For a clue as to where science fiction and fantasy might be headed next, look to the Middle East, a region whose genre fiction seems poised for a breakthrough in the West.
Earlier this year, John Siciliano, executive editor at Penguin Classics and senior editor at Penguin Books, acquired Frankenstein in Baghdad by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi. Translated by Jonathan Wright and due to publish in spring 2016, it tells the story of What’s-Its-Name, a monster sewn together from the body parts of bomb victims. The novel won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction; Hassan Blasim, author of The Corpse Exhibition (Penguin)—one of PW’s Top 10 Books of 2014—said that the title was his favorite of last year.
“The metaphor of Frankenstein’s monster is a powerful one for war-torn Iraq,” Siciliano says. “Saadawi’s novel has a direct, arresting style that feels urgent and modern, and it signals an exciting new direction for Arabic fiction.”
The writing from post-invasion Iraq has evolved to tackle the subject of violence in unexpected ways. Ra Page, founding editor of the U.K.’s Comma Press, says, “Once the politics of the situation was put to one side, great prose writing started to emerge again. It was fragmented, hyperreal—you could almost say postmodern—in its style.”
Comma commissioned Hassan Blasim to edit an SF collection called Iraq + 100, inviting authors to imagine Baghdad in 2103. So far, the anthology is scheduled for U.K. release only, in spring 2016, but Page reports interest from U.S. publishers as well.
All but one of the stories in Iraq + 100 are in Arabic, but full English translations of Arabic science fiction are becoming available. Yatakhayaloon, a small Saudi Arabian publisher, published English translations of Ibraheem Abbas’s HWJN (2013) and Somewhere! (2014); both books are available in the U.S.
Speculative fiction has been gaining acceptance across the Arab world. In 2013, the U.A.E. Board on Books for Young People focused on science fiction in its annual Books Made in U.A.E. conference. This year, Ahmed Al Hammadi’s SF novel The Last Day won the government-sponsored Emirates Book Award, and the Qatar Ministry of Culture opened its second-annual Katara literary prize to science fiction and fantasy submissions.
As is typically the case for works in translation, however, Arabic speculative fiction has had a more difficult time breaking through in the United States. The subgenre reached a milestone in 2011 with the U.S. publication of Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation), a dystopian novel set in Egypt in 2023. Originally released in 2008, it was the first of the prolific genre author’s works to be translated into English. The novel, in which an affluent teen seeks to claim a human trophy from a nearby shantytown, is a dark criticism of class disparity. At the July 2015 Shubbak Festival of contemporary Arab culture in London, Towfik said, “Science fiction is a safe way to express opinions, escape censorship, and say what you want.”
Speculative fiction has also been finding an audience among a younger Middle Eastern audience. “The popularity of American science fiction films in the Arab world has really helped perforate cultural barriers,” says Thalia Suzuma, head of English-language publishing at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing.
Noura al Noman’s young adult SF novels, Ajwan and its sequel, Mandan, were published in 2013 and 2015 by Egyptian publisher Nahdet Misr. Ajwan won the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2013, and al Noman, who is also a translator, is seeking a U.S. publisher for English-language editions.
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation will be delving into speculative fiction for YA readers. Hala Saadani, head of children’s and YA titles, promises “two upcoming fantasy titles that are very much grounded in the Arabian Gulf.” These novels will appear in spring 2016 and early 2017 and, like other works from the publisher, will have Arabic and English-language editions.
Sarah Cypher is a writer and editor in Oakland, Calif.