In this episode Sami Shah ranges over his radio, comedy and burgeoning literary career, and describes how he has to write himself into the speculative fiction space.
[Narrative Futures Intro Music]
Chelsea Haith: How do the stories we tell shape how we think about the future, the present and the past.
What is speculation for?
And how might we construct better narratives for a better future?
Narrative Futures is a podcast coming to you from Futures Thinking, a research network housed in The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities.
My name is Chelsea Haith, I’m a doctoral researcher in the Faculty of English, here at the University of Oxford. You’re listening to the third episode of Narrative Futures. In conversation with Sami Shah we explore what it means to bring religious and secular worldviews together in speculative fiction, and discuss the possibility of our eventual subjugation to a benign AI overlords.
Please insert the black and white image of Sami here, credit to Okay Photo
This podcast is interactive. Following the interview you’ll be treated to two prompts designed by novelist and creative writing tutor extraordinaire Louis Greenberg. We invite you to share your responses to these with us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll share these on the blog, where you’ll also be able to find the full transcript of each episode with links to the books, writers and ideas that we discuss. As the world so radically changes we hope these conversations and ideas give you insight and inspiration to think about how else we might live and create collectively, going forward.
Sami Shah is a radio broadcaster, stand-up comedian and author of The Boy and Fire and Earth, which is about a young man’s quest through a fictional Karachi filled with creatures from Pakistani and Muslim mythology. He is also the author if I, Migrant, and The Islamic Republic of Australia and in a past life was part of Pakistan’s first English-language improvised comedy troupe Black Fish. Currently, based in Melbourne, Australia, Shah also contributed his critically acclaimed short story Reap to the short story collection The Djinn Falls In Love and Other Stories, edited by Jared Shurin and Mahvesh Murad, who also feature in the next two episodes of this podcast.
What follows is an extract from Shah’s story ‘Reap’ in which myth and technology become intertwined in a way that demands that we reconsider how we categorise the unknowable in the world.
Sami Shah: So, is a story about a drone operating centre in America, you know, because the drones that work in Afghanistan and all these places are basically based out of the US. And so it’s about a drone operating centre kind of viewing a village in Pakistan, and you know watching for Taliban activity and everything. And then somehow accidentally witnessing a child’s possession by a djinn, and the subsequent kind of tearing apart of the village.
So the main characters in it are Grant, who is one of the—who is the protagonist. He’s a operator in America who works for the Air Force and runs drones. And he’s got a few other people. There’s Anna the analyst, who’s a civilian, and a few other people around him as well who work. So when the story… the portion I’m about to read to you is when they’ve just noticed—because they watch this village all the time, and so they know the lives of the people in the village, and now they’ve just noticed that one of the children of a family of around eleven children that they know, one of the children hasn’t returned from school that day, and that’s a bit strange.
[Extract from Sami Shah’s ‘Reap’, included in The Djinn Falls In Love and Other Stories]
CH: That’s great. Lovely. Thank you so much.
SS: My pleasure. Yeah, it’s about—I don’t know if it makes sense, because I’ve kind of dropped you into the middle of the story, but Reap 00:01:23 is the reaper drone that surveys the village, and… yeah, what happens next, you’ll have to read to find out.
CH: Mm. [laughs] The world that you build in Reap, and in Boy of Fire and Earth, is the world that we know, but with this element of the mythical. Do you want to talk us through a little bit you’ve chosen to write these stories this way?
SS: Well, for me it’s because that’s the kind of world I grew up in. So I grew up in Pakistan in Karachi, and being a Muslim country, and being South-Asian Muslim country, which has not just kind of Muslim mythology, like djinns and all of that involved in it, but also more local flavour, like creatures like the pichal peri and the churel and stuff. These are the bogeymen, the bogey creatures that kind of go bump in the night, that we grew up with, we knew, we were told of. But what happens in a Western country is when you grow up, you stop believing in those things, right. You believe in a rational world, and the world you can see and touch. But religion is so deeply wound into our lives that that stuff is a part of religion, it’s part of religious belief. You know, if you are a Muslim, you have to believe in the Quran, in Allah, in the Prophet Muhammad, and also in the reality that djinns exist and interact with humans regularly. You know, and djinns are, according to Islam, a creature made of fire that exists in a dimension parallel to ours, that can enter our dimension at will. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re malicious, and then Muslims believe that the Devil is djinn, not a fallen angel, for example.
