For any book lover, the term ‘science fiction’ immediately brings to mind storytelling geniuses like Isaac Asimov, HG Wells, and Arthur C. Clarke. Sadly, the genre is awash with the works of American and European novelists and is seldom encountered by Pakistani writers – which is why award-winning author Muhammad Omar Iftikhar’s novel, Divided Species, will be a pleasant surprise to anyone who loves science fiction.
This book brings with it the interesting realization that Pakistani writers are starting to express their ideas using this particular genre, also paving the way for future writers in the process.
Divided Species consists of two parallel plots – the narrative of the Taleyken species and the story of a student, Rayan, in Karachi. Taleykens are intelligent creatures, living on the planet Arplon in the constellation Cygnus. Although technologically superior to humans, many aspects of their life are no different from life on Earth. The Taleykens came into contact with humans decades ago, when they buried a large amount of their mineral resource, Hextanlo, on Earth, as a means of protecting it.
Now, these resources have sparked tension aboard their aircraft carriers, and the Taleykens team is then sent to Earth to find them. On Earth, Rayan is an ordinary student in Karachi, pursuing a degree in business, with dreams of becoming an accomplished writer. The two narratives meet when Rayan happens to run into the Taleykens team that oversees his neighborhood in Gulshan-i-Iqbal, and befriend them.
He and his family soon learned about General Gooztan’s evil intentions to extract the Hextanlo and destroy the Earth. Together, Rayan and Taleykens race against time to successfully stop the attacks, thereby maintaining the peace.
An interesting feature of this book is its use of fantastic and realistic elements. Although the origin and lifestyle of the Taleyken species described can no doubt be classified as fantasy, the story of Rayan, a student, is very realistic. His daily interactions with his friends and family, as well as his struggles and dreams as a student, are all aspects of life that an audience can relate to. Iftikhar skillfully concocts narratives consisting of both types of elements and, as a result, one enjoys an exhilarating fantasy world experience, without feeling too out of touch with reality.
A Pakistani science fiction novel imagines an intergalactic war between good and evil being played out on the streets of Pakistan’s largest city, against the backdrop of a more mundane battle of internal will.
Due to its unique amalgamation of the fantastic and realistic in its plot, Divided Species lies somewhere in the middle of hard science fiction – exemplified by descriptions of Taleykens’ technological advances, such as the ability to transform into any species in the universe – and soft sci-fi, as it seems. in Rayan’s interactions with his family and his ties to the Taleykens, when they revealed their true identities to him and later they became friends.
One of the key themes in this novel is the eternal conflict between good and evil. Like humans, Taleykens are depicted as vulnerable to crimes such as greed and violence. Some, led by General Gooztan, were desperately trying to extract the Hextanlo and destroy the Earth. Others, under the command of friendly Commander Kropnock, wish to maintain their peaceful relations with humans and are determined to stop Gooztan at all costs. The ensuing conflict between the warring factions of Taleyken reaches all the way to Earth, and sees Kropnock’s forces and humans pitted against Gooztan.
The broader idea conveyed is that there will always be a clash of opinions and ideologies in any community, because every individual has their own motivations and aspirations. From a broader perspective, this novel provides material for thoughts on the importance of harmony between species and between species and the benefits that can be obtained from it. Undeniably, Iftikhar did a commendable job of explaining the potential dangers of conflict and highlighting the importance of upholding the principles of peace.
Perhaps one of the best aspects of this novel is that it explains how to overcome one’s mental struggles and deal with one’s inner demons. For example, Commander Kropnock has not accepted his father’s death – something he himself blames. She has a traumatic memory of the day her father died in battle, and this often distracts her from this moment.
Then there is Rayan, torn between pursuing his dream of writing on the one hand and, on the other hand, continuing his business education to appease his parents. Rayan’s struggle is an apt description of the sad reality of Pakistani society, where students are forced to put aside all ambitions and hopes and, instead, conform to society’s unreasonable standards of choosing their profession.
In the story, the characters’ persistence ultimately allows them to overcome their struggles and make their dreams come true. This novel takes a positive approach, showing how problems have a way of improving themselves in the end and the results are much better than expected.
Iftikhar’s narrative has all the hallmarks of a great science fiction adventure / thriller novel. However, while the story manages to incorporate a variety of cleverly crafted themes and characters into the plot, certain aspects can be improved.
One such aspect is the narrative about aliens. Although the prospect of getting into contact with aliens might be terrifying, everyone, perhaps, secretly wished they existed. The reason is the curiosity of the human mind, its inclination and longing to experience miracles that are very different from ordinary everyday life.
So when reading science fiction novels about aliens, one might imagine them as bloodthirsty tyrants with bizarre physical features and weapons of infinite power, whose main purpose is to harness the power of each planet they land on, before destroying them; the idea of right versus wrong doesn’t exist in their world. That’s why HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds comes to mind. In essence, people imagine aliens as different from humans as they seem, in every way.
Taleykens Iftikhar, however, is not much different from us ordinary earthlings. He described many aspects of their lives, such as their social structure and historical events, as “human-like”. While admitting that, unlike Wells’ work, the message of Iftikhar’s narrative is about peace, it would have been more compelling if he had been more lively and imaginative by his description.
The face of the Taleykens was described as “mixed [those of] man and horse. “Having a distinct and unnatural appearance, communicating via telepathic signals, and having a transport vehicle that seems to transcend the laws of nature are just some of the features that can make the alien Iftikhar even more alien.
Divided Species is the first novel of its kind, combining elements of science fiction with an extraordinary story set in the heart of Karachi. Iftikhar has a compelling narrative covering a variety of themes and ideas, making it a very interesting read. This spreads the idea of peace and tranquility and leaves the reader wondering if some extraterrestrial species is actually observing Earth, somewhere in the vast, desolate space of space.
The reviewer is a historian and studies specialist at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
By Muhammad Omar Iftikhar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 7, 2021
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