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Urdu Science Fiction - Where Is It?

Jim Walker

Presented at Interaction, Glasgow, August 2005


Urdu literature contains many genres, including fantasy, but science fiction is missing. 'Real' science fiction is defined, its relative absence in Urdu literature is established, and the cultural and religious reasons for this are discussed. This Paper is based on an essay produced for the English/Urdu literary magazine Tadeeb.(1)

Urdu literature includes adventure, romance, fantasy, horror and detective stories. There is one category, well established in all Western literatures, which seems to be missing. This is Science Fiction, a genre which really began in the 1940's in America in the so-called 'pulp' short story magazines. Those early stories were somewhat adolescent adventures aimed at young men, they emphasised a sense of wonder and strangeness and were often didactic in that the resolution of the story depended on the use or knowledge of some scientific fact.

Over the last half century the genre has matured, and although the readership is still predominantly male, this is changing,(2) and the themes are now more adult. The best examples deal with what sort of society would arise from the introduction of some particular new technology or from the geography of a new planet, calling for the reader to stretch his imagination. The Bulgarian sf writer Grigor Gachev said "People like science fiction mostly because it tells about things unexpected and new."(3) As in the 1940's the sense of wonder is important; when setting a story on another planet an author can imagine and describe anything at all so long as it is consistent with the imagined ecology and sociology of that world.

The best science fiction can be defined as the literature of "What if...." For example Bob Shaw's Vertigo (1978) deals with a future where personal anti-gravity units can be strapped to one's back allowing everyone to 'fly.' What sort of society results? What new crimes are possible? A more extreme example is Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which describes a society where the otherwise human people spend alternate parts of their lives as males and as females. They can father children while male and bear them while female.

It is useful to make a distinction between what are essentially adventure stories in space and those 'real' science fiction stories which attempt to deal with a different society. This can be illustrated by considering two films, Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002). Although Star Wars has robots, spaceships, strange planets, etc. it is essentially an old fashioned adventure story, indeed it was partly based on Kurosawa's 1958 film The Hidden Fortress which was set in feudal Japan. Minority Report on the other hand describes a society where a few individuals have pre-cognitive powers which are used by the justice system to forestall violent crimes. Murders are foreseen and the potential murderers are arrested minutes before they actually commit the act. This is genuinely different to anything which happens now.

It appears that science fiction is almost non-existent within Urdu literature. In an article in the Pakistani English language newspaper 'Daw,' 28th July 2004, Hasan Abidi says that science fiction is 'rare in Urdu.' The poet and columnist Jamiluddin Aali, quoted in the same article, 'found science fiction an entirely new genre for Urdu literature.' Research in the shelves and book-stacks of Bradford Central Library found only two SF books in Urdu, both for children. These were Ishtiaq Ahmed's Machini Makhlooq (Mechanical Creatures) 1986, and Agha Ashraf's Ba'ghi Computer (The Rebel Computer) 1988. While some of Ibn-e-Safi's adventure stories for adults have SF overtones(4) this would not necessarily make them 'real' science fiction as described above. Because of the relatively high price of books in Pakistan, monthly Digests are popular, carrying serialised stories, poetry, etc. Bradford Library subscribes to some twenty such titles covering romance, fantasy and adventure, but no Digest dedicated to science fiction. It would not be true to say that science fiction is entirely absent in Pakistan, there is in fact one monthly Digest, called 'Science Fiction', published in Karachi.(5) The author A Hameed has written much science fiction, mostly for children; Abdul Aziz Falak Paimaan has also written some science fiction.(6)

Bollywood has only recently produced its first science fiction film, a remake of Spielberg's ET (Koi Mil Gaya, 2003)(7) and there has apparently only been one science fiction film made in Pakistan. This was the 1989 film Shani, directed by Saeed Rivzi, and notable as the first Pakistani film to use special effects.(8) Had this film been a commercial success others would presumably have followed. Although there are some science fiction serials on Pakistani television, again these are mostly for children.

The interesting point is of course why Urdu writers and readers are apparently not interested in science fiction. There may be a number of cultural and religious reasons why this is so. The dominant literary form in Pakistan is poetry, with major poets having a popularity akin to that achieved in Russia by Mayakovsky or Vysotsky. A large Mushaira (poetry recital) will have a live audience of thousands and be reminiscent of a rock concert. Clearly this leaves less room for other forms of literature. It is hard for any writer to make a living as a professional author in Pakistan at the present time, other than as a Ghazal poet, and it is reasonable for anyone trying to do so to concentrate on a mainstream genre rather than science fiction, which even in the West is a minority taste.

Secondly, interest in science itself may be lower. Science as a subject is not taught as early in Pakistani schools as it is in England, however a lot of the 'science' in modern science fiction is in fact rather dubious and is chosen to make the basis for a story rather than for its scientific rigour. The days of John W Campbell and Astounding magazine, with stories having a kernel of real science, are long gone.

There are also religious factors which may help to account for the absence of science fiction in Urdu literature. One of the greatest differences between Pakistani and English society is the strong influence of religion (Islam) in the former, compared with the nominally Christian UK. It has been estimated that the great majority of male Pakistanis regularly attend Friday prayers,(5) compared with less than 10% going to church for all Christian denominations in the UK. Is Islam anti science and is science fiction therefore somehow un-Islamic?

