Science Fiction in Egypt - The Aliens are Coming
Is it possible for a traditional society to assimilate the technology of another society without adopting its cultural values? For over two centuries, their scientific and technological advances have defined Western societies. Now the technology they have developed is beginning to have truly global consequences.
The attempt to transfer this technology beyond Western frontiers has met with varying degrees of resistance in some societies, Egypt is no exception. It is scarcely coincidental that the literary genre of "speculative fiction" - science fantasy - had its roots in 19th century Europe. Writers such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and Anne Radcliffe planted seeds of a genre that set free the boundaries of imagination.
This happened at a time when parts of Europe were experiencing profound technological, scientific and cultural change. This literary influence found roots in America with the "weird fiction" of H.P. Lovecraft, and continued with writers of science fiction like Isaac Asimov.
Regardless of the merits of this literary style, the stories are bearers of certain cultural attitudes. Such writers appeal to the huge popular audiences and in doing so, they broaden the minds of millions in their acceptance of what may be possible. Furthermore, the American movie industry has been instrumental, since the huge American technological boom got underway in the 1940’s, in combining the ideas of advanced technology with fiction and presenting them as popular culture.
When the movie The Matrix came out, the concept of creating an artificial intelligence capable of spawning a whole race of machines was one that was on the cutting edge of believability for a person in a Western industrialized society. Moviegoers in Cairo apparently enjoyed the film while, according to interviews, they generally seemed to miss the point that intelligent technology could outpace human development with inevitable dire consequences (from the humans' standpoint). Many in the Cairo audiences said this was simply impossible.
In Egypt, the genre of science fiction is unknown as a native culture and Western films of the genre are regarded as either dull or faintly ridiculous. Regardless of the intrinsic quality of a sci-fi movie, the failure of Egyptians to grasp the ideas behind it reveals the essential foreignness of such ideas. They are too alien, literally. The cultural gap is too large. The treatment of the prose works of Yousef Ezzeddin Eissa, a prolific writer and scientist who passed away a year ago, exemplifies Egypt's resistance to new ideas. The critic Mohammed Zaki Al Ashmawy said in The Cairo Times that Eissa "displayed his stories within a framework that is far from usual, one that reveals the truths of life and man, absolute truths that control his fate."
Eissa's writings provide an example of how fiction that is off the beaten track is generally disregarded in Egypt. Stark and impersonal, his style was something rarely if ever seen in Egyptian fiction. This has been explained - dismissed in fact - by allusions to Eissa's scientific background. Hence his fiction has often been dubbed (unflatteringly) as "Egyptian science fiction."
Eissa unfortunately gave up trying to publish his writings, tiring of dealing with the conservative and uncooperative General Egyptian Book Organization. However, during his last years, Eissa's works and ideas began to be known, and even to gain a certain notoriety. If this trend continues, it could be a sign of a new Egyptian willingness to acquire and accept new ideas. Writers like Eissa are going to be incredibly important for the future Egypt as the society grapples, like it or not, with the mounting flood of international ideas sweeping the globe on through Information Technologies that were themselves science fiction not long ago.
A new mindset will almost certainly be crucial for new generations in the coming years when Egypt joins a truly global community, where ideas - even "impossible" ones - move and change with unimaginable speed.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)