Each atom reaches here through its own gate
Each takes a different road to gain this state
And what do you know of the Way before
You now, the path you’ll follow to His door?
Farid ud-Din Attar, from The Conference of the Birds,
translated by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis
Who Himself and Others Knows
Here is rightly guided;
Occident and Orient
Are no more divided
J.W. von Goethe, from The West-Eastern Divan,
translation on display in the Museum of the History of Islamic
Science and Technology, Istanbul
Informed in part by Farid Attar’s classic twelfth century Sufi poem ‘The Conference of the Birds’, I am currently writing a science fantasy novel about a young warrior woman’s voyage to a revolutionary commune in the desert. The third volume of The Gaia Chronicles, The Blood of the Hoopoe follows Astra, a bildungsroman in which the mixed race heroine discovers that her post-fossil fuel Mesopotamian paradise is built on lies, and Rook Song, in which the leaders of an uprising against her homeland decide she is the reincarnation of the goddess Istar. How did I, a white non-Muslim, come to be writing increasingly Islamic-flavoured science fiction? If I am not, in fact, guilty from the outset of cultural appropriation, how do I negotiate the minefield of my own ignorance and avoid reduplicating Orientalist stereotypes and Islamophobic tropes? May I, conversely dare to believe that my books might help create mutual understanding between cultures we are told are ‘at war’, even play a part in building, in place of violence and mistrust, a shared vision of a just and sustainable global society? These are questions of great ethical and aesthetic import. My responses traverse not only hotly contested political and literary debates, but spiritual beliefs and experiences that by their nature are difficult to fully express in words. What I can say with absolute certainty is that in writing these books I am educating myself, and attempting to educate others, about the richness of Muslim and other Middle Eastern cultures. Whether my novels succeed or fail in their more specific ambitions, so far writing them has given me a far greater appreciation of Islam.
I am, of course, by no means the first Western science fiction (SF) writer to take a creative interest in the Middle East. As Paul Weimer has recently explicated, so-called ‘Silk Road Fantasy’, or Islamic SF written by non-Muslims, is a well-established subgenre; currently dominated by Elizabeth Bear it owes historical debts to Susan Shwartz, Judith Tarr, and the early twentieth century writer Harold Lamb, whose swashbuckling tales of Cossacks and Crusaders feature many fully realised Muslim protagonists. But while it may sound smooth and flowing, this Silk Road is riddled with pitfalls. Weimer warns against ‘slap-dash borrowing’ to cultivate an air of ‘mysticism and otherliness’, while Rebecca Hankins, discussing the use of Islamic tropes in the work of Western SF authors including Brian Aldiss, Joanna Russ, and Michael Crichton, has observed that non-Muslim women writers in particular tend to take an Islamophobic approach to Muslim culture. I am the very opposite of antagonistic to Islam, but aware that cultural blind spots may lead me to get the simplest things spectacularly wrong. I am still sometimes amazed that I am attempting to walk the path at all.