Science fiction at the beginning of the 21st century continues to expand the boundaries of the genre. A variety available like never before, some stories have evolved little from those which appeared at the genre’s birth while others continue to press and challenge norms, seeking unexplored territory in the hidden yet remaining interstices. And some bridge this gap. Resting on the tropes of past generations yet combining those selected to create something original, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s underrated Arabesk trilogy is one such example. Pashazade, the introduction of the setting El Ishkandryia and the man Ashraf al-Raf and his singular set of problems, is part alternate history, part cyberpunk, part mainstream fiction, and all detective noir. Though telling a self-contained story, it paves the way for the two books which follow, Effendi and Felaheen.
WWI never having expanded beyond the Balkans, the geo-political outlook of Grimwood’s Arabesk is different than our own. The Ottoman Empire has taken over North Africa, and a liberal yet Islamic state occupies the upper part of the continent, including Alexandria, which in the novel is called El Ishkandryia. A 21st century city with 21st century problems, Grimwood does not appropriate a nostalgic or jaded view of traditional Arabic and Islamic values for entertainment purposes, rather incorporates them into a setting that seems to fully synergize Western urbania with familiar ideas of the Middle East. Muezzins can be heard, muddy coffee is served, and nobility still hold place. Simultaneously, social ills, the latest technology, and the vice of all humanity exist in proportion. Never once digressing into info dump territory, El Ishkandryia is fully exposited through character and plot—a testament to Grimwood’s skills and the quality of the book.
Pashazade opens with Ashraf al-Mansur, a twenty-five year old man bearded and dreadlocked after years locked up, flying into El Ishkandryia. Freshly sprung from a Seattle prison by persons unknown, he arrives in the city with no knowledge of who he can trust or why he’s been helped to escape. Possessing a passport with full diplomatic immunity and a platinum bank card, the mystery deepens when he’s informed he is the son of a Tunisian emir and introduced to a wealthy, well-placed family as their son-in-law in waiting. Raised in Swiss and Scottish boarding schools while an absentee mother lived her own life in New York, his new situation flies in the face of the personal history he’s known to date. Having only the enigmatic fox in his head to trust, he soon finds himself even more isolated, the murder of his ‘aunt’ pinned to him nearly immediately upon arrival.
A textbook postmodern novel (and series), Pashazade (and Arabesk as a whole) is a fractured narrative with reality as its central question mark. Chapters alternating between past and present, the details of Ashraf’s situation and history are patchily put in place. Grimwood only loosely holding the hand of the reader, the details of Ashraf’s struggle to identify himself are represented not only in plot, but also indirectly in narrative technique, and as a result the reader equivocates for much of the reading experience regarding the reality behind it all. An a-linear plot twisted further from reality by an alternate history setting (a la Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle), the fox in Ashraf’s mind that may or may not exist, the lack of a definite character history, not to mention the inherent mystery of who killed Ashraf’s aunt, all serve to keep matters uncertain. The basic story is thus neither hurt nor helped by the fractured narrative, but thematic outlay and positioning of the novel in contemporary literature do nothing but benefit.
William Gibson’s writes perhaps the greatest brand of modern sci-fi noir, and there can be no doubt that Grimwood read him. Cyberpunk’s fingerprints all over Pashazade, he does not, however, descend into imitation. Borrowing style rather than content, readers get a healthy dose of detail fleshing out El Ishkandryia, all written in crisp, lean prose. Like Gibson, Grimwood is fully conscious of his lexical and stylistic choices, making the novel an engaging, pleasurable read where humanity plays a central role against a matte black atmosphere.
Further enriching the novel are the number of female characters. Ashraf may be the main character, but occupying significant page time, not to mention playing integral roles in the overall story, are his arranged bride Zara and niece Hani. A westernized nineteen year old, Zara’s nightly activities as a club promoter and vehemence at the idea her groom has already been chosen, make her anything but a traditional young Muslim woman. Adding a nice degree of tension, the manner in which she and Ashraf’s story intertwine is far from predictable and gives Grimwood a window in which to present a clash of globalized culture and traditional Islamic values. Hani, kept under house watch by her family her whole life, finds the world opening its doors upon the death of her mother. Scared, Ashraf is the only person who seems to understand her situation, and by following him is able to find bits of herself—even if he is lost. Individuals of their own, Zara, Hani, and the other female characters which fill the story are not subservient to Ashraf, but are independent story elements that receive varying degrees of characterization, much to the novel’s success.
In the end, Pashazade is an excellent opener to a series that introduces character, background, and setting, resolves the story at hand, yet allows plenty of space for the underlying story to continue in the next volume. Everything done via show not tell, Grimwood deserves full commendation for working emotion and background maturely and subtly into the text. A fragmented narrative, particularly the manner in which it enhances the uncertainty of identity and reality, likewise deserves recognition. A nice balance across the board, fans of Gibson and PKD will most appreciate the novel, while those looking for more than the standard A-B-C plot in their sci-fi, should also give the novel (and series) a shot.
(A side note: I read a review on Amazon by A. Ross which states that Grimwood’s Arabesk series is unoriginal in that George Alec Effinger’s Marid Audran series precedes it. I have not read Effinger’s work, but given the evidence cited (“[Effinger’s] series featured a down and out 22nd-century Arab gumshoe in grimy Cairo who is unexpectedly elevated into a powerful position and makes heavy use of brain implants in order to track down a few murderers, exact vengeance, and try and figure out just who his parents actually were”) there appears to be a very good chance the reviewer is right. Regardless, Arabesk is a fine trilogy. Whether or not Marid Audran is too, I now need to find out, the similarities intriguing. Perhaps in the future I will edit this review accordingly.)