In this special feature, Emad El-Din Aysha - an academic, journalist, translator, and member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, which was formed in 2012 after the Arab Spring - interviews Farzin Souri, editor-in-chief of the Iranian SF magazine 3Feed.
The speculative fiction group is formally an NGO and made up of authors, researchers, translators and genre fans. It began life in February 2002, morphing out of Iranian fanzines dedicated to SF along with fantasy, horror and detective fiction, and in its short life span the group has already won seven SFF awards.
This interview with the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Mr. Farzin, is an attempt to glean some light across the language barrier between Iran and the Arabs to the benefit of SF fans and authors alike across the Muslim world. Even the word for science fiction in Farsi, (علمیتخیلی, pronounced elmi-takhaioli), sounds remarkably like the Arabic word – خيال علمي (khayal ilmi; khayal meaning imagination, and ilmi scientific.)
That’s what we both want, at the end of the day: to explore our respective people’s fantastical imaginations and help people think in a more rational fashion, to stake our claim to the future. What a small world we live in, and what walls of misapprehensions we build. Here’s my attempt to break one such wall down!
EEA: Dear Farzin, First off, tell me something about yourself. Your full name? What’s your education, where did you grow up? What attracted you to science fiction to begin with? (Does it pay well?!)
FS: My full name is Farzin Souri, Souri in Farsi means to celebrate and shouldn’t be confused with the Arabic Syrian Adjective. Farzin is an Old Persian name which means “Knight”. I was born in 1991 in Ahvaz and moved to Tehran some years later. I grew up in Iran for most of my years and for 3 of them resided in the Netherlands with my family who live there now. But my passion was Farsi language, so I had to get back and it’s what I do now. I studied biology which has nothing to do with what I do (thank God for that!). Since I was a child I was drawn to stories like Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland and Brothers Lionheart. So my first passion was the Fantasy genre and not Sci-fi. But as time passed I saw the potential sci-fi offers for writing. So me and my colleagues, writers and translators, started a fanzine (a fan magazine) called 3feed.ir and started talking about this passion of ours and the amazing vistas sci-fi can open up.
We started writing books, articles, web content, and so much more. And won’t you believe it, it did pay off. We aren’t rich but hey show me a rich writer in the Middle-East. But thankfully we knew what we are getting ourselves into!
EEA: What kind of SF do you like to read? Do you have any favourite authors or subgenres?
FS: I really enjoy reading Farsi sci-fi. The new wave of writers is amazing. Their writings are fascinating, mostly inspired by our conjoined literature heritage of Persian/Islamic/Arabic culture. Unfortunately, there is no point in naming them since it would be too obscure a reference for your readers. Farsi sci-fi is a relatively new thing and not much has been done in the way of translating them to English. But we are here to change that! With luck.
So, my favourite English writers are Philip K. Dick and Alfred Bester and I have translated stories from both writers to Farsi. I also like Stanislaw Lem.
As for the genres, it genuinely does not matter to me as long as the writing is good but If you had a gun to my head I would say cyberpunk and space opera. I’d read cyberpunk and watch space opera series.
EEA: Does the SF that is available in Iran tend to be English-language, or do Iranians have access to French and Russian science fiction?
I think most people don’t read sci-fi but love to play it in video games and watch it on TV. But relative to the small population of sci-fi readers, I think Lem is very well known. Mostly because Andre Tarkovsky is a popular director in Iran. But I think most of the SF fiction now available in Iran are American and British, especially Asimov, Clarke and Ballard. You can find Ballard in any bookstore in Tehran these days.
EEA: One more (intrusive) question. Do you get your books online, or at the local bookstore or do you buy them second-hand? Is science fiction available in public libraries in Iran?
FS: I buy books online, but I also have a rather sizable library in my house. I enjoy collecting rare books. But I do most of my reading through Audiobooks. It is so much faster to listen to the books, especially when the person reading it is the writer herself. I think I have listened to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell four times now.
