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Rockets, robots, and reckless imagination

5 July 2015

From The Herald (of Pakistan):

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.

. . . .

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 Gilgameshwritten 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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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 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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at The Herald


38 Comments to “Rockets, robots, and reckless imagination”

  1. Great article, and I hope it’s well received at home.

    I come from a science fiction-reading family, and I read my first SF novel at 7. Some who know me would say “That explains a lot…

    • @ Bridget McKenna

      I doubt it will be well-received in Pakistan.

      these are evolutionarily designed

      Evolution is contrary to Muslim tradition which takes the account of creation in Genesis as revealed truth.

      I know almost nothing about the Herald, but it appears that the Herald publishes in English in Pakistan. I think they are preaching to the choir.

  2. “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.”
    And this is the tragedy besetting the Muslim world, and its population. Knowledge and free thinking is dangerous to Islam, and cannot be accepted. The same tragedy happened to Christianity until the Renaissance. Luckily for European Christians they were able to break the boundary of ignorance and the Western world advanced where we are today. Unfortunately for the Muslim people, their religion keeps them in the dark ages, and the West with its free thinking is the enemy. From the religious point of view that is true, you don’t want the people to question anything.

    • The whole point of SF is to take a half step back from the real world and wonder. Wonder about the past, the future, the present. To challenge your reality with ideas about what might just be.

      At heart, SF is about rationalism and religion is about faith, unquestioned belief.

      I wish him luck but rolling a marble up Everest would be easier.

      • Indeed

      • Wow. Did you just close off the entire speculative fiction field to religious people? That’s laughable, considering how the fingerprints of people of faith are all over the genre: Tolkien, Lewis, Card, the current Mormon contingent like Sanderson, Torgersen, etc.

        Unquestioned belief is not reserved only for the devout. All people cling to their worldviews, often in the face of contrary evidence, whether it’s their position on climate change or vaccinations or the moon landings–the list goes on.

        As a religious person, I can assure you that I have no problems taking a step back from the real world and wondering about it. And I’m far from the only one.

        • Ditto. Was trying to come up with something that didn’t amount to “Wait, what? I’m not allowed to like/write scifi because of my faith?” Lady Q, you said it much better than me.

          • Thanks, R Coots. I see this religious=narrow-minded/non-religious=broad-minded dichotomy a lot, and it never fails to frustrate me.

            • I’m loving that next comment too. That science>Faith and having a system of beliefs that doesn’t compromise means I’m narrow minded and unable to appreciate SF. Whoops. Guess my backwards little faith-centered self needs to toddle off to someplace that’s not got the all important god of Science.

              Oh, and while I’m at it, while the Catholic church was muddling around in Medieval Europe, Islam had MEDICINE, and a boatload of other things. And the ancient Chinese, who honored their ancestors and dragons and whatnot, had NOTHING to do with fireworks (/sarcasm). Those people had faith in something too.

              My point is, just because I don’t worship science, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy/appreciate a genre.

              • Suburbanbanshee

                Actually, Islam had “Greek medicine” from the conquered parts of the Byzantine Empire, by way of Greece and Rome; it was all based on the Greek system of humors. And Islam still has “Greek medicine” based on the humors; and still calls it that. Meanwhile, Europe also started with “Greek medicine,” but went beyond it and dropped the whole humors thing.

                Of course, a doctor with experience probably can diagnose your ailment by the sound of your pulse and what you’ve been eating lately; and for wellness, a lot of traditional medicine ideas are not bad ideas. But the best ideas of Hippocrates aren’t going to do open heart surgery or help you live through an aneurysm; and Western medicine will save your life and get you back on your feet.

                Of course, what would be best is to encourage all the good ideas and all the good thinkers from everywhere… to come here! Mwahaha, American melting pot for the win!

        • No. I closed fundamentalists to SF.
          Or, to be precise, I recognize that *they* closed themselves off from free-ranging thought.

          Most religions have come to accept the dichotomy of secularity and religion as parallel/independent domains: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” but that is something that islam in particular does not recognize.

          I am well acquainted with many SF works that tap-dance through the borders between faith and rationality (I’m rather fond of A CASE OF CONSCIENCE, myself) but that requires respect for both and fundamentalists accept nothing but faith.

          People who reject science are perforce beyond appreciating SF in full.

          • I see the Prime Mover not as a long, white haired, wise man, sitting in the lotus position on a mountaintop, handing down platitudes on life.

            I see a creator of science…chemistry, biology, math, physics, and on and on and on. A creator of a cosmos assembled like a possibly limitless jigsaw puzzle, wherein every piece is different and yet they all still fit together with each other.

            I embrace science even more because I am a man of faith.

            People who reject science are not just those confining God to the tiny little box of human understanding.

            Many of them today, reject science by twisting it around to make claims that science does not make. Al Gore and his carbon credits come to mind.


            • I think I love you D.C. 🙂

            • But they exist, don’t they?
              Are their nunbers are not small.

            • Thank you for saying this. I’ve had this conversation a dozen times with a dozen different people, and the words and the specifics are always different, but the theme is the same. Faith and science are not enemies. It needs to be said more, and with passion.