So that’s… you know, that’s the kind of things that were part of my life. Like, when I was growing up, we had stories—and not even when I was growing up. When I was an adult, you know, we had stories, that we believed that there’s a sweet shop that has… leaves a tray of deserts out every night, which is gone by morning, because the djinns come and eat it, and because of the, you know, the gift of the djinns, the sweet shop does well. There’s… you know, there was stories about you know that so-and-so relative’s daughter got possessed by a djinn, and that’s why no one can marry her. Or so-and-so’s uncle can speak to djinns and see djinns, and he would… you know, when we were around, he would sometimes say, you know, “Oh, there’s djinn over in that corner of the room. You can’t see him, but he’s there. But he’s a good djinn,” like. So, that intersection of modernity and everyday mundane life, and the supernatural, is so common and so almost mundane in its own way, if you’re in those places of the world, that I just felt like the stories I want to tell are stories which aren’t—you know, in any other context, they might be called magical realist, but—or fantasy—but they’re not. When you’re growing up there, they’re reality.
CH: Yeah, I think that’s really important, the intersection of these worlds, I suppose. And the reality is that these are realities for people, rather than fantasies. So when I’m thinking your urban fantasy novel, Boy of Fire and Earth, one of reviews notes that you are doing Karachi what Gaiman did for London in Neverwhere. And then previously you’d written I, Migrant, about your experience being an immigrant and working as a journalist, and now as a stand-up comic. You’re quite genre fluid, and you work across a lot of different kind of narrative… strategies, I suppose.
SS: Well, part of it is… if you look at Boy of Fire and Earth, and I, Migrant, they both have something kind of secretly hidden in them, which is—you know, Boy of Fire and Earth is actually a story of Karachi. It’s got a bit of history of Karachi, but it’s got… it’s about the city that I grew up in, a city that I still have a deep and abiding love for. And I, Migrant is an autobiography, but it’s actually the sociopolitical history of Pakistan. I like telling stories about geography, about place, and then situating people in that place. And so there is that common theme kind of running through the work, but yeah, at the same time, I like writing. And for me, I’m also a stand-up comedian, so I write stand-up comedy, and I perform it regularly, and the script I’m working on these days is a crime noir kind of story for someone. And the next book I’m halfway through is a book about media in Australia, and how it affects people’s lives.
So I think what I like doing is—and I know it’s a problem, because it might actually end up meaning that I’m spread so thin that no one ever actually ends up… you know, I never because a success [laughs], because I’ll have too many… too disparate a body of work. But I just like going where the story goes, and if the story wants to be told… the story that wants to be told is a serious story, or a genre fiction story, or a science-fiction story, or a horror story, or a crime noir story, then that’s the story I will tell. I don’t want to be limited in the stories I can tell, because I read and the stories I enjoy aren’t limited to one genre either. You know, I read comics, I read science fiction, fantasy, crime, autobiography, history—I read all those things, and so I want to be able to tell all those things as well.
CH: Absolutely, and I think it’s the mark of a good reader and a good writer to be well versed in a variety of genres. And obviously concepts of genre can be quite problematic. As you say, you fear being spread too thin, because that’s kind of what the market demands, right, writers who are slightly pigeon-holed, so the readers know that’s what I’m getting when I read Sami Shah. But, when you read Sami Shah, you get lots of different narratives.
When you think about the future—so, I mean, you… it was announced late last year that you would be leaving ABC Melbourne to write more. So, yeah, you’ve mentioned that you’re working on urban noir, and crime noir, but when you think about writing narratives for the future, what kind of narratives are you hoping to either write or read?
SS: Well, I guess I’ll be futuristic fiction, science fiction, and that kind of a thing, and it’s… I’m actually at a strange right now, where I’m not enjoying that genre much anymore, because I feel like—or at least, like, there’s still books in it that I enjoy, but the ones that are more recently… that I’ve encountered, just feel as if the future we were predicting has been so wildly different from the future we result—ended up with. If you look at the books that I read as a kid, which were set in the year 2020 and so on and so forth, you know none of them predicted cell phones, and none of them predicted Coronavirus outbreaks, none of them predicted the Internet even, in so many ways, other than maybe William Gibson here or there, or a bit of Neal Stephenson. So I like reading far-flung stories now, which are set thousands of thousands of years in the future, you know, something by Ann Leckie, for example, or someone like that, with her Imperial Radch trilogy, because it’s practically fantasy at that point. It’s so far flung that, you know, I don’t have to worry about the plausibility of it. But the one I want to read, which I can’t read because I haven’t found it yet, which then makes me want to write it, is something about… it’s about the lives of people like me, you know, South Asians, the brown people, desis, like you know, we aren’t there in these science fiction stories. And I started thinking about that a lot more recently, which is, you know, if you look at the history of the world, you look at the current kind of state of the world, you know, it’s built on the backs of brown people. It’s, you know, it’s basically, if you go to… from Saudi Arabia to London, every building is built by someone who’s a brown immigrant. Every food product is delivered by a brown guy.
