I’ve written previously about Ammar Al-Masry’s novels Shadows of Atlantis and Throne of Atlantis, so it only seems fair to write about the third and supposedly final instalment in the New World series, Heart of Atlantis (2019). I’d finished reading the novel the previous year but held out on writing about it till the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction held a cultural salon on the novel and the author, on Friday 27 December 2019, with Mr Khaled Gouda doing the lion’s share of the critical analysis.
Waiting to hear what everybody else had to say was a wise strategy, it turns out. Not only did it give me enough time to collect my thoughts, given the phenomenally large number of characters and subplots in the story, but to get some firsthand knowledge about the novel from Ammar himself.
Detours into the unknowable
As luck would have, I got to make a small critical presentation on the novel itself, emphasis on the word ‘critical’. The first thing that strikes you is how long it is. The first two novels were a goodly length themselves, weighing in at the 200 to 300 page mark. This one is a whopping 460 pages long and doesn’t begin where the previous novel ended, on the cliff hanger scene when the robot army of Gaia are heading towards the human city of New Atlantis to put an end to it once and for all, with the human heroes from the first novel preparing to deploy all their superpowers in this last final stand. Instead the author goes back to the very beginning of the series, repeats what happened in the previous two novels, while adding much needed details. The details themselves add new characters, good and bad and in-between, and new weapons technologies and new storylines. This process continues, and continues, reaching its crescendo in chapters 18 to 20, where you get clobbered over the head with even more revelations than were present in the previous novel.
The novel from the outside
This in itself is not bad. Khaled Gouda in particular praised Ammar for these revelations, taking issue with the previous two novels for not explaining what’s really going on in terms of plot and thematics. Like the previous two weighty novels, you zoom through the storyline very quickly because it’s so exciting and action-packed, with lots of thrilling technologies and alien landscapes. (I especially liked the trees that look like they’re made out of mercury, the giants, the space-time barriers-portals and the underground cities with their sky roofs). The problem is, in my humble opinion, that you lose focus. You almost forget the original characters from the first two novels, Nour and Ares and Ivanov and Sairi and Jean, people you bonded with and came to admire and placed all your hopes on.
By the time they remake their appearance you’ve almost forgotten about them, and as much action as there is left in the novel, you feel they’ve been downgraded and no longer get to save the day with their superpowers. Instead you have new thoroughly human characters like Iyad and Omar, who have their own adventures and humanitarian moments, only for them to be downgraded afterwards when the original heroes make their reappearance!
The bad guys aren’t so bad anymore either. Gaia, pathetic despot that he was in the previous novel, turns out to be an okay guy who is trying to protect his people against the evil Gladious, the alien entity actually responsible for the human heroes acquiring their powers. To add to the complexity Gaia has magical powers of his own, acquired from the crystal orb that was bequeathed to his people by the sorceress eons ago. And to make matters even more confusing, he has a father and brothers and a sister in hiding, whom he has given powers to but who oppose him nonetheless.
This is all great but there’s too much cramming and it becomes impossible to focus on any one thing, for the reader, and impossible also for the author to give any one storyline the full attention it deserves. As I explained to Ammar, and to the audience at the cultural salon, the novel feels like three novels, jammed into one. It’s a classic case of overkill, or over-creativity. Still, it’s better than being under creative!
Spectacle of the cosmic puppets
I can forgive Ammar for all this however when he made his big final revelation during the cultural salon. He explained, straight away, that what inspired the series was the situation in Syria. As politically attuned as I am, I never caught onto any of that, at least in the first two novels. He said that he himself wanted to make sense of what was happening there, the multiple parties active inside Syria and the foreign powers interfering and their conflicting agendas and how the people on the ground themselves change allegiances, without even knowing who they are working for or why.
