Have a Bonus Post (Alif the Unseen)

(25 comments)

You will, of course, forgive me for a digression. I've not done one in a while. But as this is the biggest and loudest platform I have, it seems the best one to do a meandering review. And since I'm being almost totally ineffectual at thinking (or more to the point writing) about things that aren't this right now, I figure I may as well just write it, post it here, and call it a bonus post.

So, there's a book that just came out: G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen. And it's the first book I've read in a while that has required a substantive reordering of my thoughts - one of those books that requires me, after reading it, to live in a slightly but substantively different world than the one I was previously living in.

The pithy description is "this is the book Neil Gaiman would write if he were an American-born convert to Islam who split her time between the US and Egypt." And if you're sold on it with that, you may want to just go buy it, read it, and come back, because the rest of this is a spoilerish discussion of why I think it's a terribly important book. If you're not sold, well, here's a spoilerish discussion of why I think it's a terribly important book, and maybe that will convince you.

So, obviously a big fascination for me is the interplay between the world of metaphors and material social reality. The secret of alchemy is material social progress and all. Wilson has been mining this vein for some time, and quite well. One of her starting premises - a solid enough one, I should think - is the standard post-colonial perspective that the Middle East has had its self-identity eaten by the west.

In some ways, then, it's odd that she's using her "western convert" status to write a western-style contemporary fantasy novel about these problems. Contemporary fantasy is a thoroughly straightforward genre these days. All neatly Campbell-structured and shop-worn. Create some clever juxtapositions of recognizable myths and contemporary tropes and you're good to go. Play your cards right and you can get a decent movie or HBO series out of it. It's not done to death, but it's a very well-developed, well-defined western genre. And nobody is going to mistake Alif the Unseen as being anything other than an example of that genre.

But it's not a straightforward one. At virtually every turn it finds ways of resisting itself. Rescuing the princess proves not so much pointless as facile. Using the magical powers gained by understanding of the hidden world is both impossible and disastrous. There's even an absolutely hilarious embedding of Twilight within the book as an obvious author surrogate marries a vampire and has his half-jinn baby. But even here the book ducks and weaves around the cliche - the character quietly drops out of the narrative just before the climax.

This is, actually, instructive for a way in. Because for all that this is a contemporary fantasy book, it is also one written from a profound and genuine commitment to Islamic thought. In this regard the appropriation of Twilight is delightfully clever. Twilight, after all, is one part pervy wish fulfillment about hot vampires and one part moralizing propaganda from a Mormon perspective. Likewise, Wilson's obvious surrogate not only gets to wed the hot vampire, she does so in a way that is thoroughly based around Islamic thought, particularly the fact that "Islam" is itself a word meaning submission (though not, crucially, in the crass "submit to your husband" way that Twilight ultimately settles on). And so instead of being a preening and narcissistic author surrogate Wilson's avatar, upon wedding the vampire, disappears into the narrative, becoming a plot function while retaining her dignity and strength in a way that is consistent with the underlying moral and religious thought of the book.

This is the central move of Wilson's book - allowing the tropes of her western genre to break upon the rocks of Islamic thought, which proves itself to have beautiful, crystalline depths that transcend the bullying certainty of her genre tropes. (In this regard the realm of the unseen is a useful metaphor to her - the Jinn are, as is pointed out several times, explicitly acknowledged by the Quran. As such, they stand in well for the aspects of Islam that are erased and marginalized by the current political system - the aspects that, as a liberal feminist committed to social justice, tangibly form so much of the heart of Wilson's faith. In this regard her first book, the non-fiction The Butterfly Mosque, is worth reading.)

But it's the ending that's really fantastic. Over the course of the book both Alif and the book's antagonist create significant computer programs. The antagonist creates the Hand - a giant Internet filter and censorship program. Alif, on the other hand, creates Tin Sari, a program that can identify a user by the patterns of their typing, word choice, and other such things. And both Alif and the book's antagonist, at different points in the story, try to create magical computers based on the contents of a book described as One Thousand and One Nights as written from the jinns' perspective.

In a standard Campbellian fantasy Alif would succeed at this task, using knowledge gained by his initiation into the realms of the hidden to overcome his problems. This is not what happens. Instead Alif defeats the villain with Tin Sari, a program that is explicitly noted as being able to capture and understand the hidden - the discernment of someone's identity through a veil of anonymity - by observing only the mundane and the visible.

