Thursday, 09 April 2020

The State of Science Fiction in Iran

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When I first started reading science fiction some 30 years ago (which was the very first thing I read when I finished my first year of elementary school), one could scarcely find anything except some summarized translations of Jules Verne’s books, which were often poor translations full of mistakes. But those poorly translated stories of wonderful voyages to the unknown corners of the Earth and to the moon itself were enough for me and a few of my generation to ignite the fire in our minds. We became enchanted with those stories in which science, adventure, romance, and mystery were intertwined. As I grew older I discovered my friends and classmates were interested in other kinds of stories. In those stories, there were no spaceships traveling to the moon, nor any submersible mysteriously traveling beneath the oceans. Those stories were mostly concerned about love affairs between people. Later I learned their names: Drama. I also found out the elites of literature consider only those stories a “real” form of literature and not Science Fiction. That was unfortunate.

About 10 years from the time I learned to read, the Golden Age of Science Fiction translation arrived in the Iranian publishing market. I do not know who was that first person to suggest translating Isaac Asimov stories to a publishing house. Was it a veteran hard-core fan of science fiction? Suddenly you could find almost all the “Foundation” series in bookshops. And not just that series but “I, Robot” series and collected short stories of Isaac Asimov along with almost all the important books of Arthur C. Clark. Indeed it was a Golden Age. That was how I, and those few others I mentioned earlier, became acquainted with The Golden Age of Science Fiction. We devoured anything we could find. In those days the internet was not very widespread (or maybe it was, but not for the public use or at least not available in the Middle East), so we did not have access to original English books, nor were paperbacks imported to our market, so the translations were all we had for several years.

After less than a decade we noticed a decline in the translation. Again we could barely find a new title, and aside from Asimov and Clarke there were very few other names; like Heinlein (there were just one starship troopers), Robert Silverberg, and Michael Crichton who gained worldwide fame after the filming of Jurassic Park. I learned later that Science Fiction had no market success. By that time I already knew very few people were interested in Science Fiction stories, so there it was no surprise that those translations were not popular. Even now after 30 years from their publication, you can find brand new copies in secondhand bookstores waiting on the shelves for some collector to buy them. So the golden age of translation came to an abrupt end and we were left with occasional translations of Michael Crichton, who was really only popular because of the thriller aspect of his books, and very rare translations of a book from Clark by some hardcore fan who still thought it was worth fighting this battle. There were no new books for some time until the second wave of translation hit the market, but this time it was not Golden age classic Science Fiction. The thing that started this second wave was “Harry Potter”, it actually came like a wave and engulfed the young adult book market, not only young adults read it, but also adults. By that time the era of the internet had already started and we managed to enter it via our Dial-up slow connections which were being deprecated already everywhere else in the world. But it was better than nothing! You could type “Arthur C. Clark” into the Yahoo search engine and find dozens of websites about him. You could find illegal copies of his books (yeah they were around right from the beginning) and download them with only moderate difficulty.

It was about that time when a small group of people gathered in a web community, how the first members found each other and started that website is lost to time. That first website was named 7th dimension and its main goal was to write original Science Fiction and translate good works of SF still unknown to Persian readers. As you may have noticed, there were some significant differences between their mission and legacy publication houses. First, they wanted to write. Soon after the establishment of the website they arranged to have weekly sessions and workshops in a cultural center (we have this small centers offering art, language and science classes they are all controlled and managed by the city) and they aimed to write original short SF. Second, their work was non-beneficial. They just wanted to promote Science Fiction, to show the elites that it can be as elegant and as beautiful as mainstream literature. Actually, they wanted to cross the barriers between mainstream and genre fiction (yes they were very ambitious at the beginning!). They wanted to share the joy of reading Science Fiction with more and more readers. One of the more important activities of that group was the founding and maintaining of a forum (those good and friendly groups in which people exchange ideas, now dead and gone thanks to social media) to write and discuss topics within the genre. From these forums, more fans found each other from all corners of the country. Yes, that was the marvel of the internet. That forum played a critical role in making new connections and finding young talented writers and translators who advanced this new wave of Science Fiction and Fantasy in Iran. Although there were still no good original works, we were learning, reading. After about 3 years of solitary activities, other groups and communities were founded, some were fandoms (Darren Shan fans, Harry Potter fans, etc.), some tried to imitate the 7th dimension work. A few years later, we entered an era of flourishing websites and web communities all centered around Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Somayeh Karami

Somayeh Karami is an avid reader and writer of Science Fiction.  When not indulging that particular passion she is hiking the mountain paths just outside of Tehran, taking stunning nature photos, and caring for her beloved birds.  By day she is a programmer.

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