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Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
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Alif the Unseen (original 2012; edition 2012)

by G. Willow Wilson

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6404415,108 (3.94)65
Member:bezoar44
Title:Alif the Unseen
Authors:G. Willow Wilson
Info:Grove Press (2012), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 320 pages
Collections:Your library, Read but unowned
Rating:***1/2
Tags:SF, urban fantasy, Arab Spring, Arabian Nights

Work details

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (2012)

  1. 30
    Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (kaledrina)
  2. 10
    Fool's War by Sarah Zettel (sandstone78)
    sandstone78: Fool's War is also science fiction dealing with computer issues that features a protagonist who is a Muslim, though it is in a far future spacefaring setting instead of based on Earth.
  3. 10
    The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (mamajoan)
    mamajoan: A similar melding of very-near-future technology with ancient Middle Eastern mythology.
  4. 00
    Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (kaledrina)
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» See also 65 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
This book kept my interest, and I enjoyed the the mythological underpinnings, but I found the gender politics and embrace of purity culture disappointing. The girl who puts out is the bad girl; the girl who veils & is loyal is the good girl.

And this line upsets me: "She would probably be raped in her prison cell. She was probably a virgin, and she would probably be raped." (p.18) Fucking purity culture, that values virginity, assesses rapes of virgins as more harmful than rapes of women who have had sex.

An American convert to Islam is treated with mild contempt by several of the characters, but is viewed in a whole new light once she's married a djinn and gotten pregnant. And now she has influence through her marriage -- and can call in her chips. So that's again very traditionally gendered, and is just described in an unproblematic way. (Plus it's kind of a cheap trick, plot wise.)

The protagonist, Alif, basically does a creepy stalking of his ex-girlfriend, setting up spyware on her computer to watch her; filter her; track her -- while blocking himself from her. I can see ordinary folks doing this, of course, but I call them jerks and creeps when they do it.

I was bothered, also, by the frequent use of the slur "ass-coveter", which is the equivalent of "faggot". So there are a lot of straight men including the protagonist -- slinging that insult around, and no gay people or countervailing messages. Icky.

It's not a total fail on gender -- Wilson is trying to show smart capable women who are underestimated, because of sexism and prejudice against piety, and she succeeds at that. So she's trying, and in future hopefully her treatment of gender will improve or become more sophisticated (ideally, both). Wilson's better on race and ethnicity, dealing with racism and class issues in a number of characters. And the book had an interesting blend of topics I like -- politics, religion, hacking, fantasy -- so I'll keep an eye out for future books from Wilson. ( )
1 vote lquilter | Aug 24, 2014 |
I really wanted to like Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson, but I didn't. I admit that there were parts of it that were engrossing but most of the book just did not appeal to me. I found it overwrought and the main character too immature and emotional to care much about what he did. While the main character did show growth and understanding thereby gaining some semblance of maturity he still seemed spoiled and irrational to me. Like most teen-aged boys the continual use of the F word was a put-off as well as a put-down. I don't know people who use that word in everyday speech and don't understand why non-native speakers of English pepper their speech with it. My conclusion about that is that they must be learning English from the movies and not in practical experience, for it is only in the movies that I hear that one word in excess. Out in real life it isn't used that much.

I was very interested in this book because it featured a culture different from Western Culture and had people of other ethnic backgrounds as the heroes. However, the book seems to perpetuate every stereotype that I might have about Middle Eastern men. Perpetuating stereotypes is not why I want to read books set in other cultures. The mythology parts were very interesting and fun to read as I did not know much about Middle Eastern and Islamic folk lore and mythology. There should have been more of about the religious mystics and the djinns and their relatives and less of the overly reactionary teen-aged boy hero.

This book was reviewed by Nancy Pearl in her podcast done with the author. From hearing that podcast I anticipated a much better read than what I got. ( )
  benitastrnad | Aug 20, 2014 |
Thank goodness there are books like this! I really enjoyed Alif. Wilson daringly takes on techie-fiction (is that a real thing? I think it is now...), fantasy, religion (muslim), and love all at once. And does she pull it off? I sure think so.

