By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
Shadows of Atlantis (2017) is an alien invasion/post-apocalyptic story penned by a youthful Egyptian author, Ammar Mahmoud Al-Masry. The one human city that has been able to withstand the storm is New Atlantis, an Egyptian city built in the Western desert, becoming a refuge for what is left of humanity. The city hides a secret that the aliens are after, built on the ruins of the supposedly mythical city of Atlantis.
The story begins in 2150AD, on the eve of the invasion, telling the tale of a band of heroes who are ‘selected’ by some mysterious power to fight back against the invaders who have turned mankind’s servants, the robots, against their creators. Nour, the Egyptian quasi-protagonist, is given the ability to create inanimate objects out of thin air. Jean has the ability to turn back time five seconds. Ares can blend into his surroundings, changing his shape to match a person or thing. Sairi has tremendous telekinetic powers. The muscle-bound Ivanov can coat his body in steel. Kino is a cyborg with built-in explosive weapons at his disposal. Yousef is a healer who can also acquire the powers of others, for a limited time. Yassin has control over some of the elements (water, fire, air).
Most of the novel is taken up with the rigorous training of these heroes – to help them make full use of the powers ‘given’ to them. (Only eight only make it out alive out of a long and extraordinary list, and the contests make The Scorch Trials and Hunger Games look lame by comparison). The storyline comes to an abrupt end when three of the heroes make it to the secret headquarters of the once loyal robots, and come face-to-face with the alien intelligence whom they now serve. (The HQ contains a giant power source that allows the robots to function. Knock it out and you bring an end to the war once and for all. Its nail-biting stuff, I guarantee you).
This is not out of any lack of story on the part of the author. The novel is a lengthy 245 pages, and every page is positively brimming with energy. It got so long in fact that the author had to split the novel in two. And the sequel is just around the corner, no doubt riding on the anticipated success of this half!
The author, aged only 21, is very skilled at his profession. And this is his first novel. Chapters are of varying lengths and they switch from one character or group of characters to another. This allows you to see the same sequence of events from the perspective of another character. It also helps you understand what is going on more fully – why they are doing what they are doing – and create an air of mystery you positively enjoy. (Why is so-and-so doing this? Who exactly is this guy? Why can’t one tell who the other is?)
Furthermore, this allows for a fair amount of background to be squeezed in later in the story, with individual characters reminiscing on their past while trying to make sense of what has happened to their beloved planet. (The creature that gives them their powers and trains them also gives them a memory swipe). The novel is positively action-packed, while the pacing is good too, giving you a chance to relax and smell the roses, as the characters themselves do.
The other distinguishing quality of the novel, quite exceptional by Arabic standards, is the sense of humour. Egyptians are no strangers to a little sarcasm in writing but Arabic and Egyptian sci-fi tends be overly serious. Even if a story is satirical the narrative and dialogue isn’t snappy. Not so here, where you often have scenes where you can hear a character’s thoughts and get to see how he tricks someone or makes a joke about him behind his back. The events can be light-hearted too. When Ares gets on board the robot vessel that takes him to the secret robot HQ, he disguises himself as a robot, and he is forced to sit right in front of a robot sentry. The other robot keeps staring at him with its deathly gaze, weapon in hand, while Ares keeps worrying about how long the ride will take. He can only remain in disguise for five minutes. He almost pisses his pants!
The novel was a joy to read. It only took me about 4 days, and I’m a very slow reader, and especially in Arabic. That’s how riveting it is. You’ve simply got to buy it and learn how fun it is all by yourselves.
To understand Shadows of Atlantis you have to be an Egyptian. As cosmopolitan, easy going and transparently youthful as the language is, it is still esoteric and needs cultural deciphering. The first scene tells it all. You have the hero, a ‘boy’ named Nour, forcing himself to wake up because of the annoying sound of the alarm ringing. He’s described as having slightly tanned skin, straight brown hair, eyes as dark as pits, and features that ‘tend’ towards an Arabic look.
Why not have a straightforward Arab-looking hero? The boy does wake up in New Cairo, after all, and Egypt is at the centre of the story throughout. So, what is our friend Ammar hinting it? First off, Nour’s age. He’s 22, but described as a boy. (Even Kino is described as a ‘youth’, shaab, although he’s a university professor and in his thirties). The youthful author is clearly rebelling against Arabic ageism. In Egypt, you are a shaab only when you turn 30 and keep that way till you turn 50, on the verge of retirement. Prior to all this you are just a ‘kid’, even if you have a Master’s Degree!