You’re… in working the kitchens around the world, if you speak Panjabi—if you’re in America, and you don’t speak Hispanic, you’re not going to be able to work in a kitchen. If you’re in London, or in Melbourne, or in Riyadh, and you don’t speak Urdu or Hindi, you’re not going to be able to work in a kitchen. Like, it’s a completely changed world that way, and there’s a demographic representation which is so sorely lacking. So I want to be able to tell that story. I want to be able to tell the story of AI, what happens with Artificial Intelligence, because I feel like we haven’t fully understood where it goes, what it does, how it could impact our lives, and we’re kind of blindly and blithely going forward with it. But you know better minds than I have kind of touched on that, but I feel like the element that I can bring to it is the representational story.
CH: Absolutely, yeah. There’s some interesting work being done at the Centre for the Future of Intelligence in Cambridge, by Kanta Dihal and Stephen Cave, and they presented at a conference I ran in October 2019 about the whiteness of AI.
SS: But that’s right, and a lot of people have kind of explored some of those elements in different researches, which I’ve enjoyed. For example, one of the things that I keep thinking about, and I’ve spent a lot of time actually thinking about this, is, you know, one of the areas where we don’t see an implementation of AI, and no one seems to be talking about the possibility of that implementation, even though to me it seems so obvious, is government, in terms of replacing government, politicians, etcetera, with AI.
Because in the end, what do you need the government for? You need a government to make sure the trains run on time, to make sure the traffic lights work—it’s resource management. At its heart, a politician’s job is resource management, making sure food gets here, money goes there, things like that, all the policy decisions. That’s stuff that can be done with an equation. That’s stuff that with an intuitive enough algorithm, you could actually have all of those things done on a global level, without ever worrying about the corruption and the ego and the parli—and the ideologies that human politics bring into it. If the United Nations gets replaced by an AI, that has an algorithm that’s main purpose is resource management, and it sees, “Not enough food here. Too much food there. Move food from here to there. Not enough…” You know, “Roads are bad here. Money over there. Move money from here to there. Things like that, you know, employment, etcetera, etcetera, these are all equations.
You can’t misuse them, and mathematicians use them to study the world all the time. But we have not taken it to that next level of implementation, because we think that if we get handed over to AI, we’re going to end up with the Terminator. But I don’t think the Terminator would be interested in killing us at all. I think that we’d be too far below, and too easy a problem to solve for the Terminator to even bother with.
CH: I really like the idea of… yeah, of a beneficent global organising structure. What we presume in that, right, of course is that the algorithm is unbiased, and that it will move food from here to there, where it’s necessary. But as you’ve highlighted, you know, the world is built on the backs of brown people, and yet those people are widely disenfranchised and impoverished by these structures, right. So it becomes a question of who writes the algorithms, and how and why and what do we feed into the algorithm, right? Because our current systems are perhaps not the best data. [laughs]
SS: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely, and that becomes the thing. And look, I think with Coronavirus we’ve kind of seen, even though we’re not acknowledging the importance of an organisation like the World Health Organisation, or the United Nations, because it turns out that America having a terrible healthcare system impacts the rest of the world. That New Zealand having a good healthcare system saves, you know, places as well. So obviously at this point the health of someone in a rural village in England has a direct connection to the health of someone in Zaire, to the health of someone in Perth, you know, around the world, we’ve got that thing because of globalisation. Which means, whether we like it or not, a universal body that oversees, you know, basic human rights and basic care, is something that’s more important now than ever before. But yes, you’re right, you know, how do you then go from there to implementing something that actually does function, because if it comes through Silicon Valley, it’ll be the same kind of thing that everything else in Silicon Valley has been. Which is, you know, you go… if you’re a black man, and you go into the bathroom, and you try washing your hands, the sensor doesn’t read your hands, because it only reads white hands.
