- Illustration by Zehra Nawab
- Illustration by Zehra Nawab

When I was a boy, I had a ‘family teacher’ who came to our house. This gentleman taught several of my cousins, my siblings and me for years. He was a hard-working man, not sparing the rod (or electric wire for that matter) and taught us many things: learn by rote, regurgitate on paper. Don’t worry about understanding what the essay says or implies; memorise it. Reading storybooks is a waste of time better spent ‘rattafying’ blocks of text. Stories in magazines such as Bachon Ki Dunya, Bachon Ka Baagh and Jugnoo, or involving Amr Ayyar, Tarzan, Chan Changloo or Chaloosak Maloosak zipping off in their space ship to exciting new worlds are especially no-no.

Fantastic tales are stories for children, we were told. To be discarded as one grows up, if not before.

My parents supported my teacher’s methods because they thought he was right. I grew up in a joint family (read tribal) system, and our elders were (are) old-fashioned. Education must be instilled into our youth with a vengeance, as children are incapable of learning any other way, they believed. A bit of caning, a dash of slapping, a flourish of the chappal — and all would be well.

Of course, they were wrong.

Of the children my respected teacher taught – 20 or so – for more than a decade, hardly any put their education to use. Not one pursued a professional career: entrepreneurship, media, arts, civil service, education, public health or law — or if they did, it was at for-profit colleges to ‘get degreed’ for societal purposes. Nearly all of my cousins ended up joining their respective family businesses: garments, shoes, shopkeeping, construction or renting out farmland.

I expect many readers are familiar with such stories. How many years are wasted all over Pakistan studying everything but learning nothing? Why does it happen?

My answer: The students and my respected teacher had no imagination.

Lack of imagination meant they had no vision and no conviction. They weren’t even interested in the possibility that any of the three attributes might be useful.

Is it a shock to anyone that Pakistan has been in the grip of an existential crisis for the last 60-some years? Outlining the root causes and effects of it is outside the scope of this article, but I will take a moment here to make a (seemingly) preposterous claim: Encouraging science fiction, fantasy, and horror readership has the potential to alleviate or fix many of Pakistan’s problems.

Before I explain my position, we need to define what falls within such a literary spectrum.

There are innumerable advantages to reading fiction, but my focus in this article is on speculative fiction, often understood to be science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (Hereon, I will use science fiction as an umbrella term to include all aspects and sub-genres of speculative fiction, including hard and sociopolitical science fiction, fantasy of all sorts, magical realism, slipstream, surrealism, fabulism, the uncanny and horror).

The literary tradition of science fiction (or fantastika, using literary critic John Clute’s term) is ancient; some might say it goes all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh written in The Land Between the Two Rivers (Mesopotamia). From more recent times – the last two thousand years – we can include Ovid’s Metamorphosis, quite a bit of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, Dante’s Inferno and, from the Islamic world, Alif Laila Wa Laila (A Thousand and One Nights), Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, Talism Hoshruba, Shahnameh by Firdousi, and so on, all the way to present day novels and short stories.

But what really is science fiction? Many consider it to be imaginative literature, the literature of ideas, literature that ‘evokes a sense of wonder’. Several definitions have been offered by Western science fiction writers and critics, but my favourite comes from Ted Chiang – one of our most important science fiction writers – from his interview with the California Sunday Magazine:

“Sometimes, people who read my work tell me, ‘I like it, but it’s not really science fiction, is it?’” (Chiang) says. “And I always feel like, no, actually, my work is exactly science fiction.” After Star Wars made the genre synonymous forever with what Chiang calls “adventure stories dressed up with lasers,” people forgot that science fiction includes the word “science” for a reason: It is supposed to be largely about exploring the boundaries of knowledge, he says. “All the things I do in my work – engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions – those are all things that science fiction does.”

I think most science fiction writers, readers and critics would agree with this: Science fiction is the literature that explores the boundaries of knowledge. While I won’t go into details here, that definition is mostly applicable to speculative fiction’s sub genres, including magical realism, fantasy and horror; it’s just the class of knowledge that changes within each.

Now that we have tentatively established what science fiction is, let us look at the real world advantages of reading it.

Except in the rarest of circumstances, no child is born without curiosity, hope and imagination. Much like self-preserving reflexes and instincts, these are evolutionarily designed to help the infant anticipate and respond to stimuli, seek out, learn, worry, and delight. We know from scientific studies that imagination and pretend-play aid in cognitive and social development. They not only arm the child to deal with the real world, but also play a part in establishing the identity of the child as separate from others, teaching them divergent thinking (a thought process that generates creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions), cognitive flexibility and self-regulation, which include reduced aggression, civility and empathy.

Any of those sound like a good idea to teach your average Pakistani?

Mimetic or realist literature has its own uses, but mimetic fiction doesn’t always explore alternative ways of living, learning and growing as individuals or peoples. It doesn’t necessarily evoke a sense of awe that could take us back to an age of innocence when the stars were a million hot eyes in the sky, the moon a silver sickle dangling from God’s Hand and the world a place filled with mystery.

Mimetic fiction often reports much and resolves little. Science fiction in its imaginative glory seeks to report and resolve and recreate a world filled with possibility. It provides us with so many lenses to look at the world around us, lighting up minds with revelation — until one exclaims that they have had a vision of a brave new world, or another jumps up screaming eureka! and runs naked down the street, letting the sun of discovery and hope beat down on their naked shrivelled skin.

Many times, the confines of realist fiction are too narrow to describe one’s reality. Words and nerves fail. Sentimentality may be found wanting. Thus spake Gabriel Garcia Márquez in an interview to The Atlantic in 1973: “In Mexico … surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.”

