Review: Iraq +100 – Hassan Blasim (Editor)

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Iraq +100 – Hassan Blasim (Editor)
Release Date: 17/11/2016 (UK)
Publisher: Comma Press
Pages: 224pp RRP: £9.99 (Paperback)

It’s safe to say that traditionally there have been quite a few readers of science fiction and fantasy who haven’t explored too far beyond the traditional scenes in the West (you’d be amazed how many people haven’t read anything by the likes of Nnedi Okorafor or Cixin Liu), which is a real shame, given the rich bodies of work from some incredibly talented authors just waiting to be read. Fortunately in recent years, this trend has begun to slowly reverse as readers become ever bolder and word of mouth online alerts them to new works they otherwise might have ignored. Iraq +100 is a key milestone in this shift.

In the foreword to the collection, the editor, Hassan Blasim, clearly and bluntly states how the collection came to be: it was borne out of a frustration with the sensibilities of modern Arab literature (including the ‘pride in the Arab poetic tradition’ and a perceived lack of diversity in genre writing) and what he saw as the cliquey and corrupt nature of the current Iraqi literature scene. With the assistance of his editor Ra Page, Blasim gathered a wide range of Iraqi writers to contribute to the volume, where they look to follow in the grand science fiction and fantasy tradition of using the future and the fantastical to examine the present.

The stories in Iraq +100 start with a simple premise: ‘imagine Iraq a hundred years after the US occupation through short fiction’. Each story then focuses on a different city, striking a unique different tone each time – such as one story focusing on the return of a deceased soldier from the afterlife (Ali Bader’s ‘Corporal’), whilst another follows a cybernetically-enhanced man’s guided tour of Najaf (Ibrahim al-Marashi’s ‘Najufa’). Common motifs throughout the collection include the primary force for change in the country being primarily an external force rather than an internal development, societal models drawn from the contemporary conflicts in the country. Reactions to topics such as climate change are prevalent – the authors responses to that particular issue vary in depiction from being as a result of weaponry (Anoud’s ‘Kahramana’), to the construction of domed cities (Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Gardens of Babylon’). One key aspect to note however is that these works could also be seen as an expression of grief for the impact of the invasion and subsequent occupation in 2003, and the ongoing atrocities committed by Daesh – the opening story ‘Kahramana’, for example, depicts a region within the country run as an extremist theocratic state, complete with propaganda akin to Daesh’s media efforts. If this is the case, it certainly feels like this expression/process has been handled in a healthy and productive fashion, as even when the writers depict even the bleakest of situations, there is a sense that the country they depict will endure and move ever onwards. Indeed, Blasim states in the foreword that there is a great sense of hope in the new generation of Iraqis, and their new experiments with this genre of literature.

Iraq +100 feels like the first step on a longer journey that needs to be taken. You can see where the authors have channelled key tropes of modern science fiction and fantasy in order to create something beautiful and deeply personal – something that examines the rich intellectual legacy of their country, and the ongoing situation it now finds itself in. Comma Press have helped to bring something to the market that needs to be read, not only for the sake of emboldening the voices of Iraqi authors in the world of science fiction and fantasy literature, but to enrich the genre as a whole.

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