CH: Yeah. Joy Buolamwini has done some really important work on how facial recognition is so racist, and how it can’t read women of colour. There’s some really important research being done on the ethics of AI, but the way that we… you know, the way that the corporates work with AI tends to be this push towards the Singularity, which is decades, if not, you know, if not centuries. So yeah there is a kind of difficult disjunct, there.
SS: Yeah, absolutely. And it is that. It’s the life of progress no matter what. And there’s that TV show on HBO called Silicon Valley, and you know, it’s a comedy, and it’s a very boorish comedy at that, but there was an interesting interview I saw with Kumail Nanjiani, who is one of the actors on that, because they got to hang out with a lot of Silicon Valley bigwigs. And those bigwigs were very excitedly showing them all the projects that they’re working on, all the new up and coming stuff, which you know they can’t reveal to the world yet. And he said, you’d be frightened out of your mind if you knew what they’re working on, because they are not responsible, they’re entirely like children and very very dangerous, and the ideas that they’re toying around with, they just aren’t considering the repercussions of. So, yeah, the advancements are happening. Because there’s no regulation, or the regulation is so easy to kind of skirt around, these advancements are happening at a frightening pace. But I also feel that they’re just not happening in areas that are of interest, because someone in Silicon Valley won’t think of how AI can impact and improve the lives of a… of the Democratic Republic of Congo, you know, of the DRC, because that’s just not something to give a damn about. However, something like that, a place like that could benefit from certain tools, you know, just drones delivering food, food supplements or food alternatives that don’t require anything other than just add water, and clean water filters and other things that all can be done using, you know, 3D printing, etcetera.
CH: Absolutely. Yeah. I completely agree. I think, as you say, resource management is such an important potential outcome of this, and yet what we’re looking at is increases in global inequalities, right. So things have changed so much in the last few months, so I kind of want to talk about narratives of the present, and how you think the narratives that we have at the moment might shape whatever comes next.
SS: I think one of the things you’re going to see is a lot of writers coming out with books set either in the future or in the past, because the present has become so chaotic that it’s actually affected the books that we’re working on. I mean, I’m halfway through a novel that I’ve had to put on pause because coronavirus and isolation was not something I’d anticipated. It was a novel set in present times. I have to now incorporate that into the story, I just don’t know how, because I’m still experiencing it, so I can’t even look back on it and make any analysis. I’m sure there are wonderful writers, and extremely talented writers, who are going to tell fascinating stories about what’s happening right now, and they’re writing those stories right now. But I think for a lot of us it’s… it’s kind of taken us by surprise, in that—I know a few writers who I’ve spoken to who’ve said, “I’ve actually written less during this isolation period—which you’d think would be a boon for us—than I thought I would, because it’s just confusing about how to fold this into a story. How to fold this into reality.” I mean, we don’t know—we’re in such a time of flux suddenly, that to make any predictions would be dangerous.
CH: Absolutely. And there’s also the element of this being a time of insaneness, and inward looking, right, a huge amount of introspection about what kind of societies we are. Which is actually a very typical quality of plague fiction, if we think about Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. You know, so ten people seclude themselves to talk about their society—I mean, also to avoid the plague, the Black Death, but they… what they’re doing is they’re telling stories about the early Renaissance in Italy, and what the society is like, and kind of how to navigate it. But it’s quite hard, I think, for people to mesh the… yeah, to mesh stories about that kind of come from the past into the present, because we have no idea what’s going to happen next.
SS: People might actually start seeking out more historical fiction, historical novels, and just books on general history and things overall, because it’s—and it’s not to learn from past, or anything like that, I think that will become something that we can find comfort in, is a time when, you know, Trump wasn’t the President, and Boris Johnson wasn’t the Prime Minister, and there wasn’t, you know, a massive global pandemic locking us in our houses with Neflix and Stan and those things. So I think at this point we’re going to see changes in appetite for what people want to watch, what people enjoy.
The rise of Tik Tok, for example, has been fascinating to me, because it’s just this short format, you know, sketch comedy video app, which people have shown incredible ingenuity with, and they’re doing it all from their living room, and they’ve got production facilities on an app that you know are remarkable, given how easy they are to implement, and they’re doing it all at home while locked down. And how will that change the world we live in? You know, when… will we ever go back to cinema, even when it comes back? Or will we just want to stay at home and watch stuff anyway? You know… what will we watch when we watch things now? You know, why the hell was Tiger King so addictive to everyone? I think it’s because for a lot of people it was someone whose life was even more bananas than their lives were right now.
