something that the grammarly obsessed might want to note: this is obviously an amateur project, so the proofreading is not as good as it could be. Don’t be too frustrated by the typos or grammar mistakes, since the content more than makes up for it.

Further Reading

"Q&A with the winners of Islamicate Short Story Contest" from Islam and Science Fiction
Also see my reviews of Goat Days, Ghosts, and From Empty Harbour to White Ocean, which deal with similar themes

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