Science Fiction and the Anticipation of the Future: On a Public Talk by Kawthar Ayyed
By Teresa Pepe
On 13 July 2021, the MECAM research cluster “Aesthetics and Cultural Practice” hosted a talk by Kawthar Ayyed, “La science-fiction et l’anticipation [Science Fiction and Anticipation]”, in the framework of the research initiative “Imagining the Future: Dealing with Disparities”. Ayyed is currently affiliated with the University of Tunis. In 2008, she obtained a PhD in Comparative Literature from Aix-Marseille University, with a doctoral thesis dedicated to Arabic science fiction: “La littérature d’anticipation dystopique et l’expression de la crise: Dans le monde occidental et arabe [The Literature of Dystopian Anticipation and the Expression of Crisis: In the Western and Arab World]”. Drawing on her extensive research on this genre and global theories of future studies, Ayyed used this lecture to illustrate the ways in which science fiction writers worldwide “anticipate” the future while re-elaborating the present, thus dismantling a linear and rational understanding of temporality. Moreover, Ayyed provided a range of theoretical terms that could help us study and categorise aesthetics and cultural practices that deal with the future. This blog post summarises the main points of the lecture and adds some thoughts to the discussion.
Ayyed’s talk focused on the genre of ‘speculative fiction’ (‘litterature d’anticipation’ in French), categorising it as a subgenre of science fiction (fiction in which science and technology occupy a central role) and placing it more broadly in the realm of future studies or futurology. She clarified that futurology is an interdisciplinary field of study that emerged in the USA in the 1930s, and that it draws on the human need of anticipating the unknown, the yet-to-come – that is, the future. Futurologists are regularly consulted by governmental agencies and large commercial enterprises to provide recommendations for the future. In the last years, teams of futurologists have started to include writers of speculative fiction, who might contribute with “intuition, imagination, fantasy, creativity”. In addition, speculative fiction writers may present linguistic innovations (what speculative fiction critic Darko Suvin defines as the ‘novum’), as neologisms coined by these writers to imagine future technological and scientific phenomena are often adopted in real life (e.g., ‘virtual reality’, ‘android’, ‘cyberspace’).
In the second part of the lecture, Ayyed divided speculative fiction into two main trends: one that imagines the future as better than the present (utopia) and one that imagines it as worse (dystopia). She traced the origins of the utopian genre back to the 16th century (particularly, to Thomas More’s famous work Utopia) and listed other, more recent works, like Le retour de l’éléphant (The Return of the Elephant, 2004) by the Tunisian-Francophone writer Abdelaziz Belkhodja. While Ayyed mostly drew on the European literary tradition, these themes are also present in works of 19th and early-20th-century Arabic literature, especially by the Syrian author Francis Marrash (1836–1873), the Lebanese Farah Antun (1874–1922), and the Egyptian Salama Musa (1887–1958). These authors used the genre to spread ideas of progress and civilisation in their radically changing societies. Meanwhile, Ayyed maintained that dystopian visions of the future are more common in the present, as “the future has become a form of distress”, following political, environmental, and economic crises. She provided, as examples, the works of Alin Damasio, Taleb Umran, Jean-Christophe Rufin, Mustapha Kilani, Wasini Al-Aaraj, Bouaalem Sansal, Michel Houellebecq, and J. G. Ballard – to which I would also add a number of dystopian novels from Egypt, such as Bab al-Khurug (Exit Door, 2012) by Ezz ad-Din Shukri Fishere, depicting an atomic war between Egypt and Israel in 2020; Nisaʾ al-Karantina (Women of Karantina, 2013) by Nael al-Ṭoukhy, which deals with a women’s criminal gang that controls the city of Alexandria over three generations, starting in 2046; Istikhdam al-Haya (Using Life, 2014) by Ahmed Naji, which imagines life in a newly-built futuristic capital after Egypt has been destroyed by an environmental catastrophe; ʿUtarid (Otared, 2015), by Mohamed Rabie, the main character of which, ʿUṭarid, is a policeman who arranges a bloody revolution against a foreign military government that occupied Egypt in 2025; and Al-Tabur (The Queue, 2016) by Basma Abd al-Aziz, where a man waits in line outside the presidential palace to receive permission to be operated on after he has been injured by the police. Beyond Egypt, there are other examples originating in the Levant, such as the short story collections Iraq +100 (2017) and Palestine +100 (2019), edited, respectively, by Hassan Blasim and Basma Ghalayini.