CH: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, there’s a really interesting kind of shift towards thinking about, you know, you used to consume reality TV—I’m thinking about the 2000s and the boom of Big Brother—and that was, you know, that was so culturally relevant and referential, and now we have kind of a return to alternatives. Which I think is really funny, given the sort of boom of dystopia in the last—or dystopian novels and TV shows and media, in the last twenty years. And I, yeah, I do wonder about what will it look like, what will the media and publishing landscape look like, in the next five years, given that we’re currently living through what feels like a sort of futuristic world.
SS: I think the… Apple might have kind, you know, of put their finger on the pulse of things with… I don’t know if you saw recently, they announced the teaser trailer for Foundation, the Asimov book series that they’re adapting into a TV show. And it’s very much a TV show about the end of one civilisation and the rising of another one through its ashes. You know, Asimov was inspired by the fall of the Roman Republic, and how—or the Roman Empire, rather, or the Western Roman Empire, and how you know other things came out from that. And I think everyone is very… clearly very obviously feeling the reality of an end of one era right now. You know, we’re living through that moment when Rome kind of fell, or when the Assyrian Empire kind of collapsed. And the fall of Nineveh, or something along those lines—or the British Empire, you know, suddenly discovered that they weren’t an empire any more. And we’re going to go through that with America now, and we don’t know what comes next. And I think dystopian fiction right now might actually be a little bit too close to home, and you might end up seeing the birth of utopian fiction instead.
CH: Mm, yeah, a return to the, you know, the feminist sci-fi’s of the 1970s, with Ursula Le Guin, and—
SS: Yeah, the more—this might be the time that Ursula K. Le Guin, her books will finally get the full, you know, global appreciation!
[Narrative Futures music]
CH: For those writers and speculators listening, stay with us now for writing promps and exercises designed to encourage putting pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, as well as reflection on the writing process. This section is designed and presented by Louis Greenberg.
Louis Greenberg’s writing prompts
1. AI manifesto
In this interview, Sami Shah raises the intriguing possibility of a benign AI taking over the work of global government. Although my own imaginative leaning is towards kneejerk paranoid Luddite-ism when it comes to tech, Shah makes a compelling case that government by AI would be efficient and free of corruption and ego. But we would need to set some rules, surely.
For your first exercise, I’d like you to help save the world by making five rules for an AI government. Think of it as an specific update of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.
This is your chance to shape the world in your image, a last gasp for human ego. What would your priorities be?
Please share your results with us. Compare them with other writers’ responses.
Is your focus on specific problems and industries, or is it more global in reach?
2. Far-future imaginings
Shah has gone off near-future science fiction – he says futuristic predictions have failed. Unlike some other writers in this series, he’s enjoying far-flung science fiction. Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination was a very influential example of far-future science fiction – I was so struck by it, I went to a 21st birthday party dressed as Gully Foyle. That novel showed me the extent to which we could imagine humanity changing in thousands of years’ time – we’ll evolve physically and psychologically as well as technologically.
For your second exercise, instead of a broad think piece, I’d like you specifically to imagine waking up in a human settlement in 10,000 years’ time, suddenly shunted forward from here and now. This time, focus on the descriptive specifics of your experience, not the ideas. Write a few paragraphs or pages showing us how it feels, smells, tastes, sounds. Is gravity different? Who’s around you? Where are you? You know nothing about the world you’re in and you can only start to piece it together with these immediate sensory stimuli.
Have fun – and please share.
Compare your responses to any others that have been shared. How does your vision match and differ from other visions? What do you think this says about your creative imagination?
[Narrative Futures music]
CH: Thanks for listening to this episode of Narrative Futures. Next week, Mahvesh Murad joins me from Kuala Lumpur to discuss the art of the short story, discovering table top games and whether Tik Tok is an effective platform for narrative engagement.
With thanks to Sami Shah for being our guest on this episode.
Music credit: The sounds used in this podcast are Technological Vibe and Cyber Technologies by Ricky Rombino, sourced from Premium Beats.
Production credit: This podcast was devised, recorded, and edited by Chelsea Haith. All writing prompts were designed and presented by Louis Greenberg.