Ammar himself is a toddler at this rate. Note also that Nour lives in a nice suburban house with a beautiful garden, far away from the noise and over-crowdedness of the city, and in a house that he ‘inherited’ from his father.
This is an allusion to individualism and youthful independence, with no parents to cramp his style. Egyptians love to be crammed in together, even in the new cities out in the desert. They don’t feel safe otherwise. You also can’t help but notice that Nour’s friend and neighbour and university colleague, Yousef, walks into Nour’s house without knocking first, startling Nour. (The front door was left unlocked, a big no-no in Egyptian culture).
Second, Nour’s appearance. Egyptians are normally characterised as having akrad (closely cropped curly) hair, as are many Arabs. But his university professor, Kino, is Japanese. (This is the same Kino who gets his memory wiped and is given superpowers). So these literary hints are about internationalism, since the heroes come from different parts of the world. They have to learn to get along in the face of a common foe threatening to wipe out all mankind – the robots don’t distinguish based on nationality, religion and race. (During the training sessions, they are ‘encouraged’ to betray each other, but they steadfastly refuse to). And as brave and courageous as the eight heroes are, they have their personality flaws.
Ivanov, when he’s fully transformed, loses control over himself and destroys anything in his path – even his allies. And he was originally a Russian soldier, with very noticeable blond hair. (The only part of him that doesn’t turn metallic, in fact). So, as technologically advanced and relaxing as life is in 2150 – Nour wants to oversleep – there are still wars and global conflicts, pitting the Muslim world (united into a league) against the Europeans.
No wonder that Nour’s ambition is to get away from it all by journeying out into the cosmos. (He’s enrolled in astronomy and wants to be an astronaut). If only he knew how lucky he was!
Worlds in Miniature
We can add, then, a third set of issues – Utopia. The story is about Atlantis, after all. Where does utopia lay, out there in the wold of technology, or in men’s hearts?
A little bit of both, I’d wager. Sairi is a Japanese Buddhist monk in his pre-invasion life. And he positively disdains modern technology, preferring the untainted world of nature where his monastery is located. It’s because of the power of meditation that he’s rewarded with telekinetic powers, since it wouldn’t work without tremendous self-discipline.
Sairi sees himself as a Samurai and even has a katana sword, inherited from his father, but its gets sliced in two during a duel with a light sabre, forcing him to rely on the light sabre himself. Again, a meeting of technology with spiritualism. Remember that it is the soft life of technological dependence, on the robots, that is mankind’s downfall. (Kino’s brother had devised the programming laws that make robots totally obedient – Asimov’s three laws – but himself fell afoul of the robots during a previous space mission).
The standoff between Muslims and Europeans, I presume, is an allusion to the clash of civilisations. (There’s lots of weapons left lying around in this post-apocalyptic world, which Ivanov, Ares and Sairi eagerly lap up on their scavenger hunt). As prosperous as the old world was, it was still spending way too much money on armaments. Not that it did them any good in the end. The robots are even better at inventing nastier means of destruction (the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence). Amazingly, the robots become very humane amongst themselves. (You see whole robot families at one point in the story). Is it a coincidence that their alien master is named ‘Gaia’, another word for the planet earth? Its’ also a word often associated with hippies and nature-loving!
This is a clash of worlds, where the humans have to learn to be like the now sentient, ‘civilised’ robots. Talk about a twist of fate. (You’re also told that the ancient city of Atlantis got into wars with neighbouring groups). Destiny has a cruel sense of humour. Not that you don’t enjoy yourself along the way. Oh, and did I mention that Nour’s second favourite subject is archaeology? (There’s fairytale elements too. A giant eagle in the story is described as being as big as an elephant. The Rokh in The 1001 Nights is so large it can carry an ‘elephant’ in one of its feet). Who knows what lies in store for Nour, and us, in the sequel?
The abrupt ending is a cliff-hanger, a technique seldom used by Arab authors, but clearly mastered by the new generation Ammar represents. (It worked on me. Personally, I can’t wait for the next novel to come out). Not that the publishers seem to have caught onto this marketing ploy. They didn’t even bother to place ‘volume one’ on the front cover!!!