What does the future look like if you already live in a dystopian present with a horrifying recent past?
This is the singular question pulsing through Iraq + 100: Stories From a Century After the Invasion, a collection of ten gripping science fiction stories that brims as much with satire and sorrow as it does with the fantastical and futuristic. The book, published this past November by Manchester-based Comma Press, is the bold vision of writer and editor Hassan Blasim and features original works from ten Iraqi authors, including Blasim himself, all of which imagine Iraq in the year 2103, one hundred years after the U.S. and British-led invasion.
This collection of stories about Iraq’s possible future is as relevant to the West, grappling with the long-term implications of a shameful imperialist intervention, as it is to an Arab world still reeling from the consequences of regime change and war crimes. Publishing the anthology in English is also a courageous and powerful act in and of itself, declaring that Iraqi literature is a global literature. The book has already received an English PEN Award.
Mainstream audiences, artists, and media producers all over the world have long turned to science fiction as a source of not only escape and entertainment, but of pathos and philosophy, new mythologies for a modern world. Beyond well-known masterpieces such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the literary world, by contrast, had been relatively slow to fully acknowledge the genre’s power to communicate the depths of the human experience.
Iraq + 100 is one of those experience-capturing books. The anthology is a brave journey across the blurry borders of art and politics, which envisions the future as a path to resolution. Although the stories all take place in the next century, they seek to make sense of the past, which is our present. In most cases, the history is just as confounding to the characters in these stories as current affairs are to us today.
Blasim’s goal was to “give [the writers] a space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality,” to provide an opportunity for Iraqi writers, as well as readers, “to understand ourselves, our hopes and our fears by breaking the shackles of time.”
Though Iraq + 100 has only been on the market for a few months, it has already received considerable coverage from outlets such the BBC and Turkish English language newspaper, Hurriyet. Both The Guardian and science fiction and fantasy publishing giant Tor included Iraq + 100 on their lists of best sci-fi books of 2016. Despite this praise, in her review for NPR, Amal el-Mohtar hints at one of the potential obstacles to the book receiving wider readership and acclaim, particularly among Western audiences. These readers may be reluctant to engage in the kind of introspection Iraq + 100 inspires, since pleasure is not the point of reading this work. Rather, Iraq + 100 creatively confronts the harsh truths of Western policy in the Middle East. As al-Mohtar notes, “I did not enjoy this collection,” because one cannot take pleasure in the horrific history captured and confronted in its pages.
While it may be a painful experience to read about how Iraqis imagine their homeland in the future, it is far from a joyless endeavor. In fact, the same absurdity which gives Iraq + 100 its dark edge is what makes it an exhilarating journey. Anoud, the author of the first story Kahramana, says her vision in writing her piece was to give “people in the gutter a chance to laugh at their do-gooders, clergy and oppressors.”
The genre of science fiction allows storytellers to get “serious” while still having a grand old time doing it. Indeed, in the ten short stories of Iraq + 100, there is no shortage of the absurd. In Blasim’s own story, Baghdad and its environs have become Babylon, “a paradise for digital technology developers, a playground for hackers, virus architects and software artists,” where everyone is also given the privilege of Chinese citizenship courtesy of the HK Corporation.
In another story by Ali Bader, an Iraqi soldier killed by American troops in 2003 returns to his hometown only to find it has been transformed into an anti-religion utopia that rails against the faith-based extremist terrorism of the West. As is so often the case in science fiction, the phantasmagoric future may simply be a reflection of the present, viewed through a fun house mirror. After all, does one really need to travel to 22nd Century Baghdad to imagine an American nation run by unhinged, ideological fundamentalists that has devolved into a state of perpetual violence?
Western science fiction typically relies on imagined, new technology – space travel, artificial intelligence, etc. – and its role in the development or devolution of society. Philosophically, this view of humanity is known as technological determinism. What we see in Iraq + 100 is a view of technology less in line with technical determinism and more connected to social and structural determinism, that is, a society’s culture and values as created by the social constructs and systems already in place.
This technological view is reflected in the collection’s final story, Najufa. In this piece, the narrator recounts his family history, with incredible detail, from the time after the American invasion, thanks to a technology that allows individual memories to be recorded and passed along to others. The story is not about the technology itself, of course. It is about what drove people to develop and use this technology, namely the preservation of memories of war and occupation for later generations.
In truth, one doesn’t need science fiction to envision living in a dystopian Iraq. It has been fourteen years since the country’s invasion and decimation and the country remains torn apart by the continuing impact of those events. Perhaps channeling the fuel-obsessed Immortan Joe from Mad Max Fury Road, the new American president told an audience of CIA employees, the day after his inauguration, that, when it comes to Iraq, “we should have kept the oil, but, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance.”
The sentiment was rejected by many Americans, who have poured out into the streets, since the inauguration, to disseminate their messages of dissent to many of Trump’s foreign policies. In these demonstrations, we have continuously seen audiences invoking science fiction and fantasy genres. From posters of Princess Leia/General Organa declaring a “woman’s place is in the resistance” to allusions to the authoritarian impulses challenged by the Harry Potter books, the symbols created by imaginative fiction are a shared language and a global rallying cry. In this context, Iraq + 100 is a perfect addition to the cultural resistance package.