We Pakistanis are living in a country that has become the perfect dystopian setting, and we are so visionless and inured to the grim dark that we simply do not care. Reading escapist, fabulist or symbolical fiction is one way to regain hope, mutual tolerance and empathy.

Some examples of how such a literary model could work in contemporary Pakistani writing:

  • What if Hamid, a Sunni wakes up one day and finds himself transformed into an ‘infidel’ with devil horns and a bushy red tail? How does Hamid deal with this new situation wherein the locus of power has shifted?

  • What if an old Muslim schoolmaster dreams of seeing infinity, living in a land of mathematics, “the space where primes live, the topology of the infinite universes” in a world torn asunder by religious violence between Hindus and Muslims in modern India? What if such a story pulled quotes from Arab, Indian and European mathematical treatises, Sahir Ludhianvi, Bulleh Shah and Faiz Ahmed Faiz to charge toward its inevitable and touching conclusion?

  • What if a boy with musical superpowers were born in Pakistan (he can set the air on fire, say, with his tabla-playing) but this superpower only manifests itself in the presence of an Indian naach-girl from whose mouth the river Ganges flows out when she sings? How would such a premise play out and what are its symbolic and sociopolitical implications?

  • What if the bodies of Christians burnt alive in a conflagration (like the Joseph Colony mobbing) jolt to life and return to their muhallah to be led by a young boy with necromantic powers?

  • What if East Pakistan never became Bangladesh? What if General Ayub Khan didn’t carry out the 1958 coup d’état? What if the Pakistani army had reached Srinagar before the Indians in 1948? What if India and Pakistan were on the friendliest of terms?

  • What if Partition never happened?

Exploring such perspectives can lead to examining one’s present afresh. Visionary work and sociopolitical movements have often followed such perspectives. Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Samuel R Delany’s Dhalgren come to mind as examples of science fiction anchored in ideas of gender, sex and identity, which later influenced quite a few intellectuals, progressives and activists in the United States in their struggle for social justice for all.

Or why go to the West at all when a work like Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by Ibn Tufail exists within the Islamic cannon? As Charlie Jane Anders notes in her article The Islamic Roots of Science Fiction: “this 12th century work isn’t speculative, per se, but it does have a heavy scientific component, and was an influence on Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which in turn influenced tons of SF [science fiction] creators. In Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, a boy is raised alone on an island by a gazelle, and he develops empiricism and the scientific method of inquiry through pure observation. This book, with its emphasis on deriving knowledge from observation, became popular in Europe in the 17th century and probably helped spur the Scientific Revolution.”

Do we not agree that Pakistan needs a scientific revolution? That our children need to develop a healthy interest and curiosity in science, culture and ethics instead of the subjects being forced upon them?

I agree with Zarrar Khuhro’s recent column in Dawn: Science fiction literature has often been predictive of scientific and political revolution and technological innovation in the West for a long time — all the way back to the Renaissance, in fact. In that sense, a scientist’s flash of intuition (Descartes terms it the highest form of intellect) is no different from the science fiction writer’s burst of inspiration and their vision of a new, possibly utopian world model.

At the least, the imaginative exercise forces one’s mind open. To expose one to the presence and humanity of the Other; to redeem oneself from sectarian violence. Chalk out new battle and peace strategies for our ongoing civil war against militancy and injustice. Envision a government that prioritises healthcare, equal socioeconomic opportunities, education and local long-term investment over military spending and concessions to the rich.

Sounds naive, but also marvellous, doesn’t it?

I believe it is time for Pakistani educational institutions to start treating science fiction as serious literature. We need to produce science fiction critics, historians, readers and writers. There is ample opportunity in liberal arts and humanities colleges to design curriculums inclusive of science fiction literature, but technical, medical and law colleges should also include introductory science fiction courses to discuss scientific ideas spanning robotics, space exploration, climate change, gender, identity, futurism, implications of a nuclear arms race, world citizenry, transnationalism, dwindling energy and food resources and the wonders of quantum physics.

With the caveat that equal education opportunity is still a dream for most of our populace, we should at least aim to produce holistic Pakistanis. Being educated or literate isn’t just learning a text by rote, but being able to connect ideas, fuse different art and science aesthetics into a novel vision of the future, and innovate from that solid platform. In that context, I would also argue that venues like the literary festivals held in Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi need to up their game and include science fiction/fantastika as a primary colour in their literary rainbow. Writers like Naiyer Masud, Kelly Link, M A Rahat, Ray Bradbury, Ted Chiang, Jeff Vandermeer, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Mary Robinette Kowal, Vandana Singh, Samuel R Delany, Mazhar Kaleem, A Hameed, and Anil Menon should be discussed and celebrated alongside Hemingway, Mohsin Hamid, Manto, Mumtaz Mufti, Bapsi Sidhwa and other (predominantly) realist writers.

Fandom should be encouraged and science fiction fan and literary conventions organised. It is at such conferences that like will meet like and network to create both art and product. Academic study of science fiction themes and works in both Urdu and English need to be lauded, and, if possible, specialised literary grants, awards, and fellowships for science fiction writers and teachers should be established by both the government and non-profit organisations interested in cultural investment.

In 2013, I met Neil Gaiman at the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle. The author of classics such as Sandman, American Gods and Coraline said something very interesting, which he later wrote in an article for the Guardian: “I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him why SF [science fiction] had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.”

Has a better argument for the importance of imaginative literature ever been made? Perhaps I should ask that of my family teacher.