Paging through a book about paging through a book
On our final Friday at Watchung Booksellers, the Beamers found ourselves discussing a book in which the characters themselves are busy discussing a book, a tale of hackers on the run, aided by genies, in an all-too-real Arab emirate, G Willow Wilson’s World Fantasy Award-winning Alif the Unseen. When booklovers read a book about a book, can there be any other response than more love? Well …
Springtime for Alif and Dina
Wilson, a convert to Islam, sets her novel in a very contemporary Arab capital, one undergoing a revolt against the Powers That Be, akin to the many “Arab Awakening” uprisings of the past few years. At the center of this uprising is Alif, a hacker supreme, who suddenly possesses a rare book, dictated by the jinn, that reveals, through its stories, secrets about the nature of reality, secrets that Alif can translate into computer code. At first, Alif’s talents are dedicated to getting over an unhappy love affair, dumped by an upper-class woman. But, her arranged spouse is none other than the chief of cyber-security, the so-called Hand of God, and Alif and the book are the targets of the Hand’s interests. In the process of fleeing, being captured, escaping, and finally vanquishing the Hand, Alif comes to find true love and true knowledge of both himself and of both the seen and unseen worlds in which we all live.
A Book for All Ages?
I kicked off the discussion with the proposition that Ms. Wilson’s book was itself a bit unseen, even in plain sight, in that it was actually a Young Adult (YA) novel, despite its lack of labeling as such. Of course, the topic of labeling of books is a sensitive one for sf/f fans, who have long had to deal with labels as pejoratives used to dismiss our favorite works as “mere” science fiction or fantasy. YA is only slightly less controversial, so our discussion pushed some buttons and lead us into some interesting by-ways (including the status of rap/hip-hop as a musical style).
What led me to the idea of this work as YA was the youth and youthful preoccupations of its protagonists and its focus on the coming-of-age story, which is the center of the novel. Because of that focus, I found that other aspects of the tale, like its religious, cultural, or philosophical dimensions, receded a bit more that I was expecting them to do. There is a fascinating central dilemma of free will versus determinism buried in Alif’s opposition to the Hand’s attempt to control society, but not much comes through aside from the obvious position to cheer on. Others were eager to disagree, finding that the details of life in the City (unnamed), with its social issues and religious traditions, were sufficiently fleshed out to exist beyond immediate plot needs.
Still, a checklist of the kinds of tropes found in YA books (young hero, of uncertain parentage, with a special destiny, surrounded by helpful/admiring entourage) that Eileen thoughtfully provided did more or less fit Alif and his gang. We could agree that the feature of character development was a significant feature of the book, as Alif did struggle and come to a deeper understanding of himself and his relationships, as well as his own beliefs, all of which applies to good literature in general.
It Takes a Village, or a City Near a Desert …
Other characters and their relationship to Alif, however, caused a bit more argument. Jon saw the relationship between Alif and Dina (a literal “girl next door”) as unnecessary to the outcome of the book, a position that we all questioned, particularly Robin, who saw Dina as critical to Alif’s epiphany about how silence and hidden emotion were sources of strength and not signs of weakness. Jon clarified his statement to say that it was Alif’s inevitable passion for Dina that was the source of his annoyance, being a perfunctory response due to her Hollywood-cliche status as Alif’s long-suffering, adoring companion. That said, a number of us rallied to Jon’s side.
Somewhat worse was Intisar, the upper-class woman who jilts Alif when forced to choose between a comfortable life provided by her family and the sparse accommodations of Alif’s life on the poor side of town. Jon thought she was more truly the “unseen”, appearing in only 3 brief scenes (though constantly in Alif’s thoughts), and her motivation, while realistic, seemed a tad pat, contoured more to the demands of the plot and the character arc (time for Alif to have his eyes opened, growth through betrayal and disillusionment). Alif’s enemy, the Hand, appeared a ready Bad Guy with few redeeming qualities, and Alif’s friend, a prince who blogs against the emir, a stereotypical “rebellious rich kid” but a few of us, including Jon, found nuances in the characters enough to make them rise above stock figures.
A Not-too-slow Jinn Fizz
Perhaps the most admired character in the book is the least human. The jinn Vikram, whose origin tale appears within the magical tome that Alif guards, enlivened the book with his unpredictable moods, his regular teasing of other characters for their knee-jerk reactions, and his sudden noble poses. Alan, however, had trouble handling Vikram’s compassion given his introduction as a major criminal in the City’s underworld, even with the fairy-tale justification of Alif having been kind to Azalel, Vikram’s sister, when she visited Alif’s home disguised as a cat. Vikram, who sacrifices himself to save Alif and his companions, maintains an air of mystery, which pleased and displeased us in roughly equal numbers.
On the flip side, the mother of Vikram’s child, an American woman known only as “the convert”, drew the least affection from us, as the book seems to intend. Whether “the convert” (never shown the basic respect of being named) is a stand-in for the author herself had us perplexed, since the circumstances matched (American, convert, pregnant) but very little else seemed to give “the convert” much status beyond “plot device”.
What Genre? I’ll Give you 3 Wishes
And yet, with all the mismatched elements of political thriller, occult quest, and cyberpunk chase, a combination that Liz would not find enticing, the book held together quite well, producing a coherent story arc that she did enjoy. Chris found the flow of the narrative carried him right along, a comment echoed by Nick, who read 180 pages on first opening the book after a long day at work. Even the issue of its resolution, where the chaos in the streets seems to trigger chaos in how the events are related, forcing Beamers like Jon to backtrack where before it was smooth sailing, could be by intent and not from lack of good editing (or so some of us hope). Whatever its true label may be, or whether it is wise to follow its lesson and leave the last chapter unread to preserve the mystery of Life, this book is one that we could recommend. Alif the Unseen should not be unheard.