X watches TV in a Beirut hotel room. Ida and Anna attempt to mend their fizzling romance in Hong Kong. Sam and Mazen get high in Cairo. Yasmin and Mike plot in New York. What none of them know – or do they? – is that they are all – possibly – being watched.
At times it’s hard to know what’s going on in Hassan Khan’s first sci-fi novella, Twelve Clues, but that’s part of the fun. This new, short, English-language novel seems to be about a colossal corporation, a ground-breaking science project, humanity, a movie, apes, robots and religion.
Twelve Clues messes with the logic of these worlds when they collide and suck in the entangled lives of six university friends who long ago created a secret group called The Holy Idiots Society (T.H.I.S.). We know that T.H.I.S was picked up by COOPERATIONINCORPORATED, which is responsible for ProjectProject, a cohabitation experiment for sficial intelligence and primates. But then the suave Italian mastermind behind ProjectProject, Carlo Bucci, masterminds an act of sabotage. Does this mean the extinction of the human race, or that everything will continue as normal? Neither seems to matter as much as relishing the challenging, unfamiliar scenario the sabotage has unleashed.
The number 12 might be a key to this mysterious story. The novella was written after Khan led the Sommerakademie in Bern in August 2015, which included 12 “fellows.” There are 12 clues, 12 chapters and 12 artworks, one by or commissioned by each fellow, taking up a page in each chapter. Chapter 5, titled The Big Eye in the Sky, includes a photograph by Patricia L. Boyd of what seems to be the legs of a young woman with a tattoo of a circled cross on her thigh. In Chapter, 10 there are two images of hands molding clay by Hannah Fitz. The artworks are like manifestations of Khan’s surrealistic tale, but seen through a distorted lens or interpreted obliquely on paper.
Previous literary works by 41-year-old artist, musician and writer Khan include the non-fiction Tesaa Derous Mostaqah men Sherif Al-Azma (Nine Lessons Learned from Sherif El Azma, 2009) and a collection of flash-fiction pieces paired with fabricated objects called The Agreement (Al-Ettefaq, 2011), both bilingual.
Khan is known for merging mediums — many previous projects mix visual art, music, film and text — and boundary busting. For a 2003 work, titled 17 and in AUC, he built a clinical glass box and sat in it for hours smoking, drinking and reminiscing systematically about his experiences at university. Twelve Clues continues these approaches, meshing together the worlds it creates, mixing text with visuals, steering clear of any moralistic conclusions, and giving university experiences a fundamental role.
The enigmatic open-endedness of the events allows for complicated thought processes on our part. I became preoccupied with a clay statue that is repeatedly destroyed in the story. Clay is mud, I thought, and, according to Islam, man is made of mud. Will the end of humanity be a consequence of its own miscalculation, or will the masters become the slaves, power transferred to the guinea-pig apes and robots? For me, the novella presents a singular view of science and its integration in life and religion, or perhaps even sets humans and science against religion and God.
Khan mildly, yet smartly, toys with how notions of good and evil are embodied in everyone. All of his characters are broken to different extents, controlling, double-crossing and self-consumed, yet there is certain warmth and vulnerability to each of them. Everyone is familiar, yet remains more or less impenetrable.
Artists generally use mediums like paper, space, color and clay to convey their experiences and ideas. Are Khan’s characters mediums for other things? Is Carlo Bucci God, or is he science? The character X, for example, simply lives in the novel, waiting endlessly for orders, inexplicably troubled. Does he represent evil? Humans? And the comically mundane names – like COOPERATIONINCORPORATED – strip the non-human entities down to their simplest meanings and emphasize their man-made nature. All we know about the secret society T.H.I.S. is that it’s an illicit business that was formed in 1995. No doubt T.H.I.S is deliberately left obscure and shady, maybe in order to direct readers to the bigger topics. In the totality of the events, it may not matter much, but we are left curious. Perhaps the characters’ lack of dimensions and detail is a downside of writing fiction about one of the vastest topics, but a distinctive hallmark of English-language sci-fi is its focus on ideas and scenarios over the characters of individuals.
In contrast to the ambiguous events, Khan’s writing is direct and sharp, clear and to the point. I found myself wondering how Twelve Clues would read in Arabic though, how the primates and robots would sound. A novel like this in Arabic would help break the enduring link between sci-fi and the English language, and I think it would have been more challenging for both the author and readers. Since Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932, English is considered sci-fi’s mother tongue. When Arab authors have dabbled in the genre – for example, Mostafa Mahmoud’s Al-Enkaboot (The Spider, 1965), about a young man who appears in a small village where a series of mysterious killings take place, and more recently the very popular Ahmed Mourad or Ahmed Saadawi’s award-winning Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) – the result seems to be more character-driven and existentialist. Khan’s novel is not like them: It is much shorter, yet tackles much bigger topics. Low on detail, it nevertheless opens more doors for imagination and other possibilities.
Twelve Clues raises questions and entertains. It challenges the reader’s set of beliefs and logic by suggesting ways of living that are unusual, unexpected and unnatural. Overall, it is rich and will bear re-readings.
Mada Masr’s English-language culture editor, Jenifer Evans, provided editorial support during the writing of Twelve Clues.