A while ago, I read a novella – finished it all in one go – that I’d bought at the Cairo International Book Fair. The front cover looked terrible, with an actual photo of a man’s face overlaid in half with a robotic face, and my only excuse for buying it was that it was cheap: but boy did I get what I paid for.
By Emad Aysha
It started pretty promisingly. A character named Zosar (an ancient Egyptian name) lives in a cave with his wife and kids, going out to hunt so they don’t starve. He gets his arm ripped off by a wild animal for his troubles and returns to find his wife went out after him.
If that is not enough, she gets herself killed, and moments later he loses his little girl now that there is no one to suckle her. Five years later, he and his elder son are a little better off, and he decides to tell him how the world, the ‘modern’ world in the 31st century, came to an abrupt end.
This is all quite good, with mankind returning to its primordial state following a nihilistic war, initially tricking you into thinking this story is set in the distant past.
Then the plot gets going, and all hell breaks loose. The Russians invent a bomb that can deactivate all electronics, and an arms race develops, and the Chinese make an army of robots that invade and pulverise America, only to turn on their creators in China itself.
Mysteriously, some Americans and Egyptians find themselves in weird tunnels and somewhere with internal lighting in the sky and weirdly shaped plants. They then find sentient creatures speaking a bizarre language using an electronic device.
It turns out they are at the earth’s core, an underground civilisation far in advance of our own.
This is Jules Verne, of course, and one of the Egyptian characters, somehow, knows the whole mythology. While there, the Egyptians insisted on getting the help of these older, more advanced people to win back the earth and defeat the robot armies up and above.
The secret weapon they have down below is a half-human, half-robot (as far as I can tell) designed by a human that got there before them. She’s European but of Arab ancestry, with a name surprisingly like the wife of Zoser, who got killed in the beginning.
When the Egyptian meets her, she tells him she suspects the Masons are behind this cataclysmic war and, wouldn’t you know it, she’s right. The Masons cooperated with another underground community with different city-states in this Vernean world who hate humans.
The American escapees are conveniently part of this plot too. So the Egyptian and this woman go topside and steal those above Russian anti-electronic bombs and destroy the Chinese robot army but end human civilisation, leaving us back in the present.
Zoser – if that is his name – told his son the terrible tale in a very Abraham and Ismail way; they just succeeded in making a house of stone and hay. What a headache.
Masons, a foreign conspiracy theory, combined with a hollow earth conspiracy theory, is another import. Not to mention that the creatures below have flying saucers, so UFO conspiracy theories are also spliced into the novella. If it had been better written, I could have forgiven this paranoids trek, but I can’t. Even the printing was bad. The novella didn’t have a paragraph, just sentences that extended longer than they should.
I reviewed a conspiracy theory novel before, Asmaa Al-Yamany’s Ashmadie and it was perfect. Masons, satanic cults, foreign plots against Egypt, and end-of-the-world scenarios exist.
Still, with all of it, there was a logic to it all, a detective plot that engaged you and allowed you to figure things out for yourself, suspense and suspicions, sympathetic characters and humour and action and a picturesque narrative.
There are borrowed conspiracy theories, to be sure. Still, there’s also a distinctive Egyptian imprint to it all from an author who combines it all with her rich knowledge of history and religion, modifying a lot of these theories and avoiding anti-Semitism entirely.
Also, it’s all so playful. You’d never feel that the author takes any of this seriously while still making you engrossed in the story and raising the stakes.
The upshot is that some so-called researchers and authors believe this bizarre combination of borrowed and blue conspiracy theories.
I was attending a literary event where some SF author talked about hollow earth theory and how Nazi UFOs are hiding inside the planet, and he genuinely believed it all. And he’s an ancient alien advocate!
You can’t have Nazis making flying saucers and, at the same time, aliens from planet Z. Just like this guy is doing in his misplaced novella. I’ve read UFO conspiracy theories before, such as Genesis (1980) by William Harbinson, but that was a frighteningly plausible, well-researched, well-written novel. Not this nonsense. And what business is it of ours to adopt these theories?
Would an alien invasion change our fate as a Third World nation? Not really, since we’d go from being dominated by Western powers to being defeated by extra-terrestrial forces. And having Egyptian heroes that don’t save the day in the novella makes it worse.
Again Asmaa Yamany’s novel is instructive since she connects local problems with foreign plots and has us fighting back in all cases. This novella, by contrast, is like the Arabic epics of old, where the narrator invents a local sidekick to the elitist hero to give himself a sense of worth. But it couldn’t even do that.
And it has no themes at the end of the day – cyborgs and AI are incidental to it all – so why all the fuss? Oh hell, cheap book or no cheap book, I want my money back!