A friend of mine shared Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson with me, because of my interest in blending magic and mythology with the modern world. Alif is an amazing example of this, with a setting right in the middle of the modern Arab Spring, and a computer programmer as the main hero on an adventure that connects the Arabian Nights, and the Quran, with modern cyberspace and the political climate of a totalitarian regime in the Middle East, making some interesting points about each of them along the way.
I was initially surprised at the level of adult themes and sexuality present in Alif. I’ve read so many stories of myths and magic that focus around younger readers, that I still haven’t quite adjusted to expecting to find it in this genre, (except with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, where a friend cheerfully told me, “You have to read this! Its just like Harry Potter but with sex and swearing!”). Alif is definitely a book intended for a more adult audience.
I will admit that I have not read all of the tales from “A Thousand and One Nights” or all of the Quran, or feel like I truly know the Middle East region outside of my history classes in high school and listening to a lot of NPR. I can’t tell you how much of Alif was based in authentic details and knowledge of the setting, or what key points were twisted for the sake of story, but I can tell you that I feel like I get a good window into the world created in the book: I feel like I am missing a bit of the cultural knowledge to fully understand and appreciate the significance of the rigid social statures and the effects those have on the characters, their “allowed relationships”, what behaviors and what religious beliefs are considered normal and acceptable for their particular cultural heritage and economic standing.
The author does do well at explaining these things to the extent that they affect plot and the character’s decision making, but also at leaving room for continued curiousity. Sometimes it is like peering into a window and being able to see and hear what is directly spoken, and knowing some things are referenced from past events, but the characters don’t take the time to go through and explain every detail in ways that would end up feeling stilted, unnatural, and end up bogging down the pace of the story. Alif gives what information is necessary for you to understand the character’s actions & motivation, and gives you enough detail about the world to make it clear that you are still only getting a tantalizing glimpse of the world; A single complete story from an epic saga spanning generations. There are other characters I can point out and say “I could probably read another book that focuses in on that person’s story.”
I’ve heard it told from the authors that focus on world-building, that 90% of the background information and character information will never come out into the story: The authors know it so that they can present only the rich details that are relevant to a particular storyline, but they also have to know everything else about their character in order for his/her actions to be realistic for that person, in that moment in that scene. I feel that Alif struck a very good balance between that which was revealed, hinted at, and kept hidden. This is particularly important for a book that traverses settings where privacy, identity and secrecy are very important: The protocols of hidden identities in a community of hackers within a totalitarian provides an interesting mirror to the way the djinn appear to mortals differently. These themes of identity of how much we choose to share, and how much others choose to see are even mirrored in the decision that Dina makes to wear a veil and honor the traditional methods of dress and protocols of interacting with other genders, despite peers in her social class looking down on her for that decision.
Coming from the Western world, where burkas have frequently been used as a symbol of the oppression of women in Muslim countries, and where the use of the burka has been very controversial in some productions of The Vagina Monologues. Although there is usually a preface given to this sketch from the Vagina Monologues indicating that a person’s choice to wear a burka is an individual choice involving a person’s cultural and religious beliefs and should be respected, and that this particular monologue applied only to the countries and cultures where women were not given a choice about what they wore. Much of the presentations (positive and negative) about the burka have been laced with this kind of anger. It was refreshing to see the way that G. Wilson handled Dina’s choice to veil her face and the consequences of that her decision throughout the book.
I will also say, as someone who has written computer code myself, I was delighted to find the descriptions in the book where computer coding was expressed in a manner that feels just as epic as it does to me when I am working on a major project.
Maybe its just due to the recent passing of Roger Ebert, but I am feeling the need to finish off this review by giving Alif the Unseen a thumbs-up.