Once I'd glanced at the list of nominees for the World Fantasy Awards, I simply had to give Alif the Unseen a try. I'm glad I did! It's one of my firs...moreOnce I'd glanced at the list of nominees for the World Fantasy Awards, I simply had to give Alif the Unseen a try. I'm glad I did! It's one of my first science fiction/fantasy reads set in Arab and Islamic cultures. I need to read many more.
I love Wilson's play on the word "unseen". Not only is the world of the djinn unseen, so are the lives of the poor, multiracial, women and other disenfranchised segments of society. Alif the Unseen's about these worldly and otherworldly unseen working together to overthrow the authoritarian status quo. It's a work resounding with the revolutionary fervor of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements.
A surefire way to light a revolutionary fire is to have a privileged few lord their power over the marginalized, unclean, and infidel. Revolutionaries like Gandhi, Jesus, and Mohammad spend lots of their time taking Pharisees, imperialists, and rich people down a peg or two, while also bolstering the marginalized. Wilson has Sheikh Bilal provide theological framing for why caste and Jim Crow systems are bogus:
"I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God."
Desmond Tutu gives a similar message when he says all people are made in the divine image, and mistreating someone is the equivalent of spitting in the face of God. Now that's a revolutionary message! No wonder the powers that be flinch when liberation theologians and prophets remind the downtrodden of their inherent dignity. The Beatitudes scare the heck out of elites and despots. I very much appreciate Wilson's willingness to explore the role of class struggle in insurgencies.
Alif the Unseen's not perfect. The forbidden love story between Intisar and Alif--seen and unseen; light and darker-skinned; Arab and half-Arab; rich and poorer--has been done so many times that the device has lost it's power for me. And it certainly doesn't take Dr. Drew to figure out within the book's first few pages that underdog Dina and awkward Alif would fall in love with each other. The scene where Alif shuns Intisar for Dina felt very John Huston teen flickish to me, and not suited for the revolution-in-the-streets setting. But in the end, the revolutionary, Islamic, and supernatural contexts made me happy and won the day for me. I enjoyed the read very much.(less)
Now that's an important book! Cory Doctorow is such an amazing public figure to me, making his works available online for free, encouraging online rea...moreNow that's an important book! Cory Doctorow is such an amazing public figure to me, making his works available online for free, encouraging online readers to have a go at changing the text, serving as European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. His written works mirror his life in so many ways. I once read another reviewer's (Ruby Tomstone's) comparison of the depictions of technology by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross (in Halting State). She felt that Stross put forward a fearful world made more dangerous by technology, while Doctorow presents technology as empowering opportunity and hackers as heroes. I agree with Ruby, and would much prefer living in Doctorow's universe any day.
And I absolutely LOVE the debates on "what is terrorism?" and "when does security cross the line into totalitarianism?" running throughout a book geared toward young adults. Here's a sample of Doctorow's thoughts on terrorism as told through the mind of main character and hacker Marcus:
I'd never really believed in terrorists before--I mean, I knew that in the abstract there were terrorists somewhere in the world, but they didn't really represent any risk to me. There were millions of ways that the world could kill me--starting with getting run down by a drunk burning his way down Valencia--that were infinitely more likely and immediate than terrorists. Terrorists kill a lot fewer people than bathroom falls and accidental electrocutions. Worrying about them always struck me as about as useful as worrying about getting hit by lightning.
The conversations about the Constitution, spying on and torturing U.S. citizens take on heightened significance for me in the wake of Edward Snowden's blowing the whistle on the NSA's massive phone monitoring and data collection practices. I classified Little Brother as dystopian, among other things. But can it be considered dystopian when our leaders are already involved in monitoring on a much larger scale than in Doctorow's universe, and when our government calls for drone strikes against U.S. citizens? Little Brother becomes more like realistic fiction every day. Interesting times my friends, and Doctorow gives us the perfect story for now. We need to be massive pains in the asses of our government officials. They're out Orwelling Orwell!
Aside from awkward melodrama between some of the characters (Marcus, Ange, and Van in particular) and a strange confusion about The name of Marcus' mother--on the same page, she's introduced as Louisa by Marcus, and then calls herself Lillian a paragraph later--I don't have any meaningful complaints. An important read for our times!(less)