When presented with explosive controversy, you can dive right in or look for ways to turn the publicity to more constructive ends. After a recent controversy within the SFF community over anti-Islamic statements, Apex Magazine’s fiction editor Catherynne M. Valente chose the latter course.
Valente wrote in her call for stories:
I would like to announce that the November issue of Apex will be an entirely Arab/Muslim issue. It will be beautiful. It will showcase writers of Arab descent and Muslim writers. (I am aware that many folk not of Arab descent are Muslim, that’s why I’m structuring it this way, so that writers from either culture or both can be part of the issue.) It will show how Islam is as much a part of the human experience as any other faith or story system that writers of the fantastic draw from. It will be a small thing, in the grand scheme. It will not save the world. But it will exist, and perhaps in its own way can stand beside the recent ugliness in the SFF world as something bright and good.
Apex Magazine Issue 18 (November 2010) is the result of that contribution. Valente assembled three original short stories, a traditional Turkish folktale, and three poems that together present a diverse picture of Arab speculative fiction.
“The Green Book” by Amal El-Mohtar, is a tale of a book that is both read and writes itself. It poetically describes the perils of wanting more than you can have, whether the object of desire is knowledge or love. Much more is hinted at than stated outright, and this story benefits from rereading.
What is it to be a self-aware book, to know that anyone can read you and write on your pages at their will, and even to love you? The story is told through the writing in the book, placed there by multiple individuals at different times, each knowing only one piece of the whole.
And you, you want a woman in a book. You want to tremble over my binding and ruffle my pages and spill ink into me. No, I can’t lie. Only the living can lie. I am dead. I am dead trees and dead horses boiled to glue. I hate you. Leave me alone.
The premise is intriguing, but I came away feeling as if I were missing something, even after several reads. The concept did not translate well to the screen: even annotated, it was sometimes difficult to tell who was speaking (writing). With only texts written by the characters, the story cannot contain the cues of appearance and action that help the reader to untangle motivation and meaning.
If you are a vampire, compelled to sustain yourself on human blood, can you still follow Islamic law? Pamela K. Taylor addresses that question in “50 Fatwas for the Virtuous Vampire”. A fatwa is a scholarly opinion on some aspect of Islamic law. Excerpts from these fictional commentaries on the legal and ethical ramifications of vampirism alternate with the all-too-human attempts of Ibrahim the vampire to be a good man without starving. I believe that he fails, although always and only with the best of intentions, but the reader must decide for herself. In Ibrahim’s world, there is always another chance:
Even if you have feasted on a hundred virgins, sent to their deaths a thousand imams, and reveled in the terror our kind is able to wreak upon the living, God will forgive you. All you have to do is admit your errors, beg for clemency, atone for the wrong you have done, and start living the life you know you should, the life of a Believer, the life of Good Deeds. (From Sheikha al-Binawi’s 50 Fatwas for the Virtuous Vampire)
I’m fond of stories that succeed at fitting supernatural beings into an existing legal and social framework. Taylor has done that, but with a twist: to many readers the vampire may be more familiar than his cultural milieu.
“The Faithful Soldier, Prompted” by Saladin Ahmed, explores love and devotion in the world of desperate poverty and technological miracles. Despite the futuristic setting, this story has the feel and resolution of a traditional Arab folktale, with the honest but not too bright protagonist directed by unseen voices and unlikely guides. The physical trappings may change, but the human motivations will remain.
The reprinted folktale chosen for this issue, “Kamer-taj, the Moon-horse” from Forty-four Turkish Fairy Tales collected by Dr. Ignácz Kúnos, is a proper tale, with betrayal, sacrifice, supernatural guides, a beautiful princess and slightly clueless prince. Including a folktale helps the reader not familiar with traditional themes and styles of the literature of the Arab world see those elements in these original stories by Arab and Muslim authors.