Genre fiction – sci-fi, whodunit, fantasy, basically anything certain people have decided not to call “literature” – is not spread uniformly around the world but exists in pockets. Science fiction, for example. In the US, it’s hugely popular. In Iran, less so. Occasionally a book will land on my desk that begins with what amounts to the author’s apology, something along the lines of “There hasn’t been much science fiction published in Iran and this my attempt to change that. Sorry!” So I’ve been doing a little digging with an eye towards a bigger research project. Initial inquires confirmed two things: no, there is not an enormous amount of science fiction being published in Iran and yes, many people who study Persian literature, Iranian or not, are closet sci-fi geeks.
It turns out that Iranian publishers, as well as critics, academia, etc., usually categorize science fiction as a sub-genre of children’s literature. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I read Ray Bradbury when I was a kid and that was full of murder and mayhem, the sort of stuff that makes parents give that Marge Simpson “Mmmmmh.” Still, Ray Bradbury didn’t have to worry about government censorship. By any measure, it’s marginalized. But look, it’s the Speculative Fiction Group, aka Fantasy Academy. More later, but look at those covers! No way, is that Cthulhu? Dude! (OK, it’s about to get geeky in here. Now, they’ve transliterated His name as کوتولهو , which is pronounced “koo-tool-hoo.” I know they know that His name is not pronounceable by human mouths. How about کهتلهو or خطهلحو. Just a suggestion. It’s a bit tricky because Persian isn’t so concerned with missing vowels. I can’t believe I just got to talk about Persian and H.P. Lovecraft in the same sentence).
The excerpt below is from the novel Majma’-e Divanagan (Gathering of the Madmen), one of, if not the earliest examples of Iranian/Persian-language science fiction. It’s by ‘Abd al-Husayn San’atizadah Kirmani and was published in 1924. There has never been, to my knowledge, another edition or even a reprint of this book (write in if you know of one). Amazingly, Harvard is the only US library that has an original copy. It’s just sitting there on the shelf. Stupidly, the copyright cutoff date is 1923, meaning we can’t digitize it (it has been microfilmed). More about the author next week. Here’s the excerpt.
Oh, one note: I’ve been given a remarkable amount of assistance in the earliest stages of this project by a scholar and sci-fi fan in Iran. I’ll withhold the name out of discretion. The same person supplied me with the digital copy of this text made from a copy held by the Astan-i Quds Library in Mashhad, which was great because the Harvard copy doesn’t circulate. If you read this, thanks again. Progress is slow but moving ahead.
The story so far:
The inmates of an asylum have escaped in order to join the Nowruz (New Year) festivities. One of them, an old man who had never spoken before, suddenly declares he can transport them to the future. He asks them to close their eyes and tell him what they see. Each begins to describe incredible landscapes and utopian societies. The narrator of this passage finds himself flying on artificial wings with a large group of people. After a slight mishap requiring repairs to the left wing, he lands in a great conference hall, one of ten, each several stories tall and served by a network of railroads. His wings take the shape of a chair and he begins to describe his surroundings.
Next to me was a beautiful girl, graceful, with a face like an angel. Her voice was delicate and soft and she was clothed from head to foot in a sky blue dress.
Ah, for one heart-stopping moment, she smiled but neither she nor I could speak. She blushed furiously out of shame and modesty and the joy began to drain from her features.
“Please, allow me to recite this poem so that I may describe such a heavenly angel,” I pleaded.
You are the sun and I but a speck, tiny beyond measuring
A kiss from your flower-like face is my only desire.
To my great surprise, the girl became very angry. She called out and a man approached us. I saw he wore a badge proclaiming him a member of the security service on his sleeve.
The girl gestured at me and said, “This man is either foreign or crazy. First he says, “You’re the sun and I’m a speck.” How can any educated person who knows of the sun’s power, extreme temperatures, powerful gravity and all the rest compare me to the sun? And how can he refer to himself, with his large body composed of countless atoms, as a speck? Then he says, “You’re a flower.” How am I a flower? I’m a human being and a flower is a plant. Surely this man is insane.”
The man from security began to interrogate me. “Did you say these things?”
“I respectfully recited a line of poetry, very sweet and meant to capture the heart, and most appropriate for the young lady,” I replied.
“How can poetry be sweet? And how can it capture a heart? What relevance can it have for this woman?”
“Sir,” I replied, “The greatest poets, whose names will live on into eternity, have tied their meaning a thousand times in knots like these, each more complex than the last.”
The man gave me a look. “Whether or not what you say is true, why should people waste their time like this? Your way of thinking is like that of someone from two thousand years ago. I’m going to have to take you to the asylum and see if they can cure you. Let’s go.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Back in my original world I was crazy and here I’m crazy, too. I have no choice but to go with the man and be locked up in the asylum. Good bye.