Arabian Nights & SF Origins

My History of Science Fiction #7

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Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller, 1880
The story so far:
  1. Gilgamesh
  2. Indian Epic Poetry
  3. Aristophanes
  4. Revelation
  5. Lucian
  6. 8th century Japan
We continue our journey into the origins of Science Fiction with the aid of a very well known Arabic text.
One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights, is a compilation of tales written around the 8th-10th centuries CE. This collation happened during the Middle Ages, within the Muslim world, using Western and Southern Asian and North African folk tales.

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The book contains enough stories to fill ten volumes and 6 supplements: it truly is a vast opera. There are many editions of the book, but in all of them, the main frame that sets up the whole remains the same: a Persian king discovers that his brother’s bride is unfaithful, so he has her killed. He then convinces himself that all women are in fact the same, so he proceeds to marry a string of virgins, only to kill them the next day. Lo and behold, the realm runs out of virgins, so the king’s vizier is forced to give him his own daughter, Scheherazade. The girl has a brain, so on the first night she begins to tell the king a story, without ending it. Her husband is therefore forced to wait another night to hear the conclusion. She repeats the same game on the second night too, getting to live a third day (you can see where this is going). And on it goes for 1,001 nights.

Among this plethora of tales, there are some who feature clear science fiction elements. Let’s see what they are.

The Adventures of Bulukiya

This story is told on the 486th night. The protagonist, Bulukiya, embarks on a quest for immortality and along the journey he visits many places, filled with fantastic creatures. He also travels across to different worlds, different from his own in size and essentials. It is to this galactic travelling idea that I give 1SF point.

Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman

This story is told on the 940th night. Abdullah is a poor fisherman, who catches a merman in his net. The two men strike a friendship, bring gifts to each other from their respective environments. Eventually, the Merman gives Abdullah an ointment made from the Dandan fish; the fisherman covers his entire body in it becoming like the merman, able to breath underwater (1SF for this proto technology). beneath the sea, there is a whole new society, functioning with no clothes or money and quite the opposite of the one on land (1SF for world building with a hint of utopia).

The City of Brass

This story is told on the 566th night. Caliph Abd al-Malik bin Marwan, learns that King Solomon used to seal Jinns and other evil spirits in copper bottles, that he stopped with lead and sealed shut with his signet ring. So he sends his men on an expedition across the Sahara desert to recover one of such bottles. The journey is of interest to us, because the party come across weird and wonderful characters, but specifically, humanoid robots and a brass horseman, who eventually leads them to the Brass City, where Solomon’s bottles were kept (1SF for the automata and 1SF for world building with a whiff of Steampunk).

The Ebony Horse

The Ebony Horse is told on the 358th night. The Persian sage presents his king, Sabur, an ebony horse. When the king enquires about the secret of its movements, the sage replies, “O my lord, the virtue of this horse is that, if one mount him, it will carry him whither he will and fare with its rider through the air and cover the space of a year in a single day.” As it turns out, the horse is not just a magic flying machine, but it uses technology, such as internal dials to help it fly (1SF point for proto-robotic).

Third Qalandar’s Tale

Third Qalandar’s Tale is to be found in the first Volume, Chapter 8. King Ajib son of Khazib found himself in a spot of bother during one of his countless sea voyages. “Presently the sea surged up and rose till it reached the top of the mountain, nor had I long to wait ere I saw a skiff in the offing coming toward me. I gave thanks to Allah, and when the skiff came up to me, I saw therein a man of brass with a tablet of lead on his breast inscribed with talismans and characts. The boatman rowed on with me through the first day and the second and the third, in all ten whole days, till I caught sight of the Islands of Safety.” (http://genius.com/Richard-f-burton-chapter-8-the-third-kalandars-tale-annotated) (1SF point for proto-robotic).

Conclusion: 7SF points. There are other early Arabic works with science fiction elements in it. After all, history has taught us that many scientific and technological discoveries have come from the Islamic Golden Age – from Chemistry to mathematics, to medical product and weapons – and a few automatons shouldn’t really phase us at all.