ATLANTA–In contrast to America, where science fiction uses technology to examine society, science fiction in the Arabic-speaking world examines society and politics to promote technology, a Georgia State University associate professor of world languages and cultures says in a new book on the subject.
Americans think of themselves as inventors, as world-class engineers and innovators, says Ian Campbell, author of “Arabic Science Fiction.” They assume technology shapes society, and that writing about technology is a great way to hold up a mirror to that society.
In the Arab world, however, technology is often seen as an outside force brought in by Western countries, Campbell says. More than that, it can be seen as a corrupting influence, a force that tempts Arabs away from their cultural traditions.
The most common theme in Arabic science fiction, he says, is that scientific and technological advancement, because of its long history in Arab and Muslim culture, shouldn’t be seen by Arab readers as an invader from without.
Arabic science fiction writers point back to a time when the Arabic-speaking world was the center of scientific research, which was the case throughout the Middle Ages. Many of the European discoveries of the Renaissance rested on earlier work done by Arabic scientists. That legacy can still be seen in a number of science-related words English adopted from Arabic: algebra, algorithm, alkali, alcohol, zenith.
“They were world leaders in science and technology,” Campbell says. “Then – for complex reasons – stagnation, a long slow decline, then colonization by the West.”
The common cause of Arab science fiction writers is to link readers to their scientific past – and often to criticize societies and governments for not doing more to support technological innovation.
Those criticisms are indirect and veiled by allegory. Most of the countries in the Arabic world have no protections for free speech, and Arabic literature in general tends to be highly allegorical to provide plausible deniability for authors.
“All of these novels are highly political,” Campbell said. “Anglo-American science fiction does reflect upon our society and how it is structured, but Arabic science fiction often also makes a more specific critique of local political conditions.”
Campbell expects Arabic-language science fiction to stay political, but he does see one big change: the Internet and the resulting democratization of technology. Now that Arabs are building their own technology, their science fiction is moving away from a focus on technology as foreign.
“In the first generation of Arabic science fiction novels, any new technology would always be destroyed by the end of the novel,” Campbell says. “In one famous example, a mountainside collapses on top of a cryogenics lab. But you’re starting to see technology in the culture more, and that affects science fiction. That’s my next book.”
World Languages & Cultures
IAN CAMPBELL directs the Arabic program at Georgia State University in Atlanta. His work on Arabic-language Moroccan novels has appeared in the Journal of Arabic Literature and Middle East Literatures. His book Labyrinths, Intellectuals, and the Revolution: The Arabic-Language Moroccan Novel, 1957–72 was published by Brill in 2013. His work on Arabic-language science fiction has appeared in Science Fiction Studies and the New York Review of Science Fiction. He also administers a YouTube channel, Arabic Grammar Unpacked.