              Thank you.

        • Lady Q, you are fully allowed to write science fiction where a faith based system brings humanity to its destruction.

          Of course.


    • The form of education the original author describes aligns very closely with the kind of learning pushed in Victorian England, which is roughly the time period that Britain’s Empire was at its height, and was also roughly the same time Pakistan was part of British India.

      But hey, thank goodness we had the Renaissance to save the Christian world from that kind of backward thinking, right?

    • And yet, the Renaissance happened. At least, in Christendom; the closing of the “gates of ijtihad” (independent reasoning) in the 12th century in favor of institutionalised taqleed (imitation) thinking rather cut short the initial muslim renaissance, and then the mongols finished it off.

      It seems this gentleman wants to teach the youth to push back against the philosophic shift that turned the muslim world from a civilization that was highly advanced to the backwaters where science, industry, and preventive maintenance go to die. Excellent!

  3. SFF as the cure for societal ills? If that’s the case, the SF&F community here in the States ought to be practically utopian, but, alas, that’s observably not so. I think the article writer overstates his case.

    I understand his frustrations, though. I’m Pakistani-born-and-bred, and lived there for eighteen years. It was a mess the whole time I was growing up (military dictatorship, corrupt governments, political and sectarian violence, my school even had bomb and “what to do if a mob broke in” drills). My friends and relatives who still live there don’t paint an optimistic future for the country.

  4. I’m as big a believer in the virtues of SF as ajybody but I am also aware that SF is built on a cultural foundation that is anything but universal.

    Just look at *where* the stories come from, geographically and culturally. Any individual story might come from any location but the bulk of the material is overwhelmingly western european and among them it skews to the technocratic north and the atlantic nations most strongly.

    How much SF comes from Africa? SouthAm? Asia? And which countries in those regions?

    To a very large extent SF is a first world genre.

    • LOTS of SF\F is in Asia. You could classify most of the anime\manga phenomenon as SF\F. It’s just that the predominant literary form it takes there is in the graphic novel and the animated film, not pure prose or live-action film.

      Dragonball? An urban fantasy series set in a science fantasy world based on the myths of the Journey to the West.

      Naruto? A fantasy series based on ninja and Japanese mythology.

      Evangelion? Science fiction with heavy mythological elements.

      Gundam? Giant Robots. Sometimes fighting in space. How is this not Science Fiction?

      Record of Loddoss Wars? Pure high fantasy.

      Slayers? Comic fantasy.

      I could go on….

      • Let’s be precise here:

        I am talking science fiction, not fantasy.
        Fantasy is universal and eternal.
        Fantasy is a core piece of the human condition. There has always been fantasy and I cannot even begin to imagine a viable human culture without fantasy.

        Science Fiction is a different creature.
        It has roots in fantasy. It shares a friendly, porous border with fantasy. But it is not interchangeble with it.

        And yes, Japan produces lots of SF and fantasy. (I very much like Japanese fantasy.) But they are very much a technocratic first world society. You would *expect* SF to find fertile soil in Japan. And Korea. Singapore, too.
        Indonesia, less so.

        • One of the Hugo nominees for Best Novel is the English translation of a Chinese book: Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem. It’s definitely a thought-provoking SF read. Liu’s work is apparently very popular in China.

          • SF is becoming ever more popular in China as its economy improves and the country becomes more focused on the future.

            That said, individual stories and authors can come from anywhere. But that doesn’t automatically mean their society embraces free thinking.

        • Okay, what part of the world are you referring to? India’s relatively new to the genre, but Science Fiction has been an increasingly growing genre in the literature since the 80s. Lots of Sci-Fi in Russia, too, so that’s Russia, China, Korea, Japan, and India covered — I suppose there are a few pockets in places like Nepal, where you have a hard time finding Electricity, but Asia seems covered. Africa? Well, there are a lot of Sci-Fi writers from Africa, led by Tiptree Award-winner Nnedi Okorafor. Latin America? I know of a book full of science fiction authors… (literally. See: https://books.google.com/books?id=zI7rVx-dHtUC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false ).

          I think your premise is off. Just because they haven’t been translated into English doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

          • How many?
            In how many of those countries can thousands make careers out of the genre? In how many countries is SF even part of the cultural conversation?

            Everybody likes to think they are “normal” that everybody else is just like them and shares similar interests and values. So we look for similarities wherever we can find them, often deluding ourselves.

            The reality is that outside of the basics of survival, most human tribes are very different from each other.

            • Well, I’m hardly in a position to take a world census of science fiction writers, now am I? I can tell you that I’ve found reference guides full of nothing but biographical listings of Science Fiction authors in South America, Africa, India, and Russia. As to if those listings are in the thousands or if those authors make a living solely through sales of Science Fiction, I respectfully submit that that’s irrelevant — the numbers of notable examples are sufficient to counter your assertion that it’s just a case of a few isolated individuals.

