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Dr. Csicsery-Ronay Istvan on The Golden Mean between Local and Global SF

Emad El-Din Aysha: Dear Dr. Csicsery-Ronay Istvan. First please let me apologise for saying doctor. In Arabic countries we take such honorifics very seriously, even when speaking English. Secondly, please tell us something about yourself. Where you teach, your background? What drew you to science fiction and specifically non-Anglophone SF?

Csicsery-Ronay Istvan: I am now a retired Senior Professor of English and World Literature at DePauw University in Indiana. My doctorate is in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. I have been a co-editor of the journal Science Fiction Studies since the early 1990s and was also the founder and managing editor of Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies until my recent retirement. Most of my scholarship has been in science fiction. My major book on sf, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (the title was stolen from a great Persian Sufi epic), was published in 2008.

 

My parents were political exiles from Communist Hungary in the late 1940s, and I was raised in the U.S. in a home where we spoke English only outside; at home we were only permitted to speak the Mother Tongue. My parents expected to return to Hungary quickly, so it was important to them that we maintain the habits and styles of the country they had so recently left. That country, by American standards, was still in the 19th century. My parents never understood technology or engineering. They were both traditional humanists, for whom art and technology were deadly rivals.

I loved reading stories in science fiction anthologies when I was in school and watched every movie I could. But I was raised in an environment where literature was a kind of religion, and after a while most SF compared very poorly with the classical literature I was discovering. I went several years without picking up any SF. My personal breakthrough happened when I was beginning graduate school in comparative literature. I discovered that there was sophisticated criticism of sf not only from the US and UK, but closer to “home,” in Central Europe and the Soviet Union. I was introduced not only to criticism, but also to writers I hadn’t heard of until then: Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, the Strugatsky brothers, Ian Watson, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, among others. In a short time I read all the works of these writers I could find. Reading them made me realize that SF had become a sort of philosophical fiction.

My interest was always in global science fiction. One of the wonderful idiosyncrasies of the Hungarian language, in which I am as fluent as in English, is that it has a strong culture of translation. During the years of the Soviet occupation, many poets and novelists made their livings translating works from Soviet “friendly” nations, who were largely untranslated in the West, so I read many works of Russian, Asian, Middle Eastern, Caucasian, and African literature. Hungarian books at the time were extremely cheap, as they were subsidized by the state. In this way I was able also to read science fiction by Stanislaw Lem and a number of Soviet science fiction writers. I was also exposed to the fantastic literature of many languages. My comparative perspective was global from the beginning, so my exposure to science fiction was naturally also global.

 

EEA: You have an academic article titled “What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Global Science Fiction’? Reflections on a New Nexus”.[1] Please tell us what you mean by ‘global’ science fiction?

C-RI: I don’t care for the term “global” in cultural studies because it carries a great deal of hidden political-economic baggage. In most cases, “global” and “globalism” are just euphemisms for the transnational neoliberal regime that employs the global information web to extend and maintain its power. But it’s really the only term we have to name the cultural and economic cross-border flows of our time. I try to use it in a neutral way, but there’s no question that what we might call a global cultural regime is still dominated by the great cities of the major political-economic powers – at the moment these would be mainly in the US and Europe, but increasingly also Japan, China, and India. I’m speaking now only of cultural globalism, which is dominated by multinational capitalism’s market norms. “Independent” and “peripheral” artistic production – including science fiction – can benefit somewhat from this regime, but for the most part artists still must adhere to the “global” standards – among them the genres of blockbuster cinema spectacles, streaming television series, and for print, the English language. Science fiction not written in English, or translated into it, generally remain outside the “global culture.”

 

EEA: In this regard, have you read any Arabic science fiction in translation? Are you interested in this burgeoning field?

C-RI: I’m very interested in Arabic science fiction, but I have read very little. When I was doing research on the state of global science fiction just ten years ago, there was so little of it being written that Arabic bloggers were complaining that the cultural conditions in Arabic countries didn’t permit it. Some complained that the education system in many countries was so conservative and classically oriented, with so little attention given to technology and its effect on society, that the readership of sf could not emerge. At that time, the only Arabic sf novel available in English was Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s Utopia, which I did read and enjoyed. Since then there has clearly been a bit of a boom in Arabic language sf – obviously, any culture that’s dependent on cellphones is eventually going to produce science fiction. Recently, Science Fiction Studies published an article on Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad in our issue commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

 

EEA: You also talk about the centrality of visual media and motifs, citing it as a far more universal language than the written word and more amenable to translation. Have you watched The Wandering Earth (2019)? The movie was dubbed in English so do you categorise it as an example ‘global’ SF? Did it feel authentically Chinese to you and how does the movie compare to the original novella?

C-RI: I haven’t read Liu Cixin’s original novella, but I did see the film. I think it’s a good example of global sf cinema. It’s clearly double-coded to be enjoyable for a non-Chinese audience, but also sufficiently nationalistic to please a Chinese audience. I’m not fond of it, but then I’m not fond of blockbuster sf films from any country. The film has all the requisite special effects, but it is intellectually weak (how would the Earth survive without its moon, which is apparently left behind?) and is also clearly a statement of future Chinese scientific messianism. The online responses to the film in China – some of which have been translated into English by bloggers – show that many of its fans consider it an achievement of Chinese cultural soft power. Like many products of “global culture,” it is simultaneously multinational on one level, and deceptively nationalistic on another.

