How Sci-Fi Writers Imagine Iraq’s Future

In a new speculative-fiction anthology series, Iraqi authors consider their country’s tumultuous present as they envision how it could look in the year 2103.

Hassan Blasim
The editor of 'Iraq + 100,' Hassan Blasim (Katja Bohm / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Speculative fiction from around the world has been gaining significant traction in the U.S. in recent years. Nordic sci-fi novels such as The Core of the Sun and Amatka—by Johanna Sinisalo and Karin Tidbeck, respectively—have been published in the States by the likes of Grove Atlantic and Vintage. Meanwhile, China’s Liu Cixin became the first Asian author to win a coveted Hugo Award for Best Novel, thanks to his staggering sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem, which the publisher Tor Books brought to the U.S. in 2014. These books have expanded the vistas of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, genres that have long needed a plurality of voices when it comes to race, religion, gender, sexuality, and culture. Still, it’s been an uphill battle, thanks to the usual hurdles of translation, economics, and cultural differences. Iraq is one of the many countries that remain underrepresented in the U.S. when it comes to speculative fiction—although Tor aims to help rectify that with their publication in September of Iraq + 100.

Edited by the writer, filmmaker, and Iraqi expatriate Hassan Blasim, Iraq + 100 bills itself as “the first anthology of science fiction to have emerged from Iraq.” It comprises 10 short stories written by Iraqis, all of whom were guided by a simple yet fertile premise: What might Iraq look like a century from now? The book is appearing in the U.S. for the first time since its initial publication in 2016. Blasim, a native of Baghdad, began assembling it in his adopted Finland after having spent years as a political refugee due to his work’s criticism of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Blasim and Ra Page—the founder of Comma Press, which originally published Iraq + 100 in England—envisioned a mosaic of tales that projected Iraq’s entire present and past into an uncertain tomorrow. Page states in his afterword, “The best science fiction, they say, tells us more about the context it’s written in than the future it’s trying to predict.” Blasim has also pointed out the relative lack of technological innovation in Iraq throughout the last century as a perception he hopes to counterbalance. Baghdad is where algebra, the decimal point, and the first method to calculate the radius of the Earth were invented in ancient times—and Iraq, Blasim feels, is a rightful heir to the sci-fi tradition.

Accordingly, the stories in Iraq + 100 ripple with speculative energy. Written by authors who range in age and style, the tales take place in the cities of Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Najaf, Ramadi, and Sulaymaniyah—all are set in the year 2103, a century after the U.S. invasion. In “The Worker” by Diaa Jubaili (translated by Andrew Leber), Basra has continued to be ruled by a succession of tyrannical theocrats, the latest of whom has overseen a wave of famine, human trafficking, and even cannibalism. Using history to twist the present, the dictator spouts a perverse moral relativism—all while his citizenry scratches for survival amid the ruins of lost technology.

Graphic and grisly, “The Worker” shares a setting with “The Day by Day Mosque” by Mortada Gzar (translated by Katharine Halls). In Gzar’s dreamlike, visceral story, the mining of a most unsavory substance—snot—becomes symbolic of resource exploitation and social engineering on an insidious scale.

The author Zhraa Alhaboby and her translator Emre Bennett give urban life a less horrific, if no less thought-provoking, depiction in “Baghdad Syndrome.” An architect living in downtown Baghdad is the unreliable narrator of the story, which revolves around a reality-warping genetic mutation that has begun afflicting Iraq as the result of chemical warfare a century earlier. A different kind of epidemic is presented in “The Here and Now Prison” by Jalal Hasan (translated by Max Weiss), in which teenagers dodge oppression in an eerie future Najaf where memories are available in pill form and the surveillance state has gone biomechanical. Blasim himself contributes a story to Iraq + 100. Titled “The Gardens of Babylon” (translated by Jonathan Wright), it involves virtual reality, game design, and corporate politics in a technologically advanced Iraq—renamed Federal Mesopotamia—whose wonders are built on shaky ground. Dazzling and disorienting, these stories are not just reflections of turmoil, but also yearnings for peace and a connection with Iraq’s past grandeur.

That dynamic gives “Operation Daniel” a resonant power. In the author Khalid Kaki’s vision of 2103, a Chinese city-state has arisen on Iraqi soil. It’s a classically Orwellian dystopia, where a charismatic yet brutal leader—in this case, Gao Dong, the Beloved Benefactor—has installed himself as a godlike giver and taker of good fortune. Gao Dong’s greatest weapon, like Big Brother’s in 1984, is his dominion over language. All citizens must speak Chinese, and the region’s ancient tongues—Syriac, Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen—have been banned, and a government department called the Memory Office serves to “protect the state’s present from the threat of the past.” Rashid Bin Suleiman, or RBS89, as the government has renamed him, works alongside hovering droids as a cog in the Memory Office’s apparatus. His job is to dig up computers, compact discs, or any other means of information storage that might alert the populace to Iraq’s former sovereignty. That is, until he comes across an old folk song that radically shifts the way he sees himself and his world.