So, Alif is a young (~18) but brilliant computer programmer in "The City" (in the middle east and typical of the middle east, where Arabs believe they are superior to the Indians, where light skin is better than dark, where muslim is always known if not always practiced). He "protects" (i.e., hides identities and locations of people online) anyone who is willing to and able to afford his fees. Lurking in the background is the state program and/or person known as the Hand, which is working its way through the back channels of the internet and making Alif and his friends nervous about being caught and punished as criminals.

Alif is also engaged in an illicit relationship with someone above his class, and he believes himself in love with the beautiful Intisar. But then, Intisar suddenly ends their relationship, claiming that her father is forcing her to marry some royal person worthy of her lineage. And Alif flies into a first class funk. Alif creates this crazy program that, without going into detail and boring you, basically allows a computer to think, and with it, he shuts Intisar out of his life completely.

Then the Hand finds Alif right around the time that he is graced with the secret book of the jinn (genies), and Alif is forced to both go on the run and discover the secrets of the book and its origin/power. So the book races through technology, fantasy based in religion, religion itself, and love, all while being interesting and novel and accessible and pleasurable.

It was just such a smart and engaging read with likable and unique characters and a plot that flowed with a foreign subject matter that was made readable and accessible by an author who understood the distance. I really enjoyed this and I very much look forward to more fiction from Wilson.

Recommend to those open to fantasy, who are looking for something more.
FOUR of five stars. ( )
  avanders | Aug 18, 2014 |
Alif the Unseen is what would happen if Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson were written by a Middle Eastern Neil Gaiman with a dash of Arabian Nights. Brilliant! Original! Thought provoking! If you've been lulled to sleep by the current market of contemporary urban scifi/fantasy, do yourself a favor and reach for Alif. ( )
  revslick | Aug 14, 2014 |
What an amazing tale! Within there is an early reference to Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass and this falls within that sacred realm. Alif is a computer genius, half Indian and half Arab, living in an oppressive Middle Eastern country where he helps those who try to operate outside the censors. He's in love with a girl of the upper classes who is being forced into an arranged marriage. Alif's mother is his father's second wife and lives in a lower middle class neighborhood where he does only what pleases himself, UNTIL...the book takes off, traveling into a land of jinns, Radio Sheikh, and an ancient sacred book which provides the key to the Arab Spring. All environments, from the streets of the jinn, to the mosque where Alif takes refuge, to the starkly torrid sands of The Empty Lands, are filled with treasures, of people and of perfectly visualized and described exotic settings. I raced through and now regret that Alif the Unseen must return to the library. I will buy it and reread it, or if it's available, listen to it. A good narrator would make this a most special delight. The blend of reality (computers) and fantasy (Vikram the Vampire) within a contemporary setting make this much more than magical realism - all the way to real magic! ( )
  froxgirl | Jul 7, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
...as with the work of many of the best young writers today, it is both a book written with a love of the fantastic in all its genres and a serious work of fiction.
added by melmore | editThe Guardian, Damien Walter (Dec 13, 2012)
 
For all its playfulness, “Alif the Unseen” is also at times unexpectedly moving, especially as it detours into questions of faith.... For those who view American fiction as provincial, or dominated by competent but safe work, Wilson’s novel offers a resounding, heterodox alternative.
 
It’s difficult to convey how outrageously enjoyable “Alif the Unseen” is without dropping names — the energetic plotting of Philip Pullman, the nimble imagery of Neil Gaiman and the intellectual ambition of Neal Stephenson are three comparisons that come to mind. Yet I’d hate to give the impression that the novel lacks freshness or originality.
added by melmore | editSalon, Laura Miller (Jul 1, 2012)
 

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G. Willow Wilsonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sergio, ChristopherCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
The devotee recognizes in every divine Name the totality of Names.

Muhammad ibn Arabi, Fusus al-Hikam

If the imagination of the dervish produced the incidents of these stories, his judgment brought them to the resemblance of truth, and his images are taken from things that are real.

François Petis de la Croix, Les Mill et Un Jours (The Thousand and One Days)
Dedication
For my daughter Maryam, born in the Arab Spring
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The thing always appeared in the hour between sunset and full dark.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802120202, Hardcover)

In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen. With shades of Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, and The Thousand and One Nights, Alif the Unseen is a tour de force debut—a sophisticated melting pot of ideas, philosophy, religion, technology and spirituality smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:03 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients, dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups, from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State's electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover's new fiancee is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 5 descriptions

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