[Book Review] Alif : the Unseen

Alif : the Unseen / G. Willow Wilson (Powell's Books)

Alif has encountered three strokes of bad luck. The aristocratic woman he loves has jilted him, leaving him with only a mysterious book of fairytales. The state censorship apparatus of the emirate where he lives has broken into his computer, compromising his business providing online freedom for clients across the Islamic world. And now the security police have shown up at his door. But when Alif goes underground, he will encounter a menagerie of mythical creatures and end up on a mad dash through faith, myth, cyberspace, love, and revolution.
When Intisar tells Alif that she is to wed another regardless of their secret marriage contract his heart is broken.  When she tells Alif that she never wants to see him again, his grief transforms his coding into a shield that is capable of identifying Intisar from mere words of text and hiding his digital presence from her permanently.  In a country with one of the world's most advanced digital policing systems, yet no guarantee of running water, Alif has accidentally created a tool that those in power would kill for.  Yet, Intisar has something of value and danger that her aristocratic betrothed desires, something she sends to Alif.  Now Alif is embroiled in a game of cat-and-mouse, on the run from the state police, desperate to keep not only Intisar, but his childhood friend Dina, safe.  His plight and desperation takes him to a man of legend, Vikram the Vampire, and into a world of magic and fable while his country around him explodes into upheaval.

Alif : the Unseen was the April pick for the Virtual Speculation Bookclub and is a book that I strongly recommend.  It is fantastically written, with a different voice than I've encountered before in science fiction or fantasy.  The characters are flawed and believable, the socio-political commentary effortlessly integrated, and the plot, conceived before the Arab Spring, mirrors events we have read about in the news with the addition of fable.

On that note, discussion fodder!
  • Many elements of this book match up with those of dystopian fiction - totalitarian government, citizens subject to invasive spying, secret prisons, extravagant squandered wealth among the powerful and lack of access to running water or functional postal system among the plebians, religious persecution, and strict gender constraints.  Yet, the book was conceived based on current conditions and then current events.  How does this effect your reading of the story?  How would you interpret it if you knew (or know) nothing about the Arab Spring?
  • Do you feel that Alif (and other's) disdain for "their coddled American and British counterparts" are earned?  Does reading Alif have any impact on your views on privacy, censorship, and free speech?
  • What do you take from the differences between Dina and Intisar wearing veils?  "For her to declare herself sanctified, not by money but by God, looked like putting on airs. Even as a pimply fourteen-year-old, Alif understood why her parents were so upset.  A saint was not profitable."  Is Dina a "saint?"  What does it mean that her parents allowed Dina to veil her face even though they were against it?
  • How is language and metaphor used in this novel?  Examples to discuss include the use of Internet handles (Alif, NewQuarter, etc), the importance of names, the concept of encoding a text by translation, the evolution of the original meaning of a word, the difference of thinking in different languages.  How does programming and coding fit into communication and language?  What do you think of Vikram's question, "Is anything real in French?"
  • "Perhaps somewhere deep in the mind was a sort of linguistic DNA, roped helixes of symbols that belonged to no one else.  For days Alif wrote nothing - no code, no e-mail - and instead wondered how much of the soul resided in the fingertips.  He was faced with the possibility that every word he typed spoke his name, no matter what other superficial information it might contain.  Perhaps it was impossible to become someone else, matter what avatar or handle one hid behind."  Even without logic-defying software such as Tin Sari, software exists that can collect and sort data to identify individuals with shocking accuracy.  Typing patterns, word choices, sentence structure, areas of interest.  There are anti-cheating measures that identify you based on your typing patterns and a writing sample for online courses.  How identifiable do you think you are online?
  • How do you feel about online relationships?  Do you have friends that you've never met?  ""Internet friends are real friends," said Abdullah.  "Now that you pious brothers and sisters have taken over half the planet, the Internet is the only place left to have a worthwhile conversation.""
  • What stands out to you about the gender roles and perceptions?  The value of virginity, the certainty that a women arrested will be raped.  What about Alif feeling that Dina is "smart as a man" or admiring her for her strength?  What do you make of Dina's indignation that Alif saying that he "forgot you were a girl."
  • Dina asks Alif, "Why do you get mad when religion tells you that the things you want to be true are true?"  To which he responds, "When it's true, it's not fun anymore.  All right?"  How much is the importance of fantasy that it is fantasy and not truth?  Is fantasy an element of religion?
  • What does it mean when Alif says "Your jinn are real, and this is the fiction."?
  • Do you feel that Dina is a strong character?  What makes her a strong individual?
  • What does the concept of "parallel knowledge" evoke?  Can you think of real life examples?  What about the concept of "a world turned sideways."
  • What do you think of "So the stories aren't just stories, is what you're saying. They're really secret knowledge disguised as stories."  "One could say that of all stories, younger brother."  How about, "Some stories have no morals.  Sometimes darkness and madness are simply that."
  • What do you think of the description of Americans as "Half in, half out.  A very spiritual people, but in their hearts they feel there is something shameful about the unseen."?
  • Is technology alive?  "So happy to see so much dead wire.  Tell me, younger brother, do you get this excited about living flesh?" [...] "I don't care," said Alif.  He tossed his backpack onto a chair at an empty workstation.  "And it's not dead.  It's just another kind of alive."
  • What do you think of the concept of spiritual technology?  About the implications of religious taboo and actions within a virtual world?  What about the metaphysics of religion and technology as discussed by Alif and Sheikh Bilal?
  • What do you think of Alif's decision (and feelings) regarding Intisar and Dina?  Was he in fact "unfaithful" to Dina without realizing it?  Should he have taken Intisar back?  Did he do the right thing?  Do you think he was ever in love with Intisar?


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