Alif the Unseen

Little time today for reading or blogging today, so you get another retro review. This one from June 21, 2012. (This review does come with spoilers.)

I will snarkily add two things.

How did that whole “Arab Spring” work out?

And at least Wilson’s political fantasies didn’t get anyone killed.

Review: Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson, 2012.Alif the Unseen

Do not doubt this is a fantasy novel however much its marketing blurs that genre identity with talk of it being a metaphysical thriller, full of religious mystery, and a hacker adventure. It is those things and more.

Do not think that you will get an easy lesson in the realities of the “Arab Spring” though Wilson has some things to say about that.

There’s nothing wrong with being a genre fantasy novel – and an enjoyable one for about two-thirds of it.

But Wilson also wants this to be something else, a platform for some serious observations on Islam and freedom. It is not an unthinking novel. But it is a fantasy, I maintain, of hope over reality and experience. I suspect Wilson might agree with that but values that hope more than me.

For those looking for Arab tinged fantasy and science fiction, I think you will find it here. The metaphorical correlations between jinn legend, Islamic theology, and information theory as manifested in computer coding does, indeed, remind one of Neal Stephenson. The jinns are the most interesting characters here, particularly one Vikram the Vampire, a fearsome, cunning, sometimes noble member of the race that aids Alif. And Wilson doesn’t make you wait for them either. They and the Alif Yeom, a mystical book of the stories jinns tell about themselves, are introduced in the first chapter. The book this most strongly reminded me of, though it came from a different religious perspective, was Tim Powers’ Declare. Both take their religious contexts seriously and weave esoteric bits of legend into their stories.

I gather, from the publicity materials that came with my review copy, that Wilson is a convert to Islam. And that does lend some real world interest to the story. Whatever I may think of Islam’s attitude toward veiling women, Alif’s neighbor, the young woman Dina – the novel’s most spiritually centered character, gives some understanding why a woman would voluntarily do so with, in this case, no compulsion. Another woman, an American studying in the unnamed emirate which is the novel’s setting, talks of the difficulty of being accepted by the tribalistic Arabs – even after she sort of learns their language and adopts their religion. And Sheikh Bilal, mullah of a mosque, is a fairly sympathetic character even to infidel eyes – though he is spiritually chastened and corrected by some of his experiences.

So, there are some things of value.

But I had problems and, be warned, spoilers follow. And I’m doing this because I don’t think Wilson has written a mindless book, just one whose ultimate optimism I disagree with but find thoughtful.

On the level of fiction, the story lost a lot of interest after Alif is busted out of jail by NewQuarter. Only a hacker handle to Alif before, he is revealed as a minor scion of the family ruling the emirate. Fair enough, that wasn’t too predictable. However, the pregnancy of the American convert was as was the revelation of Dina’s love for Alif. The final confrontation between the Hand, the sinister head of the emirate’s cybersecurity and villain of the novel, and Alif is a replay of many a computer hacker/punk rocker/young rebel-fights-the-future plot: everything hinges on a small scale fight. Tyranny in these stories is a weak center, freedom a wide, dispersed power. And Wilson’s story is, I believe, sincerely wedded to that notion, and, for her, it’s not a convenient plot resolution. It’s an intended truism.

While I disagree with his methods and morals, I’m afraid that I’m largely in agreement with the observations of the Hand. The feminists, Islamists, Communists, and others will be at each other’s throat shortly after the end of the story. The mob is already sinister when it hangs the Hand – after trying to hang its ally NewQuarter. It is only the convenience of Wilson’s story that justice comes from bloody, mindless violence.

And it is that self-awareness of hope, of a desire of how things should work out and not how they probably will, I sense. Wilson knows the danger but opts for the happy end.

And I sense this in the theological arguments and speculations about Islam that almost all the characters engage in. Wilson doesn’t seem to side with many of the “radical Islam” tenets. But, while I wouldn’t mind a world where Wilson’s version of the faith was the majority, I don’t see it happening. “Radicals” are in the mainstream. As I write this, sharia law encroaches in England, and police investigations of sexual predation are sabotaged because the suspects are Muslim. Ataturk’s reforms are being turned back in Turkey. Death sentences are passed out on cartoonists . And, near where I live, the blind were once told to leave their seeing eye dogs out of cabs driven by Muslims.

Freedom is a universal value. Or so we’re told. But I sense in the part of the world this novel is set in, what is sought is the freedom to enslave some of your neighbors in a world sprawling theocracy.


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