Utopia - Ahmed Khaled TowfikEver since H.G. Wells’ time traveler went forward in time and discover a world populated by Eloi and Morlocks, science fiction writers have been fascinated by the idea of a world divided into the haves and the have-nots. It is there in every dark, rain-drenched street of the cyberpunk future, and it is there more obviously in works such as the recent Above/Below duet from Stephanie Campisi and Ben Peek. Worryingly, it is also starting to appear on our television screens during news broadcasts. The central idea driving the Occupy movement is that 1% of the population has most of the wealth, while the remaining 99% has very little.

This is relative, of course. A poor person in the UK or USA is much better off than a poor person in many other parts of the world. There are also countries in which the separation between rich and poor is far greater than it is here. In such countries, it is much easier to imagine a Wellsian-style future coming into being. One such country is Egypt.

Utopia is a stand-alone novella written by one of the most popular and prolific SF writers working in Arabic — Ahmed Khaled Towfik. The book sold so well in Egypt that it was chosen by Bloomsbury Qatar for translation into English. At the front of the book Towfik makes this statement:

The Utopia mentioned here is an imaginary place, as ate the characters who live in and around it, even though the author knows for certain that this place will exist soon.

The year is 2023, not so far into the future. It is very much our world, with one big difference. A clever chemist has devised a way to manufacture a cheap and effective substitute for petroleum from plant crops. The economies of the Arab countries have collapsed, and those people in Egypt who have managed to protect their wealth have retreated to gated compounds on the Mediterranean coast, guarded by private security forces staffed by former US Marines. Outside of these glittering enclaves, Egyptians live in abject poverty. There is no government, no employment except in the gated enclaves, no security except for local gangs. The economy runs almost entirely on barter.

A new generation is growing up inside the enclaves. They are the children of the idle rich, and like most young people they despise their elders. Their lives are spent in an endless round of drug-taking and sex. They are very, very bored. Only one challenge remains for the young men. There is a rite of passage known as “hunting”. To pass, you must leave the enclave, kill a commoner, and return home with his severed arm.

The book is divided into sections dependent on the view point character. One set of sections is marked Predator. They belong to a young man from the enclave known as Utopia. I’ll call him ibn Mourad after his father, a pharmaceuticals magnate, as I don’t recall him ever giving his true name. Dragging his girlfriend, Germinal, with him, he sets off into the outside world in the hop of proving himself. The pair have privilege oozing from every pore of their body, and no idea of what they are walking into.

The other sections are marked Prey. They come from the viewpoint of Gaber, an intelligent and self-educated man living outside of Utopia. In another world he would have been a middle class intellectual, perhaps even an academic. He’s a decent man, trying to do the best he can for himself and his consumptive sister; the sort of person that you or I might become, if we found ourselves in such a world. (Well, you, perhaps, there’s no place for women in such a world except as wives or whores.)

The central narrative of the book is that of how ibn Mourad and Gaber interact when they, inevitably, meet.

I should note that Utopia is a brutal book. Towfik has medical training and, while he has written a lot of SF, his main output is in medical thrillers and horror. He makes full use of his background to show us just how ugly and desperate life outside of the enclaves has become. The point here is to show us the horror: both of the lives that Gaber and his ilk are force to lead, and of the type of people that ibn Mourad and his friends have become.

In a world of economic collapse, Towfik suggests, those who have will do whatever they can to secure as much of the world’s wealth for themselves, and will be further corrupted by this exercise in callous greed. Meanwhile those who have not will have no option but to take to the streets and face up to the thugs hired by the rich to protect themselves. Now where have I heard that before? Oh yes, on the evening news.

2 thoughts on “Utopia

  1. Hello Cheryl: Thanks for writing about Utopia, and for the Q&A with the author! I’m the translator, and am delighted to see that Ahmed Khaled Towfik is getting some well-deserved attention among English readers. The novel certainly is “brutal,” as you put it. I’d also throw in “bleak” and possibly “cathartic.” As I was translating it, I kept thinking about A Clockwork Orange, another novel set in the near future with a vicious teenage narrator.

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