Monday, 23 June 2014

Alif The Unseen Is A Good Book

Or why you should read Alif The Unseen by G Willow Wilson

Alif The Unseen is a modern fantasy novel set somewhere in the United Arab Emirates. It focuses on Alif, a young hacker with a chip on his shoulder and a problem with authority, who provides internet security for dissidents of repressive Middle Eastern regimes. Alif is also a young man madly in love with Intisar, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy family, who, due to social constraints, spurns Alif. In response Alif writes a program with the terrible potential to identify and track dissident bloggers and inadvertently delivers it to The Hand, his nemesis and chief State censor. Fearing for his freedom Alif flees, dragging along his neighbour Dina, on a path that will bring him an enigmatic book of secrets and launch him into the mythical, unseen world of supernatural beings of the Quran. 

Alif The Unseen is very much a novel interested in the tension between colliding, supposedly conflicting forces. The overall story is driven on the friction between the mundane world of the empirically minded hacker and the fantastic world of Arabian myth, while the plot pits a very timeless tale of the clever outsider courting the beautiful princess and falling afoul of a corrupt vizier against the very now story of the Arab Spring, of technologically empowered revolutionaries fighting against corrupt regimes. Alif The Unseen examines the tension between modernism and tradition, secularism and faith, technology and imagination, examining each in a really nuanced way that seeks to reconcile, or perhaps strike a balance between opposing cultural forces. And I think this core element of Alif The Unseen is the Universal in the novel: everyone has to contend with these kinds of cultural paradoxes and negotiate some form of position on them. I mean, Alif The Unseen is a properly exciting novel filled with suspense and discovery, romance and adventure, but it's this tight wound kernel of thematic conflict that made this novel so wonderfully compelling for me.

Alif The Unseen also does that wonderful thing where books, particularly Science Fiction and Fantasy, can act as empathy translators. Every Sci-fi and Fantasy novel acts as portal to foreign world, and every author, particularly of these genres, acts as a kind of broker between the fictional world and the reader. As such, the novelist functions to translate their fictional world and contextualize it through understanding the world they create and the sort of information the reader wants to know. They live in both worlds. Part of the magic of Alif The Unseen is that, for a Western audience, it acts as a portal to the fictional world of the unseen supernatural, but also to the very real world of a tech savvy young man living in the Arab world. G Willow Wilson, an American student of Islam who lived in Egypt, is a tremendous story broker able to contextualize and translate for a Western reader not only the mythical but also a certain snapshot of Arab society. As a result, Alif The Unseen, in a really matter-of-fact way, explains the realities of living in an Emirate while still highlighting the ultimate universal humanity of its characters. Alif essentially wants the same things as me, and for all of his flaws, I want to see him succeed and be happy and find love (no spoilers, but I 'shipped some characters so hard in this book). And the empathy this novel generates goes a long way to making something foreign into something real and relatable. It's fantastic stuff.

(And this is kind of an ongoing aside, but Alif The Unseen is also, for me, a great example of why you should read novels that aren't by bookish/geeky-straight-white-dudes sometimes. While it's not impossible that a white-dude author could write this book, I feel like this novel is so particular to the experience of Wilson that it's hard to imagine anyone else writing Alif The Unseen or doing it with the same nuance and insight. Experiencing non-default perspectives, beyond being morally good, can lead to some really interesting, unexpected places.)

Alif The Unseen is a very easy novel to recommend. The story is compelling and exciting, the mysteries are fantastic, and the thematic discussions are engaging. It's a properly good book that I think a pretty wide group of people could deeply enjoy. The only caveat on a truly universal recommendation is that the novel features a fair amount of computer jargon and plot. I fear that some people, particularly older readers, may struggle to relate to a large aspect of the book. That said, my computer literacy is pretty basic and I had no trouble following the novel, so I think if you have a general, basic understanding of information technology you should be fine. So yeah, I'd recommend this book to anyone and everyone who knows the basics of how the internet works.

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