Ancillary Justice: Is there room for Science Fiction in Arabic Literature?

Translated from Inkitab

written by Fatimah Bint Nasser al-Wahibi

Ancillary Justice has attained great success among general readers and organizations that have unanimously awarded it with prizes, including: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Arthur C. Clarke award.

This novel was written by author Ann Leckie whose description on her website is stark: She lives in St. Louis, Missouri and is the author of the Imperial Radch trilogy. She has also published short stories in several science fiction magazines. Ann Leckie has worked in several professions; from waitress to secretary, even as a recording engineer.

The simplicity with which she presents herself on her website has another dimension: Most of the time there is a tall tower separating the Arab literary elite from the general public. Most of them present themselves as specialists who have won enough prizes and earned enough degrees to shut you up. Even those of them who have not earned any prizes or degrees present themselves as pompously and superior as possible; pressing me to make this point before I talk about the novel.

The barrier between reader and author in the Arab world is not simply one of hubris. It goes on to encompass some literary genres that are seen by the Arab literary elite as inferior and unimportant. This, in turn, is reflected by popular taste; science fiction literature in the Arab world is slowly fading away. Therefore it is worth bringing up Manscript 5229; an Emirati project that promises to produce and translate science fiction literature, and which has provided me—and others—with the opportunity to learn about amazing worlds, confirming that the human mind is capable of innovation and producing extraordinary things.

Coming back to Ancillary Justice [translated in Arabic as Bariq al-‘Adalah, The Luster of Justice, which also allows them to play on the main character’s name, Breq]: what we have here is a rich novel filled with complex characters, events, and worlds.  The characters come from fictional races and tribes created by the author and actualized by her imagery and descriptions.  These races and tribes all fall under a regime that governs them and the nations they belong to. These nations are influenced by the ambitions and desires of others who wish to control them, just like real-world struggles for influence and power.

Despite the differences in weapons and equipment, the evolution of equipment and machinery, war is grotesque and cares little for justice—especially while it is being waged. But when things calm down a little, and when the strong solidify their power and think that the other has accepted them—or, at least, appears to, they will try to forget that injustice is indelible, and the blood that was spilled runs through the veins of all those who were oppressed, keeping them from forgetting.

There is always someone who tries to bring balance to blind enmity and the equality that only the nobles and those with high morals achieve. What could be easier than eternal enmity? And what could be harder than overcoming the monstrous ego, controlling its caprice, and making it more just and equitable?

The novel abounds in situations that pit good against evil; predispositions imposed on you by your surroundings, your territory, your racial identity, your automatic alignment with those you belong to, and the overwhelming forces that drag you along. These are forces we are only aware of when we are far removed from the conflict, free to ask: are we actually in the right?

Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing. All of these wars are waged for the right reasons, in order to establish values, but we do not see that in this way we kill values and morals. I won’t tell you about the fascinating, enchanting, and mysterious characters in the novel; I do not want to spoil the fun that awaits you.

*Manuscript 5229: An Emirati publishing company specializing in science fiction and fantasy, established by Emirati author Noura Noman. It was named in honor of the manuscript of Ibn Fadlan, written about the journey he undertook for the Abbasid Emperor al-Muqatdir bi-Illah to the land of the Bulgars. The number 5229 is the number of a neglected manuscript in a famous Turkish museum. The voyages recorded by Ibn Fadlan in the manuscript had amazing impact on literature and art, not least the 1999 movie The Thirteenth Warrior. Now it is our turn to come back to this long-neglected heritage that encompasses all kinds of literature and knowledge that speaks to all ages and different minds. The publishing house’s focus is on science fiction and fantasy literature, a genre of utmost importance in encouraging young people to read. Science fiction stories have, and still do, attracted many, young and old alike, and tell stories to all ages. This genre has also created many who are passionate about writing; the fantastic aspects of these stories have sparked their creative imaginations.

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