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Science fiction or sci-fi literature is that special genre of literary fiction that amalgamates facts, fantasy and scientific phenomena. During the first Golden Age of Science Fiction – often recognised as the period from 1938 to 1946, European and North American readers relished top quality works written by John W. Campbell, Jules Verne, Issac Asimov, H.G. Wells, and others. Science fiction became more than literature. Its power to intuitively anticipate scientific visions and discoveries led the genre to be recognised as a cradle for scientific thought involving futuristic science parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life.
Author Mahfooz Bushra describes science fiction literature as “the window through which scientific development reveals its trajectories”, and points out that sci-fi pushes imagination to “limits that makes the existence of a future a thing of the present; so real it allows us a peek into the what lies beyond us, and a savoury sip of immortality”.
In our world today, governed by technology, scientific innovations, research and discoveries that intertwine with everyday lives, the genre of science fiction finds a more receptive audience, particularly because even though sci-fi borrows heavily from fantasy, the astounding progress human race has made in the field of science makes them somewhat believable. The author’s scientific lens views and explores their narrative to blend reality and fiction in ways that are equally relatable and fascinating for the reader. There are no existential constraints that confine science fiction to our planet, life or logic. It is free to stretch its wings to build narratives that involve parallel universes, unknown galaxies, extraterrestrial life, and other constructs, which could possibly out there or is a figment of an author’s creative imagination. And this mystery is what adds tremendously to the genre’s appeal.
Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (De la terre à la lune), published in 1865, was his dream of man on the moon, and in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin), published in 1870, he imagined the submarine.
Moreover, some of H.G. Wells’ visions in The Time Machine published in 1895, were proven true by Einstein’s theory of relativity announced in 1905. Wells furthers his visions on moon landing in The First Men on the Moon published in 1901.
In 1926, the great inventor Hugo Gernsback gave birth to the modern genre of Science Fiction with the establishment of the Amazing Stories magazine dedicated to it. The Hugo Awards, popularly known as the Hugos, have been the most prestigious Science Fiction awards since 1953.
When it comes to science fiction literature in the Arab world, the earliest works date back to the 1950s. Youssef Ezzeddine, an Egyptian radio presenter is believed to have been the first author of Arabic origin to have ventured into sci-fi. Years later, novelist Nihad Shereef wrote a number of science fiction novels that were truly manifested only in the 1970s in Egyptian films. The 1970s saw a host of Arab authors like Taleb Omran, Mustafa Mahmoud, Nabil Farouk, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and Ibrahim Abbas who wrote science fiction works, but could neither reach international markets nor establish a strong presence in the contemporary Arabic literature scene.
“Sales of Arabic science fiction novels are weak compared to books in other genres like horror or fiction, novels that draw from popular culture of the Arab society dotted by devils and genies,” said publishing expert Mohammed Omar.
The foundation of science fiction literature in the Arab world was strongly connected to production and scientific progress, and that is why it was established a century after the European Industrial Revolution. They were lacking in the experiences that their Western counterparts were undergoing in the rapid development of the factory culture, mass industrial production, and the role of science in facilitating everyday life. The slow movement of scientific research and intellectual output failed to ignite creative imagination, and affected the region’s artistic and literary output in science fiction.
As Arabic literary output in sci-fi hasn’t been substantial, tertiary support in terms of collecting and storing data about the scale of publishing and distribution in the genre has also been lacking. Until recent years, no publisher in the region specialised in science fiction literature. Recently, the League of Arabic Science Fiction (Yatakhayaloon) was established, and the Sindibad Sci-Fi website was launched to promote science fiction literature in the Arab world. Emirati author Noura Al Noman established Makhtoota 5229 in 2016 – the first UAE-based publishing house dedicated to producing Arabic content in science fiction and fantasy for young readers.
The League of Arabic Science Fiction (Yatakhayaloon) offers four science fiction books on its website, but such efforts are limited at best if viewed within the context of promoting Arabic science fiction in a way that it becomes mainstream.
Mohammed Omar predicts that the science fiction publishing industry in the Arab region will contribute to significant development benefits in the long term, if concerned entities invest in its development, especially as a branch of children’s literature. He also points out that sci-fi literature is more popular among children and young adults.
Author Taleb Omran blended science fiction and children’s literature in more than five of his books, which saw a relative success in the 1970s and 1980s. Young readers also appreciated Nabeel Farouq’s The Future File series (a mixture of detective fiction and science fiction), under which 160+ titles were published between the 1990s to 2010. The series enjoyed remarkable success and was the most published and distributed science fiction series. This successful experience can be used as inspiration.
Authors, publishers and experts of science fiction literature agree that it is difficult for Arabic publishing houses to carry out these missions, given its insufficient resources and its relative inexperience in a competitive market where the sci-fi genre is very well established. They stressed that the mission of government entities and civil society organisations to promote human and cultural development can be furthered through the growth and development of science fiction publishing, as the literature born in this world contributes to a stable present and a progressive future.