For longer than I’ve been alive, Iraq has been either at or adjacent to war. In fact, writes editor Hassan Blasim in the introduction to Iraq + 100, “Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom, or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” A century of war makes it hard to imagine anything different, which perhaps is one reason Iraq has virtually no speculative fiction. But between Blasim’s efforts to solicit entries for this anthology and the writers’ stories that fill it, Iraq + 100 is the first science-fiction analogy from the country — and it gives a fascinating glimpse at a place far too long dismissed as housing the enemy.
As with any anthology or collection of short stories, the pieces in Iraq + 100 vary in tone and subject matter, perhaps more than most because their common thread is geographic rather than thematic. The first story, Kahramana, sets a razor-sharp standard for the rest of the collection with its tale of a young woman who stabs her husband-to-be on their wedding day and flees for her own safety, only to get caught up in—and eventually spat out by—the machinations of diplomacy and public perception. That story is immediately followed by The Gardens of Babylon, in which a frustrated VR developer gets some inspiration from an insect-induced trip.
The whiplash between the first two stories is repeated between every subsequent piece, but those significant details, first, provide plenty of variety for the reader and second, allow the commonalities to emerge untarnished by their narrative window dressing. Fair warning: it’s not flattering to the U.S., nor should it be. When the titular officer in The Corporal returns to Earth from Heaven a hundred years after being killed by an American sniper (long story; Socrates is involved), he is arrested and charged with terrorism. Because in the future author Ali Bader has built within the story, Iraq has spent the last hundred years solving the problem of religious extremists by doing away with religion altogether: “Whoever has God has no need for religion.” And in this future, the religious zealots have all converged in America, which is now as war torn as Bader’s futuristic Iraq is paradisiacal.
But neither is it as anti-U.S. as, frankly, I think it has the right to be. The collection closes with an American-born teen and his grandfather returning to Iraq, his grandparents’ ancestral country, in a story seeped in memory and complex emotion for family and where you call home. In Operation Daniel, China’s looming presence is forecasted as a totalitarian dystopic state (though given how China is treating Uighurs today, perhaps that future isn’t far-fetched). Perhaps the strangest story in the collection, Kuszib, erases virtually all of Iraq’s history through an alien invasion that has resulted in humans being farmed as livestock for our new overlords (who work dead-end jobs and schmooze the boss, just like us! And unfulfilling marital relationships, just like us! And have weird hermaphroditic tentacle sex, just like…wait).
I so frequently use the tag “food for thought” on this blog because I think literature is so crucial to understanding people and places and situations we simply could not otherwise. I didn’t personally like all of the stories within Iraq + 100, but I did appreciate what each was telling me about a region of which I know so little and that has undergone such violence. Reading this has made me consider my own country differently, as well as what bright possibilities we could reach as a global community if we collectively reach for something better.