I wanted to start with a quick shoutout to PodCastle, which won Best Fiction Podcast of 2017 from the Academy of Podcasters last month! As the only local editor, I somehow ended up onstage accepting the award on behalf of the full team. In many ways, I am just getting started in my role at PodCastle, but I’m incredibly impressed by the commitment of the lead editors to uplift diverse writing voices, both on the editorial and submissions side.
I recently finished The Queue, a book where both physical and internal barriers have dramatic impacts on the communities described.
The Queue is a sci-fi dystopia, written by Egyptian journalist Basma Abdel-Aziz, and translated by Elizabeth Jacquette. It follows a man named Yehya, who was shot during an uprising that the repressive government denies ever happened. Because the government denies the uprising — referred to only as “The Disgraceful Events” — Yehya can’t legally get the bullet removed that lodged into his body when it happened. Instead, he must wait in a miles-long line with all the other citizens who need permission for something from the government. Along the way we learn about the lives and motivations of Yehya’s doctor Tarek, and other people from their city as well.
The queue ends at a giant gate that seems never to open. The government, referred to by the gate that symbolizes it, remains a mystery on the other side. Over time, The Gate gains more and more power over citizen’s lives by forcing them to get permission and pay fees for all sorts of everyday activities, including even window shopping.
I have to admit that I’m woefully undereducated about the events of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, which the narrative is in some ways based on. But, I deeply appreciate that literature is coming out about the day-to-day realities of political turmoil in Egypt and countries like it. (With a speculative twist, of course.)
What I found most chilling about the book was the portrayal of an unfeeling government represented by the physical, inanimate wall. The characters experience the ultimate sensations of powerlessness at being stuck on the other side of it, wondering what is going to happen next.
It’s actually a theme that comes up in my short stories fairly frequently. I’m obsessed with big institutions like the military or government bureaus, and with how they are experienced by the individual people both within and outside of them.
Another theme that really intrigued me from The Queue was the demonstration of how people accept their circumstances of oppression, even when there are hints that they have an ability impact the current situation by acting as a community.
We see the hints in the daily activity that happens in the queue. People talk to one another constantly to convey information, rumors, and encouragement. There grows a complex, informal system of how to reserve your place in the queue, dependent on how well you interact with those ahead of and behind you.
One woman, while waiting her turn, even starts an impromptu coffee business serving those who spend all day waiting in the line. Marriages are formed from the queue; people live, grow sick, and die, all while in the queue. Yet no one really questions whether this is the way things have to be or stops to take stock of the community assets that are being developed while they wait.
You can’t help but wonder, could the people in queue have liberated themselves and taken back their sovereignty if they all worked together, using their individual strengths, resources, and systems of communication?
Part of the brilliance of the book, however, is that you understand why the characters don’t do this. Abdel-Aziz makes you understand the settling-in of the paralysis preventing a stronger uprising from happening. When you are in pain or in fear for your life and the lives of those you love, it’s pretty tough, if not sometimes impossible to see beyond that to a bigger whole.
To do so would also require a deep faith in humanity — a belief that if you take that first step, throw that first rock, build that first block of a new vision, that others will move with you. Because if they don’t, then you are dead in the water.
I want to say how much I appreciated reading a translated work. Far too often, I ignore literature from other countries, because it’s not in English. But there are amazing works of speculative fiction out there in all sorts of places, from China to Romania to Russia and more.