Ayyed asked if dystopian fiction is a form of social criticism: Doesn’t it rather construct the present as an ideal place, in opposition to imagined future catastrophe? Isn’t writing about and envisioning a better world through utopian work more constructive? These are fascinating and thought-provoking questions. In my view, this debate should acknowledge that utopia and dystopia are not rigid categories, and that someone’s imagined utopia is often someone else’s dystopia. In this sense, I find the term ‘critical dystopia’ suggested by cultural critic Thomas Moylan and literature scholar Raffaella Baccolini productive, because it acknowledges the blurred line between these two types of speculative imagination. Baccolini and Moylan use the term to identify a strand of dystopian works that deal with “a non-existent society described in considerable detail and normally located in [a] time and space that the author intended a contemporaneous reader to view as worse than contemporary society”, but that, unlike classical dystopia, “normally [include] one utopian enclave or [hold] out hope that the dystopia can be overcome and replaced with a eutopia”. This utopian aspect of the critical dystopia may reside both in its aesthetic traits and in its content.
Several contemporary dystopian Arabic novels seem to present these qualities, and thus blur the line between utopian and dystopian fiction. For example, the novel The Queue is clearly based on current Egyptian reality, where an authoritarian government and its impenetrable bureaucracy suffocates its citizens’ daily life, yet the novel leaves some hope for the future, found both in the main character’s self-determination to not give up and in the open-ended plot. Similarly, the Egyptian author Ahmed Naji’s novel Isktikhdam al-Haya (Using Life, 2014) and his more recent work Wa-an-Numur li-Hugraty (And Tigers to My Room, 2020) are set, respectively, in a futuristic city in Egypt (probably the recently built New Cairo Capital City located on the outskirts of a Cairo desert road) and NEOM in Saudi Arabia. These two novels imagine the shape love and friendship would take in mega-cities that are designed as new, hyper-tech, green, urban enclaves in the region. Thus, the author dismantles the view that these large-scale architectural projects should be seen as utopian, alerting that they could turn into small totalitarian traps for their inhabitants. He also draws attention to fact that utopian and dystopian visions are rooted in precise social and class situations: while NEOM and the New Cairo Capital City may turn into ideal places to live for upper-middle-class Egyptians who can afford to buy a flat there, these projects also entail the gradual abandonment of older parts of the city that lack basic services and infrastructure, which will become an even more miserable, hellish place for those who are left to live there. Finally, even a dark pessimist novel like Otared, by Mohammad Rabie, where future Egypt is under totalitarian military rule and represented as a living hell, does not idealise the current reality. Rather, it shows what Egypt could become if citizens continue to accept the current political situation, and thus indirectly pushes readers to react.
Ayyed concluded her talk by showing a short video promoting science fiction instruction, asserting that the real power of science fiction lies in the question that it poses: “What if?” While only a few years ago critics lamented the lack of speculative fiction in Arabic and attributed this to the conservative cultural loyalty that some writers nurtured for the classical Arabic language – as well as the supposed scarcity of scientific education and thinking in the Arab world – nowadays, these claims sound anachronistic. Arabic authors and artists contribute to the global boom of the genre with novels, artistic projects, and literary conventions and prizes, while futuristic movies and TV series are produced all over the region, from Morocco to the Arabian Gulf. It is difficult to estimate whether these author’s predictions are accurate or not, but they are definitely providing powerful and imagined answers to the question “what if” and forcing us to reconsider established perceptions of the future, present, and past.
 Kawthar Ayyed, “La science-fiction et l’anticipation [Science Fiction and Anticipation]”, 13 July 2021.
 For more on the topic, see also: Peter Hill, Utopia and Civilization in the Arab Nahda, Cambridge: CUP, 2019.
 Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini (eds.), Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, New York and London: Routledge, 2003.
 Ibid., 7.
Teresa Pepe is Associate Professor in Arabic Studies at the University of Oslo. Her research interests span across Arabic literature, media, popular culture, sociolinguistics, and the relation between aesthetics and politics. Her current research focuses on Arabic dystopian novels and their connection to social, political, and environmental changes in the region. She is the author of the book Blogging From Egypt: Digital Literature, 2005-2016 (Edinburgh: EUP, 2019), which explores blogs as forms of digital literature emerging in Egypt during the rise of the political protest of the Arab Spring. She is a co-editor of the volume Arabic Literature in the Posthuman Age (with Stephan Guth, Harassowitz Verlag 2019), examining the use of dystopia, necropolitics, monsters and satire in Arabic literature today. She is also the co-founder of the research network “Arab Media Transitions” that analyses the impact of media on Arabic culture and society from a historical perspective. She has published several articles in the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Oriente Moderno, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, and LEA- Lingue e Letterature d’Oriente e d’Occidente.
Further articles in the #Aesthetics&Cultural Practice thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:
Angela Rabing, Can Images Shape the Future? A Conversation with Director Abou Bakar Sidibé, 3 February 2022
Farouk El Maarouf, Coming to Terms with Marginal Art(ists) in Morocco, 17 February 2022
Citation: Teresa Pepe, Science Fiction and the Anticipation of the Future: On a Public Talk by Kawthar Ayyed, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.03.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/33768