Again, with all my schooling in international politics, I never fully understood the chaos of it all and from the first-person perspective of the players on the ground level till I read the novel. Ammar even quoted an Islamic saying to help illustrate this, where the person being killed does not know why he is being slain, and the person killing him does not know why either. You won’t read that in any textbook but its spot on. The human heroes were trained, armed and ‘enhanced’ by Galdious and his Enix forces to serve as proxies – the word mercenary is explicitly used – in his game of divide and rule on the peace-loving world of Atlantis. And Gaia, like many an Arab and Third World despot, wants what’s best for his people in earnest but insists on monopolising this mission himself, not sharing the responsibility for it with the said people he is supposedly representing.
That would explain his annoying tree-lover name, Gaia, another word for Earth. (The name Gladious speaks for itself, and he uses another term to designate the human heroes, (الجماعة الوظيفية), a word used to describe the Mamluks. He also describes his ambitions as a conquer as to create a ‘new world’, a word clearly borrowed from the Americans). Gaia, moreover, succeeds in getting some of the human heroes on his side, while others oppose both him and their original paymaster, Gladious.
During the cultural salon Ammar explained that Gaia is a stand-in for reformists in the Arab world, beginning in the 19th century, more specifically Muhammad Ali Basha. They were well intentioned and made the country strong but in such a way that they destroyed the fighting spirit of their people’s, contrasting the how the Egyptians fought the French occupation of Napoleon compared to not fighting against the English. There’s lots of other historical references, or hints in the novel too, and I’m glad I was able to catch onto most of them. A comparison is made between the peace-loving people of the planet Atlantis and the evil race that Gladious belongs too, and how the people of Atlantis fell into decline specifically because of the technological advances they made in their war with Gladious and his kind. They became militarised and lost touch with their love of science for science’s sake, an indictment of Islamic history and how we took a turn for the worse during the Crusades and Mongol invasions. We won the wars, in the end, but we’re still living the consequences on our societies to this day. Gaia himself is an embodiment of this dilemma, creating an army and a population of servile robots because he does not trust his people to make the sacrifices needed to win the war of national independence.
I preferred it when he was a petty tyrant as in the previous novel, if you ask me, but you have to credit Ammar with how humane he is, insisting on looking at things from the other side and always ascribing moral traits to the other party no matter how dastardly. Muhammad Naguib Matter, commenting on Egyptian SF author Nihad Sharif, noted how gentle and humanitarian he always was in his writings, trying to save mankind from self-destruction. You can say the same about Dr. Hosam Elzembely’s own SF writings, and he was a friend of Nihad Sharif. (Please see my review of his works). Same goes for Ahmed Al-Mahdi, especially in his fantasy and horror novels. I would say it’s a common trait of Arab and Muslim authors. You notice this in Ammar’s novel, repeatedly. When humans are attacked by the people of Atlantis, and also the giants, it’s because they are misidentified as robots. And when the vilest of the bad guys, Margoth, slays a worthy enemy, he always insists on giving the dead guy his full honours in burial. Even reading from his own holy scripture for the sake of the slain hero!
Would a Western SF author do this? Not likely. I’ve found this trait in my own writings, trying to make out the Americans to be misguided more than genuinely bad, and insisting on having responsible figures among them, while having plenty of irresponsible and fanatical Arabs-Muslims on our side too.
We really are like the alien race of Atlantis, as Arabs and Muslims. Too nice for our own good then going to the opposite extreme when bashing up against Western imperialism!
The philosophy of hair-splitting
Something else I want to talk about here, something I should have talked about in my previous review of Throne of Atlantis, is the issue of artificial intelligence. One of the mysterious characters in that novel, and this one, is Liones. He’s dressed up like a robot and can fly through the air. In the second novel he hoodwinks Nour into thinking that when the robots on Atlantis rebelled against their masters they themselves split into two factions. Namely, the ones who were happy with the way they were and another group that wanted to be more intelligent still and emulate humans in everything, including emotions.
The novel from the inside!
