Trouble in La La Land: Arab Utopian Science Fiction in Comparative Perspective
This article examines the topic of utopia in Arabic science fiction (SF), with a special emphasis on Egyptian SF. The argument here is that utopian SF came late to the corpus of Arabic SF because the notion of utopia itself is foreign. The social and political developments in European history that gave birth to utopia in modern political philosophy did not take place in the Arab world, with a few notable exceptions in the distant past in philosophy, poetry and folktales. Even when Arab SF authors began writing about utopia they continued to wrestle with the notion, focusing too much on mundane considerations of everyday life, and isolating their utopias. Thus, they created an unnecessary standoff between the ideal community and everybody else. Under closer inspection we discover that similar problems perplexed Utopian literature even in its European birthplace, relying on H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia as a model. The ups and downs of Arab politics – i.e. the Iraq War and the Arab Spring revolutions – have also impacted Arab SF authors. Nonetheless, Arab authors have been going up the learning curve, especially since the turn of the new century, while also making an original contribution to the corpus of utopian SF through relying on their literary heritage and religious concerns. Comparisons with SF produced in other non-Western cultures, as well as older literary and poetic traditions across the world, helps bear this out.