Ian Campbell, Arabic Science Fiction

Ian Campbell, Arabic Science Fiction (London: Palgrave, 2018) 322pp. €59.49 EPUB, PDF, €74.99 Hb. ISBN: 978-3-319-91432-9

This entry in Palgrave’s Global Science Fiction series is one of only a few English-language studies of Arabic Science Fiction (ASF) and is a valuable contribution to both that field and to the study of Science Fiction in any language. Ian Campbell, Associate Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Georgia State University, divides his work into an introduction, nine chapters, and a short conclusion. The introduction and following three chapters establish a theoretical framework and provide literary and critical context of ASF, tracing the genre from the 1,001 Nights to the late twentieth century. The subsequent six chapters each engage in close readings of one or more late twentieth-century texts by an ASF author – Nihād Sharīf, Muṣṭafā Maḥmūd, Ṣabrī Mūsā, ’Aḥmad ‘Abd al-Salām al-Baqqāli, Ṭālib ‘Umrān, and Ṭība ’Aḥmad Ibrāhīm, the first three from Egypt, the others from Morocco, Syria, and Kuwait, respectively – using the terms and concepts set up in the first part of the book. The focus is on these four Arab countries, although the conclusion briefly considers twenty-first century work and an Iraqi author.

Campbell aims his work at three audiences: those who cannot read Arabic but are interested in ASF and how it differs from Anglo-American SF; scholars of Arabic literature who wish to understand ASF in the context of non-Arabic theory and criticism of SF; and scholars of postcolonial literature and theory who are interests in postcolonial texts that do not foreground questions of identity and are not written in the colonial languages of English or French (viii).

I belong to the first audience: I do not know any Arabic and, in addition, know very little about the history and social context of the Arab world. This did not hinder my understanding of Campbell’s analysis, as he carefully explains the meaning behind key Arabic words in the texts he covers, whenever they cannot be directly translated, and provides historical and social context when relevant. For example, Campbell spends two pages explicating the Arabic equivalent of the term “science fiction,” al-khayāl al-‘ilmi. This is literally “the scientific imaginary” but such a translation loses nuance and significance – there is a sense of otherworldly mysticism in the Arabic – which Campbell reintroduces through patient explanation (47-9). The fact that most ASF is written in fuṣḥā, the high literary form of Arabic, is also clearly illustrated by quoting Chaucer’s Middle English, and asking readers to imagine this dialect was taught in schools and used in English novels about “other star systems, or artificial intelligence, or advanced technology” (80). Campbell furthermore spends pages describing, “for those unfamiliar with the political history of the Arab world,” details such as who Gamal Abdel Nasser was: useful information, as one of the novels he analyses contains a critique, “very clear to any Egyptian and most Arabs,” of Nasser (130-33).

This background information is important not only for understanding the novels under analysis, but also for understanding Campbell’s theoretical arguments. One of these is a rejection of Reuven Snir’s assertion that ASF lacks social commentary; Campbell argues that ASF authors reflect “Arab society in a distorting mirror,” addressing issues including technology, freedom of speech, and the tension between progressive and conservative social values (2-9). Another argument is that ASF characters tend to be “flat human types” rather than “psychologically realistic” individuals, often a consequence of a lack of legal guarantees of freedom of expression in societies ASF authors are working in, requiring them to mask critiques of contemporary figures in allegorical modes. In addition, allegorical characterisation is not as discordant in the Arabic language as it is in English. Arabic first names are more likely to be words used in everyday speech, and it is not as much of a cliché, as it is in English, for a character’s name to indicate something about their personality or place in the narrative world (92-3, 122).

His main thesis is that the most salient aspect of ASF as a genre is its use of “double estrangement.” ASF authors, Campbell argues, estrange their own society in their fiction to signal that it is serious literature; most Arab writers estrange their society due to a lack of formal protections for freedom of expression, and Arab literary critics are prejudiced against the fiction – which includes most genre fiction – that does not also do this. Many ASF authors additionally engage in a second level of estrangement “that draws attention to the drop-off in scientific and technological innovation in the Arab world since the days of Arab/Muslim dominance” (9-10). Campbell regards this theory as his primary contribution to the extant body of ASF criticism but does not explain how it fits in with theories of non-Arabic SF such as Darko Suvin’s “cognitive estrangement”: the familiar made unfamiliar for the purpose of gaining new critical perspective. This seems to be intentional, as Campbell hopes that the book will only be the “first step” in integrating ASF with Anglophone SF and postcolonial studies (316).

The ways that, and extent to which, specific ASF novels contain double estrangement is explored in the six chapters that each focus on a different ASF author. These chapters also situate the authors’ novels in their wider historical, postcolonial, and Arabic literary context. The advantage of having taken 117 pages to establish theoretical terms and literary background is that when the textual analysis begins, Campbell does not need to pause frequently to explain his terms, and the following chapters zip between readings swiftly without losing clarity or detail. Dedicating the majority of the book to close reading, and dividing that close reading from theory, enables Campbell to include specific details in his analysis, rather than skimming over the subject. It also means that the theory is read through literature rather than the converse (313).

There is a disadvantage with this structure, however. Developing a theory at the beginning of the book, and then using close-reading to illustrate that theory, gives the impression that the novels under examination were chosen because they fit the theory and are not necessarily representative of the genre the theory is about. This impression is reinforced by the justification for focusing on Sharīf’s The Conqueror of Time in Chapter Five: because “its use of double estrangement is so clear as to render it the best example from the earliest days of Arabic SF” (153). Alternative justifications are given for the other novels – because they are the earliest examples of self-conscious ASF (Chapter Six), or grapple with the concept of utopias (Chapter Seven), gender and colonialism (Chapter Eight), mysticism (Chapter Nine), and intertextuality (Chapter Ten) – but for each of the texts Campbell returns to his idea of double estrangement and it is unclear whether the novels were chosen to fit the theory or test it.

Arabic Science Fiction is written as a conversation rather than a test of a hypothesis. Campbell follows the model of the Global Science Fiction series, which aims to contribute “to ongoing debates about the expanding global compass of the genre,” by building on the work of critics and offering the “double estrangement” theory as a framework for others to use in their contributions to the ASF “discussion” (313). This approach enables the book to be simultaneously an introduction to ASF for non-Arabic SF scholars, an introduction to SF for Arabic scholars, and provide new perspectives for postcolonial scholars. As a member of the first group of readers, I would have preferred a more comprehensive overview of the subject, and an assurance that the novels and authors included were representative of the genre rather than chosen to fit into a predeveloped framework. Such a book may yet be written in the future, and if it is, it will have grown out of the conversation Campbell has started.

Gabriel Schenk, Signum University