 

EEA: Here at The Levant newspaper we’ve queried experts (Mark Sedgwick) and authors (Dawoud Kringle) about the possibility and desirability of Sufi science fiction. In our correspondence you mentioned the Sufi-themed SF novel Miracle Workers by Ian Watson. Can you give us a quick summary of that novel please and highlight its stronger points?

C-RI: It’s almost impossible to give a description of Watson’s novel. Watson wrote several novels in the 1970s that are stunning both in their use of (and familiarity with) non-Western cultural elements and in the crazily original stories he built out of them. Suffice it to say that Miracle Workers involves an idiosyncratic mystical Sufi cosmology to explain the apparent existence of UFO phenomena.

 

EEA: You also described this novel as an example of Western ‘soft’ Sufism. Care to elaborate?

C-RI: Sufism has many schools, of course. Western Sufism has developed far from the ancient traditions of the Middle East and Africa. Like all transpositions of traditional mystical religions to the West, it has become less esoteric, less tied to its saints, and less bound by strict practices associated with monasticism. In many ways Western Sufism is a worldly practice that holds onto only a few core elements associated with meditation, prayer, and a simplified cosmology. Watson’s use of Sufism draws on some unusually esoteric ideas, but for the most part he uses it only to produce a truly “alternative” and exotic sense of the cosmos. I don’t think Watson was ever a Sufi, unlike his contemporary Englishman, the songsmith-guitarist Richard Thompson, who remains one today.

 

EEA: On a related topic, any thoughts on what Disney did to the Star Wars series, the new trilogy or the prequels for the individual characters?

C-RI: I’m afraid I’m not the right person to ask about Star Wars. I don’t discount its cultural importance, but I have no love for the films or the ideas behind them. My interest in sf is primarily as a philosophical literature that explores the problems created by the technological transformation of societies, as a kind of philosophical fiction. I have only seen three of the Star Wars films, I didn’t care for any of them and I don’t keep track of the others.

 

EEA: Come to think of it, who needs Disney anyway? There were plenty of cute furry animals and child-sized robots in the George Lucas original series. Most Arabic fans are peeved off as hell, myself included!

You can see, therefore, what I’m afraid of when it comes to Sufi and Arab SF if it goes global and you get film and TV producers going after the lowest common denominator. I just watched a scathing YouTube review of Mulan (2020)  – a Disney production again – for condemning sexism in ancient China while also not allowing any of the male actors to behave in a blatantly chauvinistic way to women because that wouldn’t be politically correct. I suppose being ‘poetically’ correct is more important.

Is there a way to avoid such eventualities?

C-RI: I’m afraid that “global sf” is driven by global marketing, and that will always mean that its products will be shaped to meet the prevailing mores and prejudices of its producers and consumers. There are enormous amounts of money involved in this marketing, so very few risks are taken. In some cases, a film or a novel might be made in a way that allows a sort of selective censorship. Hollywood films before World War II (and some even after) were made in ways that allowed the studios to cut out scenes with African-American actors, especially if they interacted with white actors, so that they would not be banned by movie theaters in the American South. Similarly, even during World War II, Hollywood films did not depict the persecution of Jews in Germany, even though most of the studio heads were themselves Jews of European origin. There has been a lot of discussion about whether American films will be seriously self-censored now that major studios and Netflix have secured lucrative deals to show and create films in China. Over and above this, we can expect global culture to develop two streams, neither of which can be as rich and original as a national literary culture – one will be progressive, which may tend to censor things from a progressive point of view, the other “conservative,” which will avoid any ideas that might offend a potentially lucrative traditional audience. (Both of these streams are of course ripe for treatment by sf satirists. The American writer Connie Willis wrote a novel called Remake in 1995, whose protagonist works in a future Hollywood digitally erasing all evidence of cigarette smoking in earlier films. Imagine taking cigarettes out of any film anywhere in the world but the US! That would be fantasy indeed!)

 

EEA: Finally, tell us about your future SF-related projects? And any advise you can given us here in Egypt and the Arab world for promoting SF, globally or otherwise?

C-RI: My current projects have less to do with sf than with global comedy and its history. I do plan occasionally to write some things on historical aspects of sf, such as the history of imagining the earth from outside it and the history of aliens. As for suggestions about promoting sf in the Arab world, I can only give hard advice, since I have little love for popular forms. Encourage writers and poets to translate the most philosophically challenging works from around the world – fortunately, some of these are already bestsellers, like Liu’s Three Body Problem. But most of all, allow and encourage writers to write exactly what they wish in Arabic. I feel one can only take two stances vis a vis global culture: join it by following its norms, or change it by following one’s own, in one’s own language, and let the globe catch up.

 

Emad El-Din Aysha is a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF) and the Egyptian Writers’ Union.

 

NOTES:

[1] Published in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3 (November 2012), pp. 478-493

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