              Are there even thousands of authors making a living solely through the sales of Science Fiction in the U.S.? That seems like an impossible standard to have to meet…

            • Felix, I get what you’re saying. I agree there needs to be some groundwork laid before SF can take off in a society. Our point of disagreement is our assessment of religion’s role in that groundwork. I thought your original comment was far too black-and-white.

      • Exactly. Different forms of entertainment. So many awesome stories.

  5. I suspect Hinduism, Christianity, Buddism, and Islam will remain when science fiction has been forgotten. They have a pretty good track record.

  6. My last blog addressed the topic of faith: Revelations.

    Both science and religion work by faith.

    How do you know that the structure of DNA is a double-helix? Have you done the experiments? Or do you take the report of Messrs Watson and Crick at face value? If you do the latter, you put your faith in the honesty of Messrs Watson and Crick.

    Unquestioning faith is no faith at all. It is fanaticism in disguise. I have no faith in Dark Matter and Dark Energy. I see their postulation as evidence that our current theories are incorrect models of reality. Why should I not? Science has been wrong before. (See Phlogiston.)

    What is the purpose of science? It is to advance human knowledge.

    What is the purpose of religion? Likely it has many purposes, but one is to get people to live together in communities larger than clans without killing each other.

    The teachings of science in the modern world are divorced from everyday experience. The teachings of religion are directly germane to everyday experience.

    That may be the reason fundamentalists of any stripe reject science (knowledge from experiment) for religion (knowledge from revelation). They are not ignorant and unlearned. They just prefer their own experience — which they find echoed and validated in their scriptures — to the experience of others (scientists).

    I have faith in Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity (I’ve done the math, actually), but I live by Ecclesiastes 3.

    • Theological faith has a limited meaning different from simple belief. In the western tradition, the object of faith cannot be rationally demonstrated. But the object of scientific investigation can be experimentally demonstrated.

      One may believe a scientific thesis, and believe it has been experimentally demonstrated. It is possible to confirm the same by personal experimentation. That is very different from theological faith.

      With theological faith, there is no belief in its experimental demonstration, and it is not possible to confirm it by personal experimentation.

      And fundamentalists? They believe in all kinds of scientific ideas. They put their trust in them everyday. There is little difference between their belief in science and the belief of the rest of the population.

      There is a narrow subset of scientific ideas they do reject in favor of explanations from theological faith, but that narrow subset does not warrant general statements that they reject science. Many solve the problem very easily by contending science is simply uncovering the means their diety created and chose to employ.

      • @ Terrence OBrien

        I am not clear on your thesis.

        In the western tradition, the object of faith cannot be rationally demonstrated.

        Apollo 11 astronauts left a laser reflector on the Moon so that the Earth-Moon distance could be measured precisely. U of T McDonald Observatory got a reading and published it. For a long time after that publication, no observatory in the world could replicate McDonald’s finding.

        During that period, was McDonald’s finding a scientific fact or an object of faith?

        But the object of scientific investigation can be experimentally demonstrated.

        By that definition, String Theory and expositions on Dark Matter and Dark Energy are not objects of scientific investigation, because they cannot be experimentally demonstrated. Shall they be transferred from the Department of Physics to the Department of Philosophy? Or to the Department of Religion, perhaps?

        For millennia, a heliocentric planetary system could not be experimentally demonstrated because 1) telescopes did not exist or 2) the resolution of the existing telescopes was not good enough to give the precision necessary to accurately measure the orbit of Mars. During that time, a heliocentric planetary system could not be experimentally demonstrated.

        It is a mistake to think that science progresses by degrees in a straight path. Science progresses by starts and leaps via a drunkard’s walk.

        I have no objection to those who prefer science over religion or to those who prefer religion over science so long as they leave room for doubt. “Gentlemen, I beseech you, in the bowel’s of Christ, think you that you may be mistaken.” It is the zealots who are certain of their beliefs that frighten me.

  7. same prob in USA
    memorize, regurgitate, no child left behind is a joke, more and more vouchers for religious schools, absurdist testings that devalue actual teaching and following of children’s deepest interests.

    Pakistan and any fundamentalist school system anywhere, murder the child spirt. Some of us resurrect. Many never do. Even certain authors are not imaginative, but replicative, same ol over and over. Not sure EL james was taken up in the rapture because of subject matter, tho that seems a part . But if she hadnt gone ‘off road’ and veered imaginatively into ‘married woman soft porn’ as I’ve heard some call it, and instead tried to run with the harder versions of same genre, dont know if anyone would know her name or writing…

    • As always. I’m with you brother.

      Creativity. Action. These are hard to test at the kid/child level.

      Does your country create new things? That is the measure of your education system in 21st century.

      How many kids can learn to beat tests and score high? That is probably a measure of your failure.

      As for the writings about sex and what not. The high sales of these things tell us so much about ourselves. It tells us that ladies are as much into getting busy as us dudes are. Can’t believe there is a man alive that has a steady lady and didn’t already know this. But I guess that’s another thing we’ve learned. Media is roughly 1000 years behind when it comes to female sexuality.

  8. I wonder how long before a death fatwa, a la Rushdie, is issued against this writer. 🙁

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