You can’t find SF under the name SF. I think the name SF has no real function when it comes to writing fiction. But when it comes to selling books, the western market has accepted the term and a western reader has a clear notion of what to expect from a book in the SF section of a library or bookstore. The conception comes from a huge and rather long marketing campaign coordinated between the publishers and the media. No doubt to facilitate the whole process of selling and writing books. This very important step is missing in Iran’s book market. Rather than titling the books: SF, Fantasy, Crime fiction, Horror fiction, the books are categorized by country. So, it isn’t strange to walk into a library and find a French literature section or a Russian literature section. Then you should try your best to find something from Vargas or Dard or Simenon, etc.
EEA: Okay, now let’s talk about your group. What does the title mean in English?
FS: When we started 3feed we only had three page-templates. So, it felt natural to call it 3feed. One ‘feed’ would focus on literature, the other on Science and one would be for everything else. But 3feed also is a pun because Sefeed (as it is read in Farsi) means white. What we understand from white is it is the joining of every wave frequency of light that results in the white light. So, it is a celebration of coming together of different, sometimes opposing ideas. Besides, in our culture, the colour white has not become a pariah. (But if you read the “about us page” using google translate, you may very well think us an alt-right extremist web page. Which just goes to show how hard it is to translate Farsi into English...)
EEA: How long has your group been operating? How many members do you have? How long did it take to get established?
FS: We started our work 15 years ago under a different name. At first, we didn’t have a road map or a long-term plan. We didn’t care to make money out of what we did, and we didn’t think it possible, to tell you the truth. But we started something even though we didn’t have a clear-cut strategy. Only tactics. We translated books, held sessions and published online magazines. We enjoyed our work. I think the best way to describe it would be, we were having “fun” and it was extremely fun to translate a writer you loved and talk about books or games or movies you had seen that week with people who understood and shared your passion. This went on for 10 years and we had anything between 50 to 300 active members and something like 1000 loyal readers.
Then 5 years ago our game changed. We wanted to make this into a day job. It sounds boring but imagine you are so good at a passion of yours. Why not make it into a job? We came to understand the truth behind the saying: “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” So, we started strategizing and organizing our movements. We started with the weblog, which has 20 writers and has a minimum 50,000 visits per month. Now we have a magazine on paper and 5 books of Farsi SF fiction in the market. It took us 15 years and we know a huge group of enthusiastic readers, writers and translators. The only way to go is onward and upward!
EEA: What do you hope to accomplish through your online group? What is your ‘mission statement’?
FS: What we hope for is to do what we enjoy and love. My personal experience with 3feed shows me that if we do that, our audience will like it too. They don’t expect us to become the next BuzzFeed or GeekFeed. They want us to provide them with a chance for a conversation. We want that conversation to happen. I think we can’t aim for weird and unrealistic things like: “I want to change the face of Farsi literature and book market” and not be called megalomaniacs. I think the best we can hope for is to make a platform, so it would be easier for people to converse and ferment ideas and actualize them. And meanwhile make money so we don’t have to do what we don’t want to do.
EEA: How many female members are in your group? Is popularizing SF among women one of the group’s objectives?
FS: The editorial group right now consists of ten men and seven women. The first editorial for our first magazine was three men and two women. It is an uphill battle, though. Men are more interested in the genre literature, mainly because the industry is a very male-oriented industry. Although we have many women who come to our events, it is still socially awkward. From what we have gathered the science-fiction and fantasy books that have been translated so far in Iran are more to the taste of the male audience. Of course there have been some changes in the recent years. There have been books clearly picked out by the publishers for the female readers. As you know there has been a surge of female writers and strong female protagonists in Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror books in the recent years. I can say that it has not gone unnoticed in Iran.
EEA: Why do you not have any posts in English, if you don’t mind me asking? (Your group has certainly been around long enough!)
FS: We never looked for an audience outside our own language. We do want to translate our books to English and hopefully try to win some international awards. We think Middle-Eastern literature and settings have a long vacant place in international markets. Just as South-American literature has its own unique brand of magical realism or South-East Asia has its celebrated band of writers, we need a literature of our own.
EEA: How ‘popular’ is science fiction in Iran? Is it popular among all ages? And do the critics like it?
FS: The young love it and the older generation have fond memories of it. We certainly have a “children of all ages” or “from 9 to 90” situation in our own group. Some of the older members of our group have sadly passed on and some have not started middle school yet. I just mean to give you a picture of how diverse we are regarding age. We are also a diverse group regarding gender, education and financial status. We know this to be true about our audience as well.
