To any book-lover, the term ‘science fiction’ instantly brings to mind storytelling geniuses such as Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke. Sadly, the genre is inundated with works by American and European novelists and seldom does one come across any by Pakistani authors — which is why award-winning writer Muhammad Omar Iftikhar’s novel Divided Species will come as a pleasant surprise to anyone fond of science fiction.

The book brings with it the exciting realisation that Pakistani writers are beginning to express their ideas using this particular genre, paving the path for future writers, too, 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. The Taleykens are an intelligent life form, living on the planet Arplon in the Cygnus constellation. Although they are technologically superior to humans, many aspects of their lives are no different from life on Earth. The Taleykens came into contact with humans decades ago, when they buried a large quantity of their mineral resource, Hextanlo, on Earth, as a means of safeguarding it.

Now, this resource has sparked tensions aboard their mothership, and a team of Taleykens is subsequently dispatched to Earth to locate it. On Earth, Rayan is a typical university student in Karachi, pursuing a degree in business, with dreams of becoming an accomplished writer. The two narratives converge when Rayan happens upon the team of Taleykens surveilling his neighbourhood in Gulshan-i-Iqbal, and befriends them.

He and his family soon learn about General Gooztan’s evil intentions of extracting Hextanlo and destroying Earth. Together, Rayan and the Taleykens race against time to successfully halt the attack, thus preserving peace.

An interesting feature of the book is the use of both fantastical and realistic elements. While the origin and the lifestyle of the Taleyken species described can undoubtedly be classified as fantasy, the story of Rayan, a typical university student, is incredibly realistic. His daily interactions with his friends and family, and his struggles and dreams as a student, are all aspects of life that the audience can relate to. Iftikhar skilfully concocts a narrative comprising both types of elements and, as a result, one enjoys the exhilarating experience of a fantasy world, without feeling too out of touch with reality.

A Pakistani sci-fi novel imagines an inter-galactic war between good and evil being played out on the streets of Pakistan’s largest city, against a backdrop of more mundane internal contests of will

Because of the unique amalgamation of the fantastic and realistic in its plot, Divided Species is nestled somewhere between hard science fiction — exemplified by the descriptions of the Taleykens’ technological advances, such as being able to shapeshift into any species in the universe — and soft sci-fi, as evident in Rayan’s interactions with his family and his bonding with the Taleykens, when they reveal their true identity to him and they subsequently become friends.

One of the key themes in the novel is the eternal conflict between good and evil. Like humans, the Taleykens are described to be susceptible to vices such as greed and violence. Some, led by General Gooztan, are dead set on extracting Hextanlo and annihilating Earth. Others, under the command of the amicable Commander Kropnock, wish to nurture their peaceful relations with humans and are determined to stop Gooztan at all cost. The ensuing conflict between the feuding Taleyken factions reaches all the way to Earth, and sees Kropnock’s forces and humans pitted against Gooztan.

The broader idea imparted is that there will always be a clash of opinions and ideologies within any community, as all individuals have their own motivations and aspirations. From a wider perspective, the novel provides food for thought regarding the importance of inter-species and intra-species harmony and the benefits that could be reaped from it. Unarguably, Iftikhar does a commendable job of shedding light on the potential perils of conflict and highlighting the paramount importance of upholding the principles of peace.

Perhaps one of the best aspects of the novel is that it sheds light on overcoming one’s mental struggles and confronting one’s inner demons. For instance, Commander Kropnock hasn’t yet come to terms with his father’s death — something for which he blames himself. He has traumatic recollections of the day his father died during battle, and these often distract him from the present.

Then there is Rayan, torn between pursuing his dream of writing on the one hand and, on the other, continuing his business education to appease his parents. Rayan’s struggle is an apt portrayal of the sad reality of Pakistani society, where students are forced to cast aside all ambitions and hopes and, instead, conform to society’s preposterous standards in their choice of profession.

In the story, the characters’ perseverance ultimately enables them to overcome their struggles and realise their dreams. The novel takes a positive approach, showing how problems have a way of straightening themselves out eventually and the outcome is much better than one could have hoped for.

Iftikhar’s narrative bears all the hallmarks of a great science fiction adventure/thriller novel. However, while the story successfully incorporates various themes and ingeniously crafted characters into the plot, certain aspects could have been improved.

One such aspect is the narrative about the aliens. Even though the prospect of coming into contact with aliens may be daunting, everyone does, perhaps, secretly wish they existed. The reason for this is the curiosity of the human mind, its proclivity and yearning to experience wonders vastly different from the banality of everyday life.

So when reading a science fiction novel about aliens, one may picture them as bloodthirsty tyrants with grotesque physical features and weapons of infinite strength, whose sole aim is to harness the power of each planet they land on, before destroying it; the idea of right versus wrong doesn’t exist in their world. On this account, H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds comes to mind. In essence, one imagines aliens to be as different from humans as perceivable, in every respect.

Iftikhar’s Taleykens, however, are not so different from us regular Earthlings. He describes many facets of their lives, such as their social structure and historical events, as being “akin to humans.” While conceding that, unlike Wells’s work, the message of Iftikhar’s narrative is that of peace, it would have been more enthralling had he been more vivid and imaginative with his descriptions.

The Taleykens’ faces are described as being “a blend of [those of] humans and horses.” Having divergent, unearthly appearances, communicating via telepathic signals and possessing transport vehicles that seemingly transcend the laws of nature are just some of the features that could have made Iftikhar’s aliens, well, more alien.

Divided Species is a first of its kind novel, which combines science fiction elements with an incredible tale set in the heart of Karachi. Iftikhar weaves an engaging narrative, encompassing various themes and ideas, making it a thoroughly interesting read. It promulgates the idea of peace and tranquillity and leaves readers wondering whether some extraterrestrial species really is watching Earth, somewhere in the desolate vastness of space.

The reviewer is a history buff and studies at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Divided Species
By Muhammad Omar Iftikhar
Independently published
ISBN: 979-8629619949
224pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 7th, 2021

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