“Operation Daniel” also yields one of Iraq + 100’s most indelible lines. There’s an underground resistance movement struggling within Gao Dong’s dictatorship, and one of their slogans is “History is a hostage, but it will bite through the gag you tie around its mouth, bite through and still be heard.” It’s just one way the story (translated by Adam Talib) is rendered poetically. During his work, RBS89 unearths “glittering discs or dull cuboids with spindles of tape inside,” as if he were a treasure hunter in some futuristic version of One Thousand and One Nights. Even Gao Dong’s favored method of execution—which he calls “archiving,” a process where language offenders are incinerated then turned into diamonds, whose crystals audibly reverberate with their memories for eternity—elevates the tale from cautionary to sublime.

Iraq + 100 underscores an issue beyond America’s blind spot when it comes to international speculative fiction: the relative dearth of sci-fi being written in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. “The failure of Arab writers to produce futuristic fiction has been a mystery,” wrote the critic Al-Mustafa Najjar in a 2014 article titled “Arabic Fiction Faces Up to the Future.” He went on to note: “The Arab intellectual and political scene, blighted with much repression and censorship, makes for an ideal environment to write about the future, a realm void of the political and religious taboos of the past and the present.” Indeed, some of the authors featured in Iraq + 100—such as Hasan, who now lives in Los Angeles and works as a cab driver when not writing—have spent time in Iraqi jails as a result of their writing. Others, like Jubaili, whose education was cut short due to the UN’s economic sanctions in the ’90s, have remained in Iraq, living and writing novels while risking censorship or worse.

One Iraqi author of speculative fiction who hasn’t left his native country is Ahmed Saadawi. His writing doesn’t appear in Iraq + 100, but his 2013 novel Frankenstein in Baghdad is being published in the U.S. for the first time in January. A winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Frankenstein in Baghdad (translated by Wright) startles and stuns. Hadi Al-Attag is a scavenger who scours the streets of Baghdad during the U.S. occupation, subsisting on whatever he can find. His conscience compels him to undertake a ghoulish project: gathering body parts from the casualties of war, terrorism, and sectarian violence, then stitching them together into a hideous sculpture of flesh. The book’s speculative element arises when Hadi’s monster disappears, just before a rash of murders erupts throughout the city.

Saadawi explained in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that the creature—or “the what’s-its-name,” as he calls it—can be seen as a mosaic, morbid though it is, of the Iraqi people. “Since it is made up of parts taken from Iraqis of different races, sects and ethnicities,” he said, “the what’s-its-name represents the complete Iraqi individual. In other words, the what’s-its-name is a rare example of the melting pot of identities. Iraq has suffered from this chronic problem ever since it was established early in the 20th century.” Like the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror, Frankenstein in Baghdad—a patchwork of all three genres as formidable as Hadi’s own creation—stretches the fabric of logic. In that distortion, hidden truths emerge. Eventually the what’s-its-name transcends its atrocities to become worshipped by the masses, a parallel to the rampant populism that has resulted in the kinds of dictators that are by no means restricted to Iraq.

The creature’s anonymity—it’s also referred to as “Criminal X” and “One Who Has No Name,” among others—is more than just an Easter egg for those who’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where the infamous doctor’s creature is given no name but is called everything from “demon” to “wretch” to “it.” Saadawi uses this namelessness to evoke the dehumanization that comes with totalitarianism and war, where whole populations are often seen as a single, faceless mass rather than as individuals. At one point, a team of astrologers is called in by the authorities to help hunt the creature using magical means, in hopes of augmenting their more modern methods. One of the astrologers muses that the creature might be reduced to “He Who Has No Identity” or, more chillingly, “He Who Has No Body.” As with RBS89 in “Operation Daniel” from Iraq + 100, the subject is reduced to something less than human by his label alone.

Saadawi depicts his creature’s patchwork composition as both a strength and a curse, driving home the idea that collective identity can either heighten or suppress the individual, and that those in power often wield such distinctions for their own political benefit. The astrologers begin manipulating playing cards in order to divine the whereabouts of the creature—a clash of superstition, science, and the supernatural that Saadawi uses to highlight Iraq’s internal struggle between the past, the present, and the future. The creature’s response to such arcane efforts calls to mind the brooding fatalism of Shelley’s own wretch: “The cards don’t matter. What’s important are the hands that dealt them.”

“Writing about the future can be wonderful and exciting,” Blasim notes in Iraq + 100’s introduction, translated by Wright. According to Blasim, sci-fi is “an opportunity to understand ourselves, our hopes, and our fears by breaking the shackles of time. It’s as if you’re dreaming about the destiny of man!” His exclamation point is telling. As bleak as the book’s stories can be, there’s also an undercurrent of perseverance and compassion, not to mention the sheer pleasure of unleashing the imagination and the written word. Saadawi has said of Frankenstein in Baghdad: “The element of fantasy adds a touch of joy to the work, mitigating its cruelty.” It’s profound that in a country as ravaged as Iraq, the dystopian visions that have emerged in works such as Iraq + 100 and Frankenstein in Baghdad aren’t only grim and dark, but also hopeful.