by Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
“To search for God with logical proof, is like Searching for the Sun with a lamp.”Sufi Proverb
Science fiction is an exposition-heavy genre of literature. Everything from the laws of physics to the socio-political system to the way a computer programme works has to be explained to the reader, either through an extended introduction, forced dialogue between characters or a narrative device such as a radio broadcast summarizing the world as it is. Much the same holds true of philosophically-themed science fiction. A perfect illustration of this is a lovely short story by Philip K. Dick, possibly one of the most philosophically inclined SF authors of the 20th century. The story in question, “Human Is” (1955), is about the plight of a housewife married to a phenomenally unpleasant man, a crude scientist who is not interested in family life, romance or anything, not even food. He would prefer to be fed intravenously just so he can focus on work nonstop. He is so literal-minded and mean-spirited, when the kid from next door shows him his kitten – calling it a tiger – he cannot understand why the boy calls it that. He even encourages the boy to bring the animal with him to the laboratory, to perform horrendous experiments on it like they do on rabbits and mice. His wife later confides to a male friend that she will insist on a divorce, but not until after he returns from an expedition – he had been sent to an archaeological dig on the ancient planet of a dying race.
When he gets back, however, he appears to be a whole other man. He speaks in a ridiculously romantic way, as if out of a Mills and Boon novel, wants to have kids and is great with the boy from next door and becomes very inventive when it comes to food, chatting endlessly with the kitchen computer. The housewife tells all this to her friend and he figures out what had happened. That dying race on that ancient world would often snatch a man’s personality from his body and replace it with their own psyche to give their race a new lease on life. Now the housewife has to give her sworn testimony in court, to prosecute this alien and – more importantly – bring back her husband. Something she steadfastly does not want to do. She lies in court, saying that this is her husband, and he has always been this way and that as a wife she knows her man. Afterwards, the alien inhabiting her husband’s body apologies to her and says he should have told her from the start, and they turn over a new leaf and live happily ever after. The lesson is, clearly, that human is ‘kindness’. What makes you human isn’t biology but morality and volition. The title pretty much tells you this, as do other works by Philip K. Dick, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) and the original short story that inspired it, “The Little Black Box” (1964), where empathy is explicitly stated as the key to defining what and who is human.
Endless exposition is to be expected as stated above but it is also a shame, when you compare Dick’s story to a similarly themed work from Iran – “Ice Cream Cone” (2014) by Iraj Fazel Bakhsheshi. It is very short, almost flash fiction, beginning with a man getting an ice cream on a hot summer’s day in Teheran. The ice cream vendor is complaining to him about the scolding heat, with the customer not replying. Then the customer sits on a bench and allows the ice cream to melt all over his hand. In the meantime, there is a cat rummaging for food among the plastic sacks of garbage while a miserable beggar asks for handouts in the background. Later the man goes home and turns on the TV set to listen to the results of the latest poetry contest and, while watching, plugs himself in. He was an android all along. A translucent recharging figure emerges on his forehead while in the background the announcer reads a 13th century Sufi poem by Saadi Al-Shirazi:
Human beings are members of a whole
In creation of one essence and soul
If one member is afflicted with pain
Other members uneasy will remain
If you have no sympathy for human pain
The name of human you cannot retain
Both “Human Is” and “Ice Cream Cone” say the same thing but in completely different ways. Dick’s story is a proper narrative with explanations from the various characters, whereas Iraj’s story is far more compact and open-ended because there’s no exposition at all. It leaves so many questions unanswered. The silence of the android character makes you unsure why he bought the ice cream and also not one hundred percent certain if the story is condemning the inhumanity of man to man. Hence, the starving cat and the miserable beggar. The title is also vague. The closest thing to exposition we get is through the poem, but again these are just hints, with no real explanation for anything.
Great writers and movie directors often leave things open-ended to create an air of mystery and intrigue and to force the audience to think for itself and reach its own conclusions. And in the case of Iraj’s story, he has used these techniques to keep the story compact and maximize the shock appeal.
The question then is how Iraj Fazel Bakhsheshi was able to produce such an efficient and sophisticated story given that Muslims are the new kids on the block, so to speak, when it comes to science fiction. SF was invented in the West and for Arabs and Muslims it is an import, and a recent import at that; Iraj isn’t even a professional writer but a geologist and engineer. Many of our authors in the Middle East, whatever genre they write in, have to have a regular job to make ends meet and pursue writing as a pastime and passion. True enough, but Iran nonetheless has a long and proud storytelling tradition, something you can see with the many international awards Iranian filmmakers garner. The obscure and symbolic titles for such movies as Felicity Land, Every Night Loneliness, The Frozen Flower, The Salesman, The Blackboard, The Silence, The Song of Sparrows, A Cube of Sugar, What is the Time in Your World, alone tell you how skilled Iranians are at not giving the game away.
As for the Sufi poem, that is a cultural reference that allows for further compactness since the Iranian or Muslim reader can recognize what the author is trying to get at without an explicit explanation. Reading Iraj’s other stories and novellas, you find his characters predominantly aren’t named. That resonates with the oral tradition of storytelling found in Iran and also Arabia, turning characters into anonymous archetypes – the policeman, the security guard, the doctor, the nurse, the detective, etc. These are archetypes but, critically, not stereotypes. The characters are nuanced and frequently take decisions that surprise you. By contrast “Human Is” is both exposition-heavy and weighed down with clichés and stereotypes. Science, or reason, is being seen as the enemy of emotion and the scientist here is being lampooned and condemned, much like the mad scientist trope so beloved of horror and science fiction.
