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"A Mosque Among the Stars" is a themed anthology which idea is to collect stories that portray Islam or Muslim characters in a friendly light. The goal is a good one but there was a chance the editors to fall into selecting stories that either make no sense to anyone outside the religion or that are trying to push the message too hard and forgetting that this is supposed to be SF anthology. Well - neither happened. The anthology contains 12 stories and their involvement with the topic varies from stories that cannot work without the Islam elements to stories where it seems like one of the characters is made a Muslim just so that the story can fit the anthology. But the overall quality of all stories is pretty good.

The anthology opens with the previously published "A Walk Through the Garden" by Lucius Shepard. The story is set in Iraq, during the war and the main characters are American soldiers which end up in something that looks like the Muslim hell on Earth. The author provides kind-of-explanation for how this had been possible which keeps the story in the science fiction realm, at least the part of it that allows for hell and heaven to exist. I am not sure I liked the beginning and I almost gave up on the story but the things started working at one point and I finished it. And the 10 things at the end were almost hilarious -- especially considering the much darker tone of the story.

And while the first story was set in nowadays Iraq, the next one - "Squat" by Donna McMahon - is set in the future and out of the planet. Mike is a guard/crew on a off-planet jail facility where a young boy is just about to be executed. Except that the boy's guilt is not really proven so Mike decides to try to save him. What follows is a heart-breaking and at times surprising account of how these men that are used to seeing anything need to make their choice between following the laws of men and following the laws of humanity.  The Muslim character here is one of the other men on the station - the only one that carries on all executions. And because of it he is generally ignored by the rest of the crew (even though he also seems to be the only Muslim so maybe at the beginning of the stories there are two reasons for him being ignored). It is one of the stories that would have worked regardless of the religion or race of the story - any good guy would have suited the story in the same way - and I would have loved the story in any way.

And after the two longish starting stories, the third one - "Organic Geometry" by Andrew Ferguson - is the shortest one in the whole anthology. What is the connection between cricket and weapons? Interested? Read the story if you want to find out the answer - it is short enough and saying anything else will spoil the story. I have never been interested in cricket so I was happy that the story was short enough and did not have so many sports references. It was again one of the stories where it was not that important what the religion of the main character is although it did add an  additional meaning of the story. But still - the message would have been there regardless of the religion and race.

The next story - "Synchronicity" by Ahmed A. Khan - confused me a bit. I generally do not like stories where things happen by accident - or as if someone from above guides some people. In most stories it sounds as a sloppy writing and an easy way for an author to build a story. I did feel the same here for most of the story but when I finished it, it somehow worked. It was so unrealistic (if you see a friend pour a glass of water over their head, would you call a doctor (friend or not) or will you just ask the friend what is wrong with them)? The story is built as a bunch of separate interrelated stories from the past and the present that get connected to the end. Definitely not my type of story even if it was masterfully built. But at the same time it was the only story where the faith (and not the religion or anything from the sacred books) was playing a major role (invisible in most of the story but felt in a lot of actions and occurrences) so it fitted the anthology perfectly and complemented it.

What follows is the first story set in the past of our own world - "Cultural Clashes in Cadiz" by Jetse De Vries. This is also one of the stories that relied on the Muslim setting using it exactly as it had been without trying to present it in a good light. What it does is to give the standard facts (or parts of them) but without the bias that is so often found in the works about the Moorish-Christian wars. We see the story from two different view points - the Moorish rulers and the Castile and Leon king and that is what makes it interesting. Add a few time-travelers (that on top of this see their own younger selves from another storyline), a few inventions that have no place in this era and this continent and a guy called Leonard that the travelers try to stop. The name threw me off and I was sure I know who this guy is - I never actually thought that there will be a second Islam connection after the fact that the story was practically set in the Islam culture. So the real reason for the actions of Leonard caught me by surprise and I loved it. It is probably one of the best stories.

And if you think that this anthology will not have a fantasy story, you will be wrong. "Servant of Iblis" by Howard Jones is the only one that is pure fantasy and this one is set even more into the Muslim culture (and it is the only one that tackles something from the mythology and not from the sacred texts. It is a detective story and the protagonists are hired to try to figure out an efreet occurrence (I cheated and googled the word -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ifrit). It is crucial for the story to understand the Islamic mythology if you want to figure it out before the detective but even without having an idea, some of the things were obvious and the rest were explained pretty well. The story had some English sense to it -  where most of the story is used to explain what is happening and how normal it is and the real mystery turns out to be part of real life. It was an enjoyable story and as it seems it is not the only one for this detective so I might try to find out some more of it.

And after these stories set it the Islamic world came one more where the religion did not really matter - a good guy would have played the part regardless of the religion in "The Weight of Space and Metal" by Camille Alexa. Making Jabril Muslim and having the story in this anthology allowed the author not to tell us some of his good characteristics but this is pretty much where the religion plays any part. This and the fact that this gives Jabril a good reason to be in a special room. The story itself is about the crew of a mission to Mars that carries the first woman and how having her and a generally good guy on board influences the other two crew-members. It's a story about what people would do when they do not understand the other and it does explore some of the worse parts of the human conscience quite masterfully.

