Muqaata’a by Fahad Himsi (I.)

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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 stan­geness 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 sci­ence fic­tion nov­els. They are dis­tinctly non-Amer­i­can and, for that mat­ter, non-Euro­pean. They are un­apolo­get­i­caly 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 it doesn’t have much 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 they go 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 to 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 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 they would be held re­spon­si­ble. And peo­ple are work­ing hard on cov­er­ing 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 forces 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 job Himsi wants to do with you is to con­sider the poli­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions of aliens in the Mid­dle East.