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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Ahmed Khaled Towfik

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To purchase Utopia

Title: Utopia
Author: Ahmed Khaled Towfik
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 157 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Utopia - US
Utopia - UK
Utopia - Canada
Utopia - India
  • Arabic title: يوتوبيا
  • Translated by Chip Rossetti

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Our Assessment:

B : fine if almost too familiar dystopian vision

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Independent on Sunday A 18/9/2011 Sholto Byrnes

  From the Reviews:
  • "Towfik's novel is bleak and his characters are almost without any redeeming qualities. It is also utterly compelling. (...) Far more convincing a depiction of a nightmarish future even than A Clockwork Orange, Utopia is a miniature masterpiece. I defy anyone not to read it in one sitting." - Sholto Byrnes, Independent on Sunday

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Utopia is set in the early 2020s. The world has changed, primarily because petroleum-based products -- specifically oil -- have been replaced by the synthetic 'biroil', formulated in 2010, and so the oil-producing countries of the Middle East (among others) are no longer able to rake in the easy cash and have been reduced to peripheral states again. The situation in Egypt is a different one: here a society already polarized between haves and have-nots is destroyed when the middle-class evaporates. What remains is an upper class that remains in complete control over the economy, and the vast majority that lives at the lowest of subsistence levels.
       For the upper classes there is:

     Utopia, the isolated colony that the rich created on the North Coast to protect themselves from the sea of angry poverty outside, and that now fences in everything they might want.
       Protected by American guards, life here is one of indolent and decadent luxury, where anything goes -- "as long as you don't infringe on the property of the rest of Utopia's residents". The young narrator of much of the story is typical of his generation, able to do almost entirely as he pleases, indulging in sex and drugs and dangerous recreation. He's also pretty bored -- as he's stuck: "In Utopia, where looking for a way to pass every minute of your life consumes you."
       He has an idea for a new challenge, however. He wants to go hunting. Hunting an 'Other' -- those less-than-humans on the outside. Their lives are essentially worthless, and it sounds pretty exciting .....
       With his girlfriend, Germinal, he hatches a plan to leave Utopia and visit the world of the Others. Knowing that a simple phone call will then bring out the cavalry -- or rather the Marines -- and safely shuttle them back home. Of course, it doesn't turn out to be quite as simple as all that.
       Utopia switches back and forth between being narrated by the nameless Utopian and an Other, Gaber -- 'Predator' and 'Prey' as the alternating chapter-titles have it. Though it's not quite as simple as that either. Gaber recognizes that the Utopian and Germinal are not from around here -- as does most everyone else who gives them much more than a glance -- but he decides to protect them. Fatalistic from the start, he nevertheless sees (with his one good eye) that this is what he has to do: get these two fishes-out-of-water back to where they belong, Utopia.
       The Utopian and Germinal are not exactly grateful, still treating everything like a game and repeatedly putting themselves in danger. One might wonder why Gaber bothers -- and by the end, after the Utopian has proven just how low he can go (and it is very, very low) it certainly seems he made a mistake in not tossing the two visitors to the wolves at the start -- but Towfik has a pretty deft touch here: Gaber both 'does the right thing' (in helping the two return to safety) but it's also suggested that he recognized from the first exactly how depraved the Utopian is, and what that means for him, and what the consequences will ultimately be (which the live-in-the-moment Utopian does not). If the end is not entirely a happy one for Gaber, it is his vision which prevails, not the Utopian's.
       Utopia is familiar in its outlines and many of its details: this isn't a particularly novel dystopian vision. Still, Towfik paints it quite well -- even the tired excesses of the Utopians. The nameless narrator -- a Utopian everyman (or boy) -- is a difficult character to use effectively: he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and so Towfik has to rely on his sharp tongue and bravado to maintain interest. Never sympathetic in any respect, he is difficult to care about -- and so readers are never really invested in his being brought to safety again. Gaber is a more complicated and interesting character, but here Towfik faces another problem -- of convincing readers why Gaber would put up with these two. The novel works in the end, because Gaber does have a good reason for putting up with them and getting them to (apparent) safety, despite the cost -- everything -- to him
       Towfik presents all the standard dystopian-thriller-fare well; despite its Egyptian setting, Utopia sits comfortably alongside any global thriller -- or YA novel --, with only a slight whiff of the Arabic differentiating it from an American- or European-made variation on the theme. (Ironically, too, this 2009 novel now -- after the Arab Spring of 2010, and in the days of 'Occupy Wall Street' -- may resonate more strongly in the United States than Egypt at this time, when just how much economic gain has accrued to the American super-rich -- the top 1 (and 0.1) per cent -- over the past decades while the rest of society has been left to essentially stagnate is becoming ever more obvious.)
       Given the tons of contemporary teen-fiction exploring similar themes and using very similar tropes, Utopia has difficulty standing out. Nevertheless, Towfik presents his story well and quite cleverly -- there is nuance to the simplicity here -- and it is a solid effort.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 November 2011

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Utopia: Reviews: Ahmed Khaled Towfik: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Towfik (Tawfik, Tawfiq; أحمد خالد توفيق) was born in 1962. He is also a doctor.

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© 2011 the complete review

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