That’s how he wins Nour’s trust, by destroying a giant robotic spider that was pursuing Nour. It turns out to be a pack of lies but you suspect there is something more profound going on here, with the author using Liones as a spokesperson for his ideas. In the third novel you have a scene where one of the human heroes thinks Liones is a robot, and Liones becomes furious, his red eyes flashing in anger. Liones also explains that Gaia, for all his arrogance, programmed the robots of his world to ‘behave’ like real people, so as not to feel lonely in his newly built capital, which extends from the ocean floor to the skies. (It’s one of those picturesque moments when you realise just how suitable Arabic is to the worlds of science fiction, along with the early description of Gladious’ warship and how it looks like a shark patrolling the dark skies of outerspace).
Being human is condemned in the novel throughout, given our warlike instincts, the whole reason Gladious recruits humans to fight against the near invincible robot army. (We also hear about the flood and Noah’s ark cleansing the world of the corruption of man). Still, being a sentient life-form like us has its upside, such as a sense of wonder, sympathy and moral responsibility. You almost suspect, for a moment, that the robots really want to be like us, deep down, which is why they’re rebelling. Another plus point for Ammar, especially up against conventional Western sci-fi.
I also suspect that Ammar is drawn to the imagery and symbolism of fantasy and fairytales as a rejoinder against this too technological world. You can see this very clearly in the scene where Eyad and Omar stumble onto the local resistance against Gaia, from his own people. They’re disguised as trees, having acquired some of the magical powers of the crystal orb, giving them power over the elements of nature, putting nature against machines and technologies almost all the time.
This imagery is very recognisable, from the Wizard of Oz and the Lord of the Rings series, with trees that can walk and talk and take forever to pass judgement on people because as trees they take forever to grow tall and photosynthesize among other things. One of the key points in my review of Ammar’s novel was that the format of the novel was Western, or global even, while the content was thoroughly Arabic and Islamic. I’d guessed, a long time ago when he was still writing Shadows of Atlantis, that the towers the human heroes are trained in were modelled on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and that itself is a lesson on technology run amok. Ammar uses imagery and motifs from world literature, but he imbues them with Arab-Islamic values and sense of mission. He also relies on Arabic and phrases borrowed from the Quran and Islamic history every chance he gets, and rightfully so.
Muhammad Naguib Matter also praised Ammar, and his whole generation, for updating our way of writing and reading stories, with all these narrative tracks and multiplication of characters. Old storytelling techniques, Muhammad Naguib insisted, were very simple, focusing on one hero and his exploits and without that much depth in terms of character dilemmas and development. Dr. Elzembely also guessed correctly that the character of Jean is taken from The X-Men (Jean Grey), and Ammar confessed that he borrowed some names from J. R. R. Tolkien. There is also Gaia’s sister, Minora, which also sounds like a borrowed name. (She’s also an assertive female, marrying Omar as he leads the resistance on her behalf and her not listening to him when it comes to her safety).
Fantasy is also ideally suited to dealing with nefarious topics like imperialism and military occupations. The world of the ancient and Medieval peoples was all about wars and conquest and as Ammar correctly points out, it’s much easier and cheaper to conquer a land if its people are disunited because they’ve lost their moral and intellectual bearings. (The novel counts as resistance literature, if you ask me, with the oppressed masses hiding our in the forests, mingling with the trees in a more literal way than usual). In the case of Gladious, he did it through the crystal orb, convincing the people that it held the secret of immortality and that he alone could unlock its secrets, forcing the country into a near civil war where brother fought brother. Even the noble sorceress’s gift to the people of Atlantis itself could be used for evil, proving that all technology is a double-edged sword and that temptation always comes with every new piece of technology. Morality and sympathy are the only antidotes.
There’s also the golden bridge that connects the continent Gaia lives on to the continent the human city of New Atlantis is on, and bridges are always meant to be symbols of mutual understanding. Not so here, sadly. To close off I’d like to tell you everything that happens in chapters 18 to 20 but that would spoil it for future readers, and Ammar needs to make money off the novel himself if he is going to pen future novels in the series, as is hinted at the end.
Jean finally makes her grand appearance, but working for the bad guys now. So get ready for a six part series, God willing, Egypt’s answer to Harry Potter!!!