Even a biopic like A Beautiful Mind (2001) falls into this trap, with John Nash (Russell Crowe) contrasted to his alter ego/figment of his schizophrenic imagination Charles (Paul Bettany). John Nash is egotistical, only has half a helping of heart, unsuccessful with women and downright vulgar and ‘literal’ with them – describing sex as fluid exchange, like in a car engine, and refusing to buy a drink for a girl. Charles, by pure coincidence, is the consummate womanizer and the liberal arts guy – an English literature graduate. He’s everything John Nash aspires to be but cannot be. This setup is almost exactly what you see in “Human Is”, the romantic alien who wants to have kids and enjoys nutritional exercises compared to the crude and literalist scientist husband. Not to forget that the latter’s specialization is toxicology; he is someone who positively enjoys the vivisection of cute little fury animals. Here you see a divorcing of knowledge, science at least, from morality. John Nash likewise talks about his mathematical representation of a mugging, something he witnessed dispassionately without moving a finger to help the victim in question.
Islamic culture is very different when it comes to how scientists are presented. They are seen as wisemen who chose the profession of knowledge to benefit mankind. It is supposed to be a thoroughly moral enterprise. Similarly to the monastic beginnings of Western research, scientists in Islam’s past were often religious scholars as well, and the same holds true of our medical tradition. Hence a common word used for medical doctor in Arabic, hakim, or wiseman. By contrast doctor in English means teacher, like a doctor in philosophy, a reference to cold academia. The proper Arabic word for doctor is tabib, which derives from tabtaba, something like patting someone on the back or consoling him. It is automatically seen in moral and humane terms. When I was a freshman at university, our intro philosophy professor Dr. Ernest Wolf-Gazo actually told us that for the longest time a doctor was a low profession in European history, seen as being no different than a butcher. Then he added that it’s different in Islamic history, seeing the look on our faces. Again for us a doctor is a wiseman who cares for you and comforts you. And surgery was a last resort in Islamic medical tradition, relying instead on medicines and natural herbs and diet first – much like with Chinese medical history, which features acupuncture, herbal remedies, and a clear link to spiritual life.
That is why the scientist is portrayed in such stereotypically negative fashion in “Human Is” on account of the author’s cultural background. And most likely Dick wasn’t even aware of this, as critical and philosophical an author as he was. So, ironically, the Iranian story “Ice Cream Cone” is arguably more modern and up to date.
The 1001 Nights contains fairytales but also stories that count as proto-science fiction but in all cases the tales contain moral lessons and are mostly derived from Persian and Indian heritage. They operate at the same level as Greek myths, most noticeably a story like Icarus which is all about science, arrogance and morality. But, once again, consider how compact Iraj’s story is. This shows tremendous self-discipline, not giving too much away early on, proving how modern Muslim literary traditions can be and how easily they adapt to new genres and an international audience. Ironically it is “Human Is” that has a fairytale feel to it and spoon-feeds the audience information in the manner of juvenile literature.
The message of humanism isn’t just that we should search for common values but to not pigeonhole people into polar opposites and cartoonish characters. Humanism also means humility and appreciating how someone else different than you looks at the world, and how your enemy is just as human as you and driven by the same weaknesses and sentiments. After the film 300 (2006) had come out Iraj Fazel Bakhsheshi wrote his novella Guardian Angel (2016) in response. Instead of denigrating the ancient Greeks (or modern Westerners) he extols the virtues of ancient Persia through a time-travel story where criminals in the future travel backwards into the past to murder Cyrus the Great before he can write his famous cylinder which may be considered the first ever universal declaration of human rights. There is an alien plot involved but the ultimate criminals are thoroughly human, and Iranian nationals at that.
Comparing notes across cultures and storytelling traditions, in order to see ourselves more clearly in the mirror of the other, is a facet of humanism, too, and a lesson readers may take away when exploring the differences between Muslim and Western SF.
 Zahra Iranmanesh, “Narrative prose and its different types”, Journal of Languages and Culture, Vol.4(8), October 2013, pp. 128-130.
 Kawthar Ayed, “Mapping the Maghreb: The History and Prospects of SF in the Arab West”, Arab and Muslim Science Fiction: Critical Essays, Hosam A. Ibrahim Elzembely and Emad El-Din Aysha (eds.), Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2022, pp. 22.
Emad El-Din Aysha, an academic researcher, author, journalist and translator, is an Arab of mixed origin born in the United Kingdom in 1974. He attained his PhD in International Studies in 2001, with degrees in Philosophy and Economics all taken at the University of Sheffield, and currently resides in Cairo, Egypt. He has taught at institutions such as the American University in Cairo, and writes regularly on everything from politics and business to movie reviewing for newspapers like The Egyptian Mail, Egypt Oil & Gas and The Liberum. Since 2015 he has become a full-time science fiction author and has two books to his name – an SF anthology in Arabic, and an academic text he co-authored and co-edited, Arab and Muslim Science Fiction: Critical Essays (McFarland, 2022).