Farsi literary criticism is not in its best shape, to be honest. I think it has something to do with the education system, especially in universities. It is very old-school, and things like SF and Fantasy and Horror fiction are all but Greek to their ears. But fortunately, since genre literature and cinema and television are so popular in Iran, they have started to take notice. Even though in terms of academics we are decades behind the conversation, in terms of amateur passion we are right beside any other nation.
EEA: Your country has a long and proud history of fantasy writing behind it. Have Persian epics like the Shahnamah and other myths affected the writing – and reading – of SF in Iran?
FS: I won’t go so far as to call them Fantasy. They were certainly magical and fantastical, but the Fantasy genre is a relatively modern term and we can’t apply it for such ancient texts like Salamano Absal or Weiso Ramin or as you mentioned, Shahnameh. What I can tell you is that our history and cultural background has greatly influenced our writings now. Books like history of Jahangoshaie Jovini and History of Balaami and Tabri. There are also books like Samac the Ayar and 1001 Nights or as the western readers know it, the Arabian Nights. The Arabian Nights takes place in various settings and places. You have stories from Iran and India as well as Sham and Hijaz. You can find old and new stories, be it a story from Abbasid Caliphs like Harun al Rashid or Iranian kings like Ghaznavids or Saljoughian. It gives you a rather unique window to the everyday life of the people in Islamic Caliphates. It is rich with fantastic and uncanny situations which has, throughout history, inspired legions of writers, trying to bring to life the magical feeling you get when you read the Arabian Nights. Writers like China Mieville, for instance.
But it has become a rather overused source to the point that it feels very touristic to get material from it or base the setting of the story on it. The same goes for Shahnameh. So, we have done our best to widen our view and our audience’s view. There are so many less explored or unexplored sections of Iran and the Middle East’s history. For example, the Gajar dynasty of Iran is almost contemporary to the Victorian era in Britain and Wild West era in the Americas. I have a friend who is writing a steampunk graphic novel in the Gajar era and it is a fantastic read and a fresh take on steampunk and that specific time in Iran’s history. But that’s exactly what fiction is for: opening new doors to old concepts.
EEA: Here’s an annoying question. Can the average reader in Iran tell the difference between SF, on the one hand, and Fantasy and fairytales on the other?
FS: I would have to say no and I don’t think it matters. For example, I saw Mark Hamill the other day in Steven Colbert’s show and he was talking about how when he first read the draft for Star Wars screenplay, it felt like Wizard of Oz to him. I think you don’t have to be able to tell that difference to enjoy a masterpiece like The Man in the High Castle or Dune. How different is Dune from A Song of Ice and Fire? Does it matter? I think most people can tell the difference between a fiction and a non-fiction and some care about a story being real or not. (It is weird how some people love realism to the point that they detest Fantasy and Horror stories. The very same people however love Arthur Canon Doyle!).
But beyond that I don’t think most readers care about what genre a good story belongs to.
EEA: Are genres like Surrealism and Magic Realism in Iran more popular than SF?
FS: They are, and I think it has something do with how similar the South American and Middle Eastern experiences are. Writers like Milan Kundera, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, and Jorge Luis Borges have celebrity status among Iranian readers. Borges is one of the most popular writers in Iran, even ahead of some famous Iranian writers.
EEA: Can the critics in Iran tell the difference? (You didn’t hear it from me, but the average Arab literary critic generally can’t!)
FS: I will have to say no. The average critic in Iran is not educated in a way to be able to distinguish between different fictional genres. Which is to be expected since the fiction genres are new entities and this system of branding isn’t even used in Iranian bookstores to distinguish between books.
EEA: Do you have specialized SF magazines and publishing houses in Iran? Is it profitable enough?
FS: We do and as a matter of fact their number is on the rise. We have at least five publishers who focus solely on SF and Fantasy and Horror (a far more popular genre in Iran than SF or F) and many others who have a subsection in their publishing house for genre literature. But other than us there are no SF/F or horror magazines in Iran.
I think it is profitable to be a specialized anything, publisher or otherwise. This brave new world of ours is full of subcultures and anti-cultures and it is tribal in social and even linguistic aspects to the point that if you start anything specialized, you are guaranteed to have a sizable following and user base.