Two factors suggest that Islam is not inherently anti science. The Prophet said "God has not created anything better than Knowledge or anything more perfect or more beautiful than Knowledge," and it is well known that for its first three hundred years Dar al Islam (the Muslim cultural/political sphere) was probably the most scientifically advanced area on the planet. The Muslim scholar Ibn-e-Myskuea foreshadowed the idea of Evolution in the 9th century (CE).(9)

Secondly, Muslims believe that the universe was created by God. Religious authorities have said "In every particle of the universe there are indications of the existence of a wise, omniscient God; every tree leaf is a compendium of knowledge of the solicitous Lord."(10) and "the 'language' of nature which is also a manifestation of the speech of God."(11) The Koran uses many examples from Nature and encourages the understanding of natural phenomena and natural forces which is seen as leading to a better understanding of God. This strongly suggests that Islam is not of itself anti science.

The first verse in the Koran (Sura Al Fatiha) is "Praise be to God, the Lord of the Worlds" and there is also a reference that elsewhere in the Universe there are Earths similar to our own. There seems to be no problem with the idea of other inhabited planets and thus other races, and indeed some science fiction is produced in Arabic in Middle Eastern and North African countries.(12) See also Hassan's Adventures, Muhammad Yusuf for an example of a hard sf juvenile with a Muslim hero written in English by an American(?) Muslim.

While there are certainly some present day Muslims who seem to be against science this may be more to do with an antipathy to all things Western/modern, rather than a truly religious objection, such as certain Christians' rejection of Darwinism.

Western science fiction has tended to be anti-totalitarian, including being against religious intolerance. The ethos is generally secular, unenthusiastic about the Christian religion, and occasionally downright hostile, as in Margaret Atwood's classic The Handmaids Tale (1985). Although much modern SF deals with spiritual values, particularly with regard to ecology, very few SF stories deal overtly with religious matters. Probably the best known is the short story The Streets of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison (1962) in which a Jesuit missionary lands on a planet of primitive but intelligent aliens who have no sense of sin, and attempts to convert them to Christianity. Misunderstanding his message the aliens crucify him to see if he will rise again in three days. By contrast, in the more obscure and light-hearted story Bruno Lipshitz and the Disciples of Dogma' (John King, 1976) it is the aliens who are the missionaries. Highly advanced creatures arrive to convert the Earth to their own religion by the use of overwhelming force. They are only defeated by causing them to fall out among themselves. More indirectly, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's 2001 novel Pashazade is set in 'Alexandria' in an alternative history where the Muslim Ottoman empire has survived to the present day. Although clearly set in a Muslim society, religion plays little part in the story. This secular attitude of Western science fiction may have been seen as an intrinsic quality of all science fiction, which would clearly be unattractive in a strongly religious society.

There may also be a more subtle factor. Science fiction is in reality a sub-set of fantasy. While there is a large market in the West for fantasy, the science fiction audience, with its heavy representation of computer programmers, does not feel comfortable with overt fantasy. In SF stories things happen not as a result of the use of magic or by the action of djinns, but from the use of machines. Since some of these machines, such as a faster-than-light drive for spaceships, do not currently exist and probably never will, it is clear that 'science' fiction is really using a sort of magic while dressing it up as technology.

Whilst Christians see God as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Muslims see God very differently, not in any way as a person, but as an Idea or Force, with the Will of God permeating and controlling everything in the universe.(8) A Muslim planting a tree will water and fertilise it and do everything to help it to grow, but knows that this will not be enough without a prayer to God to give life to the tree. Since it is this Will of God which makes things happen, rather than the mechanical actions of man, it may be that when it comes to writing stories of the imagination, fantasy is a more natural genre for an Urdu author than it is for a non-Muslim (and indeed, non-religious) Westerner. Both writers will be using magic to drive their stories, but the Westerner will feel more comfortable dressing it up as machines under human control and without any supernatural element.

It is clear that science fiction as understood in the West is very largely absent from Urdu literature, except as a children's genre. While it is difficult to find a definitive reason why this should be so, there seems to be a combination of cultural and religious factors at work. This absence seems likely to continue, at least in the short term, although the current juvenile SF may develop into more adult examples.



(1) The essay on which this Paper is based appeared in the March 2005 issue of the English/Urdu

literary magazine Tadeeb under the title 'Science Fiction - the missing genre ?'

(2) 'Woman's Hour' discussion BBC Radio 4, 2nd January 2006.

(3) Grigor Gachev 'The Evolution of Cyberpunk' presented at the 2004 Eurocon, Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

(4) Hafeez Johar Asian Librarian, Bradford Central Library.

(5) Hameed Qaiser Personal communication.

(6) Dr Ajaz Rahi Personal communication.

(7) Fatima Ahad Personal communication. [Bollywood films are widely seen in Pakistan via

video and DVD]

(8) Landmarks in Pakistani Cinema

(9) Dr. Mukhtar uddin Ahmed Personal communication.

(10) Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahari Fundamentals of Islamic Thought: God, Man and the Universe

(11) Vincent J Cornell in Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World

(12) Von Aurum's Islam in Sci-Fi An article mentions 'SF' from

Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Palestine and Syria.

This site contains a lot of material about Islam and Science Fiction, including analyses of how Islam, or a surrogate religion, is depicted in various SF classics, Dune, Ender's Game , etc.