This is not a rejection of mysticism or of the unseen. As I noted, Wilson is adamant in her grounding of the realm of the unseen within Islamic thought. She takes care to have an imam of deep faith who encounters the unseen and accepts them, and, as I said, stresses the passages in the Quran that acknowledge the unseen. And it is impossible to parse a character arc like that of the convert without some reference to the genuine spiritual importance of the unseen.

And yet in the end it is the material that has mastery over the unseen, not the magical that allows the shaping of our worlds. Given that the climax of the book takes place over the backdrop of the Arab Spring, this is absolutely vital. The book could easily have veered into tastelessness by erasing the real and material struggles that led to that uprising, giving Tharir Square a supernatural origin instead of one based on the genuine issues and people who led to a genuine revolution. Instead Wilson gives us a material revolution, with material causes, that is nevertheless clearly understood as a mystical and spiritual act. It is nothing short of astonishing.

To say that the writings of an American-born convert to Islam with feet well-positioned in both cultures matter in 2012 is banal in its obviousness. Of course, when both America and the UK grapple with entrenched and distressing Islamophobia, someone like G. Willow Wilson is an important writer. That goes without saying. But what is perhaps most striking about the book is the way in which it avoids the Scylla and Charibdis of this sort of cultural dialogue - the same imperialist/xenophobe dualism we've been discussing in terms of Doctor Who lately. The standard and blase liberal western response to Islamophobia - "they're just like us" - is as wrong-headed as the xenophobic "they're horrible others."

Alif the Unseen demonstrates the middle road. Islam isn't a part of western European-derived culture. Nor is it wholly outside of it. Rather, it's the other side of a conversation. Dare I say it, it's the unseen of our culture, often spoken of and rarely encountered. Alif the Unseen marks a truly delightful encounter, in which a set of shop-worn tropes of western fiction find new light in service of a different but nevertheless still compatible vision.

As I have put it in the past, the secret of alchemy is material social progress. I can't recommend the book enough.

Comments

Alphapenguin 4 years, 9 months ago

"But what is perhaps most striking about the book is the way in which it avoids the Scylla and Charibdis of this sort of cultural dialogue - the same imperialist/xenophobe dualism we've been discussing in terms of Doctor Who lately. The standard and blase liberal western response to Islamophobia - "they're just like us" - is as wrong-headed as the xenophobic "they're horrible others.""

In my mind, that alone makes this book worth checking out. I can't tell you how much I hate running into that dualism in other books, especially speculative fiction. It's rather rare that someone can sail clear of those shoals, and such people deserve a read.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 9 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 9 months ago

Why's that?

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 9 months ago

Never mind. Should've thought things through before I posted. :-/

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 9 months ago

No, I mean, you're welcome to the viewpoint, I'm just curious what it is about the prospect of someone having converted religions that you object to. (If it's the tendency for American converts to be openly evangelical in many cases, for instance, I could reassure you that Wilson is quite the exception.)

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 9 months ago

Ahhhhh... I suppose. The "submission" bit was rubbing me the wrong way, I'm afraid; I know that's what "Islam" actually means, but a wife submitting to her husband is an abysmally medieval viewpoint. :-S

...for the record, though, I'm not against Eastern/Islamic lit, as a whole; I adore Salman Rushdie, for example. He's brilliant. :-)

I just feel that... a convert proclaiming he/she is a convert makes me sort of wary. Best to keep one's religion (or non-religion, if that's the case) private -- mainly because crowing on about it might irk somebody else (and, personally, I truly try to avoid offense). :-/

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 9 months ago

(Oh, almsot forgot; Omar Khayyam is one of the best and most insightful poets I've ever read. :-) )

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 9 months ago

The "submission to husband" aspect is completely not an issue here, for what it's worth. It's definitely a submission to the religion, not to the husband. I'll clarify that in the post in just a sec.

As for the conversion issue, I can see your point in a general case. I think that, given the intense fucked-uppedness of American/Islamic relations this is something of a special case. Describing that transition sheds needed light on what the space between the two cultures is, and it's a light that I don't think there's anything quite equivalent to.

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Tom Watts 4 years, 9 months ago

Who was it said that converts could be divided into two categories - the bitter and the smug? Whoever it was, he was talking about Catholics, but certainly a good portion of Western converts and all Western "reverts" are about as likeable as Scientologists. But on the other hand, one of the pioneer British converts was a pig farmer before he found Islam