I was fortunate to read a strange but interesting and well-written Saudi science fiction novel, Above Gravity (Fawq Al-Jazibiyah, 2021), by Ahmed Al-Shadwi. I do not fully understand the story, but it goes a little like this.
By Emad Aysha
An Arab astronaut, Khalid (or ‘the eternal’ in Arabic), has some salvage and repair job dangerously close to the planet Mercury while a woman scientist is on the same NASA flight to test a theory of hers that will overturn everything we thought we knew about the universe and everything in it.
The scientist in question is half Arabic, named Ruyah (‘vision’), someone who believes contra to Einstein that time exists outside of the universe and that the universe itself is not expanding but rotating around a larger central universe, giving us the mistaken impression that the universe is expanding.
But foul play is afoot. Khalid almost gets killed and scolded alive by the sun while somebody tries to reduce Ruyah’s mind to mere putty, probably to discredit her and her researcher. And it’s up to Khalid to figure out who the plotter is and foil their plans.
The opening chapter has Khalid suspecting something is wrong, that a person named James is plotting against him, with some other names batted around; then we’re introduced to the story from the beginning with all those names and more to boot.
I usually like flashbacks and beginning with a picturesque scene that whets your appetite. But this is a bit over the top. We only get to the NASA mission in the last sixth of the novel, and no flashbacks focus on a central character narrating a story. Talk about mental fatigue before you finally get to the good stuff.
The novel is gripping, the theology, in particular, is well written, and the budding love between the male/female duo is delightful. Did it have to take that long?
The novel is commendable for other reasons.
The phrasing of things is delicate and eloquent, to be expected from an author from the Arabian Peninsula, and chapters aren’t numbered but begin with a classical quote. The science and religion interface is good, and so is the overlap between science and art as Khalid starts life as an electrical engineer who switches to art history.
That’s how he’s introduced to Ruyah because of a painting she did in imitation of Leonardo Da Vinci. (How ironic that Khalid is no conspiracy theorist and rejects the Da Vinci code out of hand)
A final plus is a fact that the author refused to write the novel straightforwardly, with a simple linear format going from beginning to middle to end.
As my friend Dr Faycel Lahmeur complained to me once, science fiction is a genre that is very adept at narrative and stylistic innovation, something Arab SF authors have steadfastly avoided for the most part. Mohammed Alyasin, a Syrian researcher and author himself noted this about most Arab SF in his own MA study on the topic.
Ahmed Al-Shadwi is breaking new ground for Arab genre authors and should be praised for that. The interlocking personal stories of the characters, over space and time, are an excellent addition to our attempts to break out of traditional literary modes.
That being said, I have some reservations. The international crew onboard the NASA mission is petty, jealous, and insidious as hell, something that is not becoming of a professional team where everybody depends on everybody else for sheer survival in the cold blackness of space.
The Cain and Abel routine is getting tiring and touristic if you ask me, and the conspiracies seem pointless to me. Is James working for British intelligence?
Is he trying to stop the Arabs from advancing scientifically, or is he working against the Americans, hence the FBI agent/scientist who disappears on a side mission with the NASA flight? An FBI man who was busy living with Ruyah to test her loyalty, only for her to be portrayed as an asexual saint only interested in knowledge for some reason.
Khalid is also too goody two shoes, with superior musculature and top-notch ethics and superior cognitive skills.
The concerns of the novel also seem mundane and earth-bound, hence the endless reference to a character named Ramadan who was busy keeping the peace and protecting agricultural land from intruders and interlopers with his stick, something that drew Khalid to the imitation Da Vinci portrait because it seemed to have such a stick in it.
Presumably, a thematic reference to being independent and not letting anybody push you around, and the author says many of these characters – including Ramadan – are based on real people, but do we need a baltagi [hooligan or strongman] in a 21st-century space opera? The obscure, incomplete and inexplicable conspiracies that underlay the tail end of the novel don’t help either.
All the sex stuff seems inexcusable like Khalid tearing Ruyah’s dress off at the end to prove to James and his employers that she’s lost her mind. It’s vulgar and unnecessary and a thematic device meant to say that the only way the West will allow us to survive in this world is if we blindly imitate them.
Ruyah herself is torn between East and West, which is okay in itself but still doesn’t fit her asexuality and disinterest in having kids, let alone her snazzy scientific reading of the Quran, where the soul migrates to heaven in the form of energy and the day of judgment is the meeting point between our universe and the larger one we revolve around. Why not make that centre stage and have the conspiracy around that?
Despite that, it has a happy ending, and I hope to read more of Al-Shadwi in the future. One word of advice: find a new publisher. The book had repeated pages, and while that allows you to go backwards in the narrative, I seriously doubt that was motivated by literary innovation!!