When Black Panther came out I went to cinema hoping to finally see a science fiction movie about Sub-Saharan Africa. (District 9, for obvious reasons, doesn't count.)
Needless to say, I was disappointed. The film wasn't really about Africa. It was about America, pretending, half-heartedly, to be about Africa.
I was not sure how to feel about it. On one hand — trying to relate it to my own cultural background — a Hollywood movie about slovak shepherds with laser weapons would be hilarious. On the other hand, it would be a wasted opportunity. All the strangeness and complexity of Slovak rural life would be thrown out, leaving only superficial, schematized image of an Eastern European country, presumably a mix of Dracula and Hunt for Red October.
Sub-Saharan Africa is much more complex and strange than boring Slovakia, but all we've got were some cringe-worthy depictions of local customs and a skyscraper that kind of looked like the mosque of Djenne.
For exactly the reasons above I loved Liu Cixin's science fiction novels. They are distinctly non-American and, for that matter, non-European. They are unapologetically Chinese and thanks to that they are often shocking for the western reader. What left a lasting impression on me, personally, was their bleak worldview, the total resignation on the possibility of cooperation, the "it's either us or them" attitude, where neither party is particularly evil, yet nobody seems to be able to imagine a world where the civilizations would treat each other with anything better than genocide.
Muqaata'a by Fahad Himsi (self-published, 2017) is another such book. Not only does it have little in common with either American or European science fiction, it doesn't really intersect with them. It's doing its own thing and it doesn't seem to care about what goes under the "science-fiction" label elsewhere in the world.
It is alien.
One wouldn't even call it science-fiction if the visitors from space weren't part of the story.
However, unlike with The Three-Body Problem, I can't imagine it ever becoming popular. Not only is the name of the novel impossible to remember. It's not even that it contains no less than three sounds that don't exist in English. It's also the lengthy discussions of Middle Eastern politics that are going to bore every science-fiction fan to death. And while there are undoubtely people who would find that kind of content interesting, those are unlikely to reach for a book from science-fiction shelf.
Despite all that, the book is interesting and worth reading.
It's a first contact novel and its premise is that the aliens, instead of touching down safely at the lawn in front of Palace of Nations, Geneva, managed to land somewhere in the war-torn provinces at Syrian-Iraqi border.
The book begins with a sequence of press clippings.
It's immediately clear that nobody has any idea of what's going on. Press agencies have no reporters on the ground. Everybody is guessing and spreading second- or third-hand rumors.
But what really stands out is the repressed anxiety that permeates the clippings.
Sometimes it's just reminding the reader of what's going on in Syria, the beheadings, the slavery, the kids being gassed, and asking a simple question: "What are They going to think about us?"
At other times authors get closer to the root of the issue: The aliens are unlikely to spot a difference between a bearded Islamic State fighter and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Whatever is happening in Syria is going to be attributed to the humanity as a whole.
As one op-ed puts it: "You invited guests for the dinner. And while you are waiting, wearing your best tuxedo, lighting candles and switching on chamber music, the guests somehow miss the front porch and instead knock on the door of the cellar where you keep your wife and children locked away."
It feels like puncturing an ulcer. All the topics that are taboo in polite society, all the long avoided thoughts about starving children in Yemen and Horn of Africa are suddenly dragged into the daylight by the frightening fact that the humanity, for the first time in its history, no longer lives in the good old lord-of-the-flies world, but is suddenly placed under direct adult supervision.
Himsi is playing with the concept of collective guilt.
If Polish government outlaws calling death camps located in Poland "Polish death camps" arguing they were really German death camps, then you, as a Pole, may feel better for a while. That is, until you realize that in addition to being German death camps they were also human death camps and if you accept the idea of collective guilt then you, as a human being, are directly responsible for everything that happened there. Collective guilt cuts both ways. You can, obviously, escape the realization by relaying on tribal parts of your brain, but Himsi cleverly smashes that particular psychological machinery by putting aliens, unable to distinguish between a German and a Pole, into the story.
(Speaking of collective guilt, David Brin's Uplift series deserve a mention. It would be a fairly standard space opera if not for its treatment of the species as moral agents: If galactic community knew that humans exterminated the giant sloth we would be held responsible. And people are, needless to say, working hard on covering all the traces.)
But back to Himsi's book: If you'd expected humanity to go through some kind of moral catharsis, you'd be wrong.
It doesn't take longer than couple of weeks until the self-questioning voices are drowned in the noise of conspiracy theories, us-versus-them narratives and stories that were undoubtely written under the influence of LSD.
Sabah writes about aliens supplying PKK with annihilation weapons. The very next day Hürriyet publishes a toned-down version of the same story. Politico features a long-winded essay on impact of alien presence on the global balance of power. Right-wing tabloids worry: "Are the aliens going to convert to militant Islam?"
And amid of all the flowing puss the first part of the book begins. Himsi offers you a deal. If you can fight the nausea there's a job to be done. And maybe things to be learned.
And the quest Himsi invites you to take part in is to explore the political implications of aliens in the Middle East.
March 10th, 2019