The first time I read science fiction

A painting of a submarine wrapped by tentacles
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne


Dear Reader,

When I was nine years old, my father brought back home three books. Someone had thrown them away, and my father had picked them up. My father worked as a cleaner for HDB back then. This was back in the days when many such jobs were still done by Singaporeans. A couple of years earlier, he had lost his job when the factory he worked in shut down and relocated to another country. We would now call such a situation, ‘restructuring’, just as how we would now call unwanted items like books, ‘pre-loved’. But times were simpler back then, and our language, less fancy.

A quarrel broke out when my father brought these books home. My mother was upset that he had picked rubbish to bring back home, although in all fairness to my father, these books were in good condition. To complicate matters, these were not even respectable looking books with lots of words on them, or books with large black industrial fonts with the phrase ‘approved by MOE’ somewhere. They were illustrated comics of famous sci-fi novels. To make them even less respectable, these were the abridged version of illustrated comics of famous sci-fi novels, from a series called Pocket Classics.

The Invisible Man, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. That night, I finished them all. I had read many stories before that night, and countless more after that. But that night. I remembered that night as if it happened only yesterday.

That night was the first time I read science fiction. I was amazed that you could create new worlds, write something that is obviously on one hand, unreal, yet real. With earth shattering dialogues for a nine year old such as, “at one hundred miles inside the earth, we discovered a giant forest,” and “I am going to explore the world and its people in the year 801,702 A.D.” For more than 20 years, I went on with my life and forgot about these books, until I found them a few years ago when moving house.

When I wrote Interpreter of Winds recently, I was partly influenced by the world building experiences of those books. I wanted to share snippets of Muslim worlds that look unreal, yet real. But like orbits, where we depart to various places, go on different journeys but eventually return to where we began, not much diverge between the worlds in Interpreter of Winds, and the worlds of people from different cultures and religions. Like orbits, the human experience is marked by cycles and repetition, departure and return. There is a certain pattern, and rhythm, to the human experience, which allows us to relate, and empathise with one another.

Nothing is truly unique. This is a good thing.


(From September 19, 2020)