Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov’s publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov’s mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov’s book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It’s pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book’s subject matter is difficult, the Gradov’s shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.
Sometimes when you’re in a new place and you’re unemployed, it feels like all you do every day is sit at the computer and copy, paste, upload, send, one thousand times, and each time you pray that the job you are applying for is not in fact a fake job, and you’re disappointed 90 percent of the time, because the Internet has officially become like the damn Yukon where everyone who missed the actual gold started a business selling crude maps to unstaked claims that don’t exist, or bought a brothel and called himself Miss Kitty. Sometimes it’s all you can do not to listen to sad songs and black out at 10 am. Sometimes you need a familiar book to be your friend and comforter. Neuromancer is such a friend, good to enliven another gray day without gainful employment.I don’t read a lot of Science Fiction. People who are serious about genre will point out that Neuromancer is actually something called Cyberpunk, but I’m going to unjustly lump all the books about computers and the future and aliens and whatnot together, into a category I don’t know a lot about. I try to hit some of the obvious ones, the authors who for whatever reason broke free of their genre-tethers and whose names drift around in the collective literary consciousness (e.g. Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Card). I know there are thousands of non-famous and under-appreciated gems out there, but there are a lot of books out there, and I am not a truffle hunter. I prefer the broad survey approach, and often must rely sleazily on the opinions of others.Neuromancer is pretty famous because it is widely accepted that William Gibson coined the word “cyberspace,” and introduced it in this novel. I read it at the recommendation of a human friend, and then in a class called Literature and Technology (which was probably the most unbridled fun I ever had in an academic setting). I pick it up whenever I feel grumpy and lazy and I want to read something action-packed. There is a lot of mind-melting stuff about computers and paradoxes and autonomous machines, which I enjoy even though I always pull a tiny muscle in my brain trying to work out what it all means, but basically this is a classic hardboiled detective story, but with cooler gadgets.The novel opens like this: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” The first sentence in The Big Sleep: “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.” Parallels abound between Gibson’s novel and any of the hardboiled greats. Neuromancer has the broken, street-smart anti-hero (his name is “Case,” for god’s sake), the sexy dangerous lady who is literally built to kill, or to do you, or both, and it’s all very dark and full of heavy themes and there’s not a lot of resolution and it’s violent and maybe a touch campy. Most importantly, like all of this sort of fiction, it can be summed up neatly by an old Turkish expression: “If it is your destiny to be fucked, what’s the use in being sad about it?” I don’t know when the Turks came up with this, but I think it’s a nice slogan for the genre.If you are not enthusiastic about this noir style and you hate the future you might not enjoy the book. But I think it’s a great read, especially now that summer is upon us and some people may be thinking about beach books. This novel is twenty-five years old, but it seems very hip to me, probably because I have no idea what’s out there now and my idea of modern is the Mitford girls talking about doing “it” after you get engaged. Out of enthusiasm for this title, I read two and a half others by Gibson – All Tomorrow’s Parties, Pattern Recognition, and The Difference Engine, but they did not do it for me like this one does. Science fiction or Cyberpunk or whatever fans, I welcome your suggestions for broadening my horizons.
In the new millennium’s parlous second decade, many countries could compete — should they care to — for the status of world’s most troubled place. The collapse of the Cold War’s nuclear-bracketed stalemates and the spread of destabilizing force multipliers like social media and religious extremism birthed this new reality of ever-simmering conflict and anxiety. It isn’t just outright warfare of the internal brand being waged from Syria, Sudan, and Ukraine that threatens stability. It’s also corruption and chaos potentially knocking out the underpinnings of societies like the Philippines and Venezuela. Millions of people around the world could justifiably say they fear what the coming years will bring.
Even so, Iraqis have a powerful claim on a horrendous past and frighteningly unclear near future. Since 1980, Iraq has spent more than 20 of the intervening years at war, whether the grinding and savage stalemate with Iran, a poorly picked fight with President George H.W. Bush and a devastating invasion by President George W. Bush, being ripped apart by the bloody Sunni-Shia civil war, or the current fight against ISIS. The end result of all these battles, ethnic cleansings, suicide bombings, and massacres is a people traumatized. It makes for a wretched reality but unfortunately rich topography for speculative fiction.
