Salah Maaty, a significant figure in the second generation of Arab science fiction writers, launched the trend in the region as a way of making the public aware of the importance of science and its impact on the future. However, this type of writing that started at the beginning of the 1990s has several challenges ahead of it in order to get established as a full-fledged genre in the Arab World.
For decades, our knowledge of science fiction has remained tied with what was produced in Western literature. The writings of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov among others along with several film productions have created our perception of science fiction. In the last few years, some Egyptians as well as Arab writers have started to enhance the local science fiction trend, giving rise to that genre of literature in the Arabic language.
Despite challenges due to a lack of awareness and interest, a group of Arab science fictionists have insisted to press ahead with addressing a limited readership in the hopes that one day their work could play a vital role in people’s lives. These talented writers are able to fathom the intricacies of the physical world and present them through drama, and by doing so, underlining the importance of science and scientific inspiration in our life. Among them is the award-winning fiction writer, playwright and radio presenter Salah Maaty, author of many novels, short stories and theatrical pieces.
Maaty, as well as a group of science fiction writers, meet at Nehad Sherif’s monthly seminar, the pioneer of modern Egyptian science fiction literature, to shed light on the latest updates in science and highlight film productions in the field. “These meetings are held to show that a science fictionist should be kept up-to-date on the latest scientific advancements, so that he can be inspired,” Maaty mentioned. He added, “The only difference between us and the West in that respect is that we have to make an effort to acquire the scientific data, understand it and simplify it, whereas the Western writers get ready simplified data due to the dissemination of science programs and publications aimed at promoting scientific progress among the non-specialized people.”
Having begun writing in 1985, Maaty is perhaps the most prolific of local science fiction writers. He began to attract critics’ attention after he wrote “Linqitho hatha El Kawkb” (Save this Planet), a novel that depicts a small boy as he pleads the galaxies, the stars and other entities in outer space to save the Earth after crises festered. His latest is “Bonga”, a novel about a guy who sets out on a long journey in search of space, but not space as we understand it in terms of length and breadth.
Among his most interesting releases have been his short stories collection “Badria w el Khalta el Seria” (Badria and the Secret Recipe) that relates the story of a science student who falls in love with a tender and loving woman who he sees as unattractive, and so he injects her with genes that turn her into the most beautiful woman in the world. Her beauty later becomes a curse, for she soon no longer is a modest, tolerant woman. The story might not be new, but the writer, according to critics, delves into the details of the conversion process, involving the reader in the scientist’s job. He also wrote “Oyoun Einstein” (Einstein’s Eyes), a story based on setting up a genes bank where all human geniuses are replicated, “Moghamra Wirathiya” (A Genetic Adventure), about dealing with the possibility of merging human and animals cells to produce a new type of humans and “Shaifaret Adam” (The Adam Code), a novel that discusses the ciphering of the genetic code.
However, Maaty’s works haven’t been restricted to fiction, for his books include many that theorize on the subject. One of them is “Science Fiction Between Science and None Sense”, where he highlights the stages through which man has gone to reach the maturity that produced science fiction. It begins with the definition of the genre that, according to Maaty, is “a form that starts where science ends in the same way science started where philosophy ended,” he mentioned. “Philosophy is one kind of scientific thinking. With the progress of science, a new type of writing came up to use both science and literature in one form that became known as ‘Science fiction.’ It is the presentation of the influence of science through drama with a special focus on the workings of scientific advancements, but not science as it actually exists but its echoes and developments as perceived by a foreseeable mind. This predictive outlook tells us about the would-be inventions and discoveries, the future disasters, the arrival of visitors from the outer space and the rise of Utopias before they virtually materialize.”
Maaty underlines that myth and the supernatural are one form of early science fiction. It also permeates the stories of “One Thousand and One Nights”. At this point, he distinguishes between science fiction and fantasy. Unlike science fiction, fantasy isn’t always in presence of any scientific logic. “In Egypt, the trend began with some of the writings of Tawifk El Hakim, Yousif El Sebaee and Mostafa Mahmoud, but Nehad Sherif was the first to specialize in it since 1969, paving the way for others to follow in his footsteps.
After he wrote his first short story at the age of 19, Maaty met Naguib Mahfouz who later invited him to join his meetings with other literary figures and follow their discussions. In 1985, Maaty met with writer Yehia Haqi who read his story “Before the Storm” that presented the fears of someone who presaged the fall of a disaster until it really transpired. After several encounters, Haqi advised him to specialize in science fiction, underlining that specialty is always to the interest of a writer. Eventually, he directed him to Nehad Sherif’s science fiction seminars.
“My first encounter with Sherif came through his book ‘Take the Order of №4,’” recalled Maaty. “I was surprised to find out that what I wrote was very similar to what was in this story which I hadn’t then recognized as science fiction. I rushed to meet Nehad who warmly greeted me asking: what if you lived in the year 3000? Would you find the same problems we face today?” He elaborated, “The pioneer opened new horizons of thought and creativity, horizons replete with planets, galaxies, stars, atoms, electrons, beasts, dinosaurs, viruses, bacteria and so on. I discussed what I read with him and began to feel sort of charmed by a new world. I would always return from his seminars with a bevy of ideas that each could be adapted to a science fiction piece.”
The science fiction writer is a futurist who focuses more on what is to come. To create his own vision he has to read extensively all writings that foresee the future and look into the history of science and its present achievements.
So why is there only little demand for science fiction books in Egypt and the Arab World? Critics highlight that so far only a small elite of science-fiction writers are in center stage, which negatively reflects on the number of releases produced. This is due to the gap existing between what is taught in colleges and its application in daily life. Publishing houses are also reluctant to adopt that kind of writing fearing the returns it usually generates. Many intellectuals believe it should all start from school in creativity classes as it is the ideal way to spread scientific culture, which, once brought into focus, will create both the writer and the reader of science fiction.