And after the somewhat cruel space story, comes the lyrical "Miss Lonelygene’s Secret" by C. June Wolf. Set in the future of Earth when people can find their significant others using the science and their genes, And Miss Lonelygene is the person that makes this possible. But not everyone uses her services - the Muslim world is as closed as it had always been. And she falls in love with someone from this world - in the old fashioned way. And this is what the story is about - how someone that had made so many people happy can be happy herself. It was a beautiful story. But I am not sure how it fits in this anthology -- although the Muslims seem to accept some of the technology advances, they still seem to live in their own world. And did I mention that the story has something like a ghost also?

And after the Moors in Iberia, we see one of the other popular premises set in the past -  the slaves story "Recompense" by Pamela Kenza Taylor. A young sailor, Jeremy Hawkins, decides to become part of he crew of a slave ship so he can win some money so he can marry. But he finds out that he does not really have the stomach for it - and then a strange ship shows up - and things start getting really strange for the crew. Because this new ship captain believes in the old "eye for an eye" and at the same time believes that the good people deserve happiness - after they prove to be worthy of it. It is a nice story again but is "eye for an eye" the principle in the Islam? Yes - they were good to Jeremy but only because he was good. If the idea was to show that if you do good, you receive good - it worked. But the other part was kinda strange in this anthology. But then it sounded real. So I guess this is why it is here.

And then almost at the end of the book are two very short (not shorter than the cricket story though) stories. The first one - "A Straight Path Through the Stars" by Kevin James Miller - is about a first contact with a very strange civilization -- and is the world ready for such a contact. The story fits into the anthology beautifully - but if I explain how, I will ruin the surprise. And no, it is not the main characters even if one of them is Muslim even if he and his actions and words also add a lot to the overall spirit of the story.

The second one - "Emissary" by G.W. Thomas - is the funny piece in the anthology. It is first contact story again but very different from the previous one. There is no choice here - the aliens are landing and are sending a message that seems to be saying that they are not making a first contact now. And everyone struggles to find out what they mean so that they can decide if they should evaporate the ship or congratulate whatever shows up there. The Muslims here are just the good guys, could have been anyone else. As long as someone has knowledge in the history of SF. I did not crack the code although it was really clear once it was spelled (and it was an easy one). Nice and funny story.

And at the very end of the anthology came the longest story - "For a Little Price" by Tom Ligon. It was also the third story that I really loved in this anthology (together with De Vries's and McMahon's stories). It is one of those strange stories that start with the end - we understand from the very first page that a Muslim guy had tried to hijack a space ship. In the same way the terrorist take planes these days (and the story is written before 2001). We have two different viewpoints - one of them highly technical - one of the people in the crew of the ship, and the other one - the voice of one of the terrorists. Not the sweet "I was trying to be part of the bad team so I can sabotage it" but the real story of a boy that had been brainwashed in the name of something that has nothing to do with the real religion. A grown-up man that understands how wrong all had been but also knows that he had lived with these ideas. The author builds a believable story - which is also chilling - because if in the future people can brainwash other highly educated people in the name of something, will this world survive?

A nice anthology even though I would have preferred to see more stories set in the Muslim culture than ones that had been using the religious guys as good guys and not using the whole culture that comes with it. But as a whole, it was worth the reading.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 30th, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Annie, for this beautifully detailed review. I loved it.
Apr. 1st, 2009 11:06 am (UTC)
:) If I am going to write a review, I prefer to make it detailed enough so I can say what I really think. Thanks for reading it - by the way I finished writing I was wondering if anyone will spend the time to read it at all :)

Hopefully I did not give up too much from the stories - was trying to keep the twists and especially the surprising ends out of the reviews.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 08:53 am (UTC)
Thanks for the good review!
I'm always surprised when that story receives a good review, because it is so dark.

Are educated people seduced by dark and sinister philosophies? Every day. Will we survive them? I think so ... and the reason is there are not very many of them, and they are greatly outnumbered by good people who will show their courage and determination when the chips are down. That's why I pointed out in the "backstory" that one paragraph in the ending of "Price" inspired another story based on that theme.

My intent was to help people identify and understand the real enemy, and I think your review shows you got my meaning.
Apr. 2nd, 2009 03:06 pm (UTC)
Re: Thanks for the good review!
You are welcome Tom :)

I was surprised that there was only one story like this in the anthology - it is a perfect match with what the editors wanted to achieve (at least what I understand their goal to be). It's easy to blame a religion that we do not understand, it's harder to look through the veil of all the prejudices and differences and to see what the real problem is... But that is the way to make people understand - show them what the real thing is... and how it had been twisted from some 'prophets'.
Apr. 13th, 2009 04:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading!
Apr. 21st, 2009 05:17 am (UTC)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


Annie Yotova

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