Unlike almost every other book you will find out there about Iraq right now, the ambitious new short story collection Iraq + 100 has little to say directly about all the nation’s recent wars. This is somewhat remarkable. As noted in the introduction by the book’s editor, author Hassan Blasim (The Iraqi Christ), “Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” Still, any opportunity for Iraqi writers to get together and write about something besides the wars, even if that trauma shadows each word in this book to some degree, must be seen as a kind of victory.
That is not because there’s nothing more to say about the wars; it will be years, if ever, before that is the case. But with few exceptions, books published in English about Iraq — novels and nonfiction — have been about the horrors wrought there and the outsiders who wrought them. But for the odd refugee, interpreter, Baghdad politico, Shiite warlord, or Sunni chieftain popping in as secondary characters, the focus is usually on the foreigners. Iraqis themselves rarely have a voice. When they do, they’re often confined to whatever war or atrocity is then being waged.
The guiding principle behind Iraq + 100 was for the assembled authors to write stories set in Iraq 100 years in the future. The tradition of science fiction in Arabic is relatively thin; Blasim blames this on “inflexible religious discourse” and an overemphasis on the Arabic poetic tradition, which has “weakened the force and freedom of narration.”
To some degree, the stories in Iraq + 100 illuminate Blasim’s critique. With few exceptions, there isn’t much in the way of driving narrative to be found here, no pulp fiction adventures. But given that space opera or dystopic tales in the Star Wars or Mad Max vein have been so widely disseminated at this point, it’s a relief that what appears to be the first collection of Iraqi science fiction in English is filled with so many non-derivative voices.
Blasim’s story is a case in point. “The Gardens of Babylon” creates a world where the old certainties no longer apply. In his future, clean energy has swept the globe, leaving “Babylon” a comparatively carefree technopolis run by the Chinese and rife with decadent entertainments. Like a Middle East take on Logan’s Run, Babylon is protected by great domes from the outside, which is all sandstorms and ruins: “a desiccated relic of a bloody past, a past that was steeped in religious fanaticism and dominated by classical capitalism.” Blasim spins his narrative off into increasingly surreal tangents after that which don’t quite cohere but leave a burnt sensation, as of a collective imagination trying to respark an entire artistic tradition.
Although Blasim’s piece notes a desolate outer land, it has an optimistic angle in that at least religious extremism and fossil fuels (and fighting over both) seem to be a thing of the past. Most of the other stories here also steer clear of any fashionable dystopian scenarios. Zhraa Alhaboby’s “Baghdad Syndrome” is a magic realist piece festooned with florid storytelling and details like a weeping statue that directly draws on Scheherazade. It also makes for a powerful statement about the strength of Iraq’s horrific past, with its future society’s cheery sloganeering about erasing history: “Leave behind your names and live!”
That cheery admonition is given a darker tinge in Khalid Kaki’s short and tart “Operation Daniel,” in which a Memory Office is there to “protect the state’s present from the threat of the past.” Anyone caught speaking in an old, prohibited language was duly arrested and incinerated. But still, ancient artifacts and old songs litter the characters’ lives, reminders of the joys they lost in the safe-seeking abandonment of their legacies.
Some stories bound more carelessly about, like Hassan Abdulrazzak’s “Kuszib,” with its disposable “solar blade” transport, “terror-proof” trashcans, Soylent Green wine, and goofy security “robotic puppies” that seem like a Jeff Koons installation reimagined by a security contractor. Others have a quasi-utopian atmosphere, like Ibrahim al-Marashi’s “Najufa,” which imagine terrors from the deep past — like that of the dreaded terrorist group CAKA, “the Christian Assembly of Kansas and Arkansas” — now swept away in a peaceful and technologically advanced Iraq. Ali Bader’s “The Corporal” is a thoughtful, acerbic, Ted Chiang-like piece about an Iraqi soldier killed by an American who spends his waiting time in limbo in the peaceful city of Kut one century hence. Religion is no more, everybody lives in harmony, and the soldier watches in astonishment as the Iraqi president gives a speech about the war against religious extremism in America.
Blasim writes that he coaxed the contributors into the project by telling them that “writing about the future would give them space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality.” There is indeed room to breathe in Iraq + 100, occupying as it does such a generally hope-filled and forward-looking universe. Given the reality of today’s Iraq, with its sectarian feuds and threats ranging from ISIS to the potential catastrophic collapse of the Mosul dam, conjuring up other, freer, less hunted lives — realistic or not — feels less like a writerly exercise and more like an exercise in survival.