Wednesday , December 6 2023
In 'Iraq + 100', edited by Hassan Blasim, ten Iraqi authors imagine life in their country 100 years after the U.S. invasion and occupation

Book Review: ‘Iraq + 100: The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq’ Edited by Hassan Blasim

Iraq + 100
The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq

Hassan Blasim (ed.)
Tor Books, 224 pages

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

There’s no question that whoever first coined this maxim was absolutely right. For example, when 19 al-Qaeda terrorists, 14 of them Saudis, hijacked four airplanes on September 11, 2001, few would have predicted that within about 18 months the United States would invade Iraq. Even fewer would have predicted the U.S. would occupy the country for another eight years. So why would anyone want to predict where Iraq will be in 100 years?

Ten Iraqi authors attempt to do so in Iraq + 100. Actually, they’re speculating about — inventing — the future, not predicting it, so technically the book is speculative fiction. Perhaps attitudes toward that genre led to the book being subtitled Stories from Another Iraq when originally released in the U.S. last December. Forge, an imprint of noted science fiction publisher Tor Books, isn’t put off by the label, though. The edition of the book it releases this week bears the subtitle The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq. That doesn’t alter the book’s mission.

Rather than asking Iraqi writers to wrap fiction around the 2003 invasion, something editor Hassan Blasim did in his own 2014 short story collection The Corpse Exhibition, Blasim asked the writers to do something rare for Iraq. As he notes in his introduction to the book, “Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing.” In fact, Blasim was concerned it would be difficult to find writers willing to imagine Iraqi cities 100 years in the future.

Like most anthologies, the end result is mixed. Additionally, Western readers’ perception or appreciation of the book may be affected by the fact seven of the 10 stories were originally written in Arabic and each has a different translator. To the extent this is science fiction, it is “soft” sci fi exploring the cultural, political and psychological effects of the invasion and occupation of the country. There’s also a little magical realism and surrealism utilizing Iraq’s and Islam’s history and culture.

Some stories offer optimism. In “The Gardens of Babylon,” Blasim’s own story, while Baghdad is managed by a Chinese corporation, it has become “a paradise for digital technology developers.” Likewise, despite desertification and environmental degradation, this Baghdad is divided into 24 Chinese-designed domes, each a new garden of Babylon. The city exports the world’s best software and extraordinary scientific discoveries.

Ali Bader imagines a peace-filled future, at least for Iraq. In “The Corporal,” an Iraqi soldier returns to Kut, where he died in the 2003 invasion. “There are no more Sunnis, Shi’as, Christians” in Iraq, he is told, because organized religion is viewed as an impediment to knowing God. The country is long free of conflicts or civil wars. America, however, has become “an extremist state” ruled by religious radicals much like the Taliban governed Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. is “part of the axis of evil.”

Other futures are far more dystopian. In “Operation Daniel,” the Kirkuk envisioned by Khalid Kaki is a wealthy city-state cut off from the rest of Iraq and governed by the Chinese. All languages but Chinese are forbidden and the punishment for anyone speaking or reading in them is being incinerated and “archived” in a synthetic diamond.

Diaa Jubaili bases “The Worker” on a statute of that name in Basra. The city exports or has consumed every imaginable resource. It never lacks corpses, whether from disease or starvation. Despite a virtual total collapsed, “the Governor” reassures those still in the city with a monthly address about historical events that surpass the city’s own catastrophes and suffering.

Whether hopeful or despairing, these stories may have Americans ruefully recalling what Gen. Colin Powell reportedly told President George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq: “You break it, you own it.”

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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