Iraq has a long literary history, but science fiction barely features in it. As editor Hassan Blasim points out, Iraq “has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” Since then, Iraqi history has been a cavalcade of “wars, death, destruction, population displacement, imprisonment, torture, ruin and tragedies.” It’s hard, perhaps, to imagine a far-flung future when your own day-to-day one is barely assured. Yet this is what Blasim tries to do in Iraq + 100, an anthology of short stories set a century after Blair and Bush’s 2003 invasion. His anthology asks a question whose simplicity of phrasing belies its sheer complexity — what might Iraq look like in 2103?
Writers of sci-fi (or, at least the good ones) invariably write about now as much as they do distant futures and far-flung galaxies. The imaginative space afforded by writing the future allows one to look at the present anew, askance. Writing the future into being is as much a way of working through the contradictions of the present as it is about imaginative projection, and the authors of the stories Iraq + 100 are little different from stalwarts of the Western sci-fi canon in that regard. Today’s Iraq inevitably weighs heavily on Iraq + 100, the Iraq of Gulf Wars and Saddam and banners proclaiming Mission Accomplished to the watching world. The only story in this anthology that traffics explicitly in the otherworldly is Hassan Abdulrazzak’s ‘Kuszib,’ written from the point of view of a lowly bureaucrat in a race of successful alien invaders — or perhaps colonisers — who keep humans as livestock for their flesh and blood. It’s rather a clumsy allegory, but rather deftly done, oozing with Cronenbergian body horror.
One of the most openly utopian story is Blasim’s own, ‘The Gardens of Babylon,’ where psychedelic insects send Babylon’s residents into Huxley-esque trips beneath glittering pleasure-domes. And yet even this demi-paradise is underscored by the presence of an older world, a desiccated ruin of a city outside the domes of Babylon. In Kalid Kaki’s story, ‘Operation Daniel,’ the “Venerable Benefactor” Gao Dong has forbidden the use of any language other than Chinese — citizens of his city-state found in breach of this rule are “archived,” or incinerated, their ashes compressed into diamonds that would decorate the Benefactor’s shoes or hats. “It was called ‘archiving’,” Kaki writes, “because a crystal can store an infinite library of information locked in its chambers – more secrets than the House of Wisdom.” Even when it’s suppressed, history can never quite be erased.
Future Iraq is often a strange and unsettling place — as is Iraq + 100. A curious and uneven book by authors for whom sci-fi is not a vernacular, Iraq + 100 can feel in places like homage or pastiche, but in others it can be strikingly original and exhilaratingly fresh. Perhaps what is more important though is that such a project exists. Iraq + 100 is a gallery full of striking portraits not just of an Iraq that’s a century off but the Iraq that exists today, and of the fruit that today’s Iraq might bear.