The Islamic roots of science fiction
September 11, 2014 11:53 PM   Subscribe

Charlie Jane Anders investigates the Islamic roots of science fiction, including one of the earliest feminist science fiction novels. You may actually want to read the comments this once.
posted by MartinWisse (18 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
I always thought that Frank Herbert was on to something with his use of Islamic/West Asian themes and words and sensibilities in Dune. Growing up in India, those motifs made that book (and for similar reasons, Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise) more resonant to me than some of the other classics of speculative fiction. It is nice to read from this article that the roots of Eastern cultural voices in SF go back to much earlier times.
posted by all the versus at 1:32 AM on September 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised they don't call out the Arabian Nights stories. The line between fantasy and science fiction is definitely breached a few times there.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:43 AM on September 12, 2014


Not sure about some of the claims made, but I hardly care if I'm being pointed towards interesting books.
posted by Segundus at 3:13 AM on September 12, 2014


I don't know if I buy that Ibn Tufail was writing science fiction. I mean, if you are going to accept that as science fiction, you have to accept Plato, too, and I dunno, that's making SF so broad that almost anything fits within its wide embrace. Now, if you want to argue for a literary category of "Phylosophy Fiction" of which "Natural Philosophy Fiction" is but a meager subset, I could get on board with that, although that classic blockbuster film The Parable of the Cave, starring Keanu Reeves, was a little heavy on the CGI for my taste. The follow up, Avicenna's The Falling Man, had a much lighter touch in my opinion, although the 248 hour running time was a bit excessive.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:55 AM on September 12, 2014 [11 favorites]


Lucian of Samasota's works of Islamic science fiction must have been particularly prescient since they were written hundreds of years before Islam existed.
posted by vorpal bunny at 6:13 AM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Lucian of Samasota's works of Islamic science fiction must have been particularly prescient since they were written hundreds of years before Islam existed.

Good thing the author doesn't claim them as Islamic science fiction, then!
posted by BlueDuke at 6:33 AM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]




By the way, if you are at all interested in what was going on intellectually in the IslamicWorld, you could do way worse than listen to the last year or so of Peter Adamson's History of Philosophy (without Any Gaps) podcast -- he has been going into great detail about the amazing array of thinkers who studded the history of the Islamic World. If you start now, you might be just getting to the end when he returns after his late summer break to finish the last few episodes before returning to the West to pick up that strand.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:51 AM on September 12, 2014 [6 favorites]


Fascinating stuff, thanks for posting it!

Sultana's Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain

I'm glad to know about this interesting-sounding book, but I'm wondering why they chose that spelling when according to Wikipedia "When she wrote in English, she transliterated her name as Roquia." (Obviously, Wikipedia could be wrong; I'm not invested enough in the question to investigate.)

> I don't know if I buy that Ibn Tufail was writing science fiction.

The linked piece doesn't claim that. It calls it "proto science fiction" and explains that the listed works "feature a lot of what we'd consider the defining characteristics of SF," adding of this particular work (which I've always wanted to read but haven't gotten around to) that it "isn't speculative, per se, but it does have a heavy scientific component."
posted by languagehat at 7:24 AM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


On first scan, I thought the headline read "The Islamic Robots of Science Fiction", which I now think is a sub-genre of SteamPunk which needs to happen.
posted by JohnFromGR at 8:29 AM on September 12, 2014 [7 favorites]


Is there an actual Islamic connection to these pro to science-fiction works beyond the fact that these writers lived in a culture where Islam was the primary religion? More cultural context would be helpful here.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:22 AM on September 12, 2014


Yes, Ibn Tufail and Ibn al-Nafis were very much part of an intense Islamic dialogue about religion and philosophy that was at its high point at that period (before the Mongol invasion). Google is your friend.
posted by languagehat at 10:08 AM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


The Merchant and The Alchemist's Gate is a fantastic SF novella that takes place in ancient Baghdad. It's about time travel! But it's Ted Chiang-style time travel (so it doesn't fall into the typical time travel traps of other, lesser works).

Additionally, while not an SF writer per se I think we would be remiss in not mentioning Jorge Luis Borges's influence on SF and, in turn, the influence of Middle Eastern and Islamic themes on his own writing.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:13 AM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


On first scan, I thought the headline read "The Islamic Robots of Science Fiction", which I now think is a sub-genre of SteamPunk which needs to happen.

You may want to check out Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy of alternate history cyberpunk novels set in the Middle East or perhaps even George Alec Effinger's Marîd Audran North African cyberpunk novels, convienently available cheap as ebooks right now.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:12 AM on September 12, 2014


Google is your friend.

And, at the risk of being a total bore, Peter Adamson is even more of your friend. He's turned the first 50 episodes of the podcast into a book, and I hope he keeps it up through the Islamic material, since I think a book would help follow some of the arguments (since it's easier to jump back to page 200 than cue up a podcast from 3 months ago to the correct spot). Regardless, Adamson is delightful.

The linked piece doesn't claim that. It calls it "proto science fiction" and explains that the listed works "feature a lot of what we'd consider the defining characteristics of SF," adding of this particular work (which I've always wanted to read but haven't gotten around to) that it "isn't speculative, per se, but it does have a heavy scientific component."

True, but that's still no excuse for leaving out Plato (except that would undercut his thesis), especially since Islamic philosophy pretty much started from the Koran + Aristotle (who started from Plato). Sadly, later Muslim thinkers got their hands on Plotinus, and things went downhill from there.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:01 PM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Good thing the author doesn't claim them as Islamic science fiction, then!

Would Lucian have been mentioned at all had he not been "a Syrian author"? This is the author grabbing for any straw to make a pretty small brick.

I suppose they had to pitch the article the way they did, and the books are worth spot-lighting, but the pay-off is meager relative to the hype. A bit heavy on speculation, too, which is not a good thing:"Probably helped spur the Scientific Revolution","almost certainly influenced by", “possibly the first ever fictional description of the apocalypse.” (So much for Revelations.)

(I bore for Metafilter.)
posted by IndigoJones at 12:17 PM on September 12, 2014


A Mosque Among The Stars is an anthology of science fiction stories with Muslim characters and Islamic themes. It is available as a free CC licensed PDF.
posted by catastropher at 1:25 PM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh ta, catastropher, that looks interesting.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:26 PM on September 14, 2014


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