EEA: Who are the big names in science fiction in Iran? Do they have fan pages? Have any of their stories been translated?
FS: I think Behzad Ghadimi is a famous and popular writer of horror fiction in Iran. He is very popular in the online community. We also have Mohammad-Reza Idrom, an up and coming writer who took most of us by surprise. His Space Opera is on a par with the best of the best in the international market. Arman Selahvarzi is another example of a great SF writer. He writes amazing cyberpunk in an alternated history setting. His major work, Parandegane Shar (the ominous birds) is a cyberpunk about a universe stuck in the Second World War with Iran in the middle and I have seldom read a cyberpunk I liked more aside from Gibson of course.
But as I said there are no English content available to the non-Farsi speaking audience. Which is a shame. But we are doing our best to reverse this.
EEA: Is the Iranian ‘diaspora’ contributing to Iranian SF?
FS: Unfortunately, I can’t be of any help in this regard. But it is my understanding that because of the circumstances of their migration from Iran, the Iranian diaspora is more concerned with tangible social and political literature and conversation. But I do know of writers with Iranian heritage who write SF/F in English.
EEA: I think we’ve talked enough about literature. What about television and cinema. Was the original Star Trek series ever aired on Iranian television? Are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Blade Runner household names in Iran?
FS: Yes, to all of that! My father was a fan of Star Trek original series and I know of many others of the same generation who were fans of the show. The movies like Star Wars, Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner, have cult status in Iran. Other than that, we have a huge Tarkovsky fanbase in Iran. So, the artistic and hardcore sci-fi has its fans in cinema as well.
I think the two most popular shows in Iran are the Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Our mothers and aunts watch those shows. You can’t get more “household” than that.
EEA: Does your country produce SF in television and cinema? Has the ubiquity of CGI helped producers?
FS: No. It is sad, but we don’t have a genre cinema in our country. But, why bother? Hollywood has taken care of that. I think we can contribute to the genre in other ways like books and games.
EEA: Are video games an important avenue for Iranian SF? I’m using Garshasp: The Monster Slayer (by Dead Mage) as an example. (A sci-fi buddy told me about it. I’m not that up-to-date!)
FS: Most of the games created in Iran are either Fantasy or SF, with Aseman-Dezh being a huge success. It is a strategy game and the main goal of the game is colonizing other planets for your own world.
The video game industry in Iran is young and seems to have a bright future. We have certainly tried our best to influence the industry through educational programs for game designers.
EEA: Do you think the Muslim world can make a major contribution in the realm of SF?
FS: Absolutely. It isn’t just about how exotic our settings are. There is also the fact that we have a whole different cosmology, mythology and life experience. This outlook to the world can be consequential to the SF conversation happening right now among South Eastern Asia, east and West Europe and North America. We can be a part of this world scale conversation and sharing of ideas and experiences.
Even if we can’t add anything yet, we need to be present in the conversation, to learn from the strong points and understand the global market. There is always time to contribute even if we don’t feel like we can introduce anything good to the market now.
EEA: Do you think Iran will get an Oscar for a science fiction movie, specifically, any time soon?
FS: Genre cinema has never been popular among our filmmakers. Not to say that they don’t follow international cinema but it has not been a part of their agenda to make serious genre movies (like Fantasy or Science Fiction or Horror). We don’t even have many detective or crime movies; we have this weird genre in our cinema called the Ejtema'iee Movies. If translated literary it means social they refer to the movies talking about social problems; people's problems, like Asghar Farhadi’s movies. But no Sci-Fi movies.
I don’t think we should make every speculative media ever. We have some good comic artists, some good game makers and some good writers. We can make good art in those fields but in cinema I don’t think we can compare our technology with Hollywood. Or China. Or Russia for that matter. It’s a budget thing and you know how technology plays a vital role in making Sci-Fi and Fantasy movies.
EEA: Finally, any advice for us here in the Arab world?
FS: The Middle East might be a colonial concept but we as a people have had a similar destiny and the road we had to take to reach here has been difficult to say the least. Writing about this specific moment in time and writing about this experience that we are having is valuable, albeit in the form of SF. So, I think we shouldn’t shy from these genres just because English speaking countries have a dominance when it comes to sci-fi. We can find our own brand of sci-fi and excel at it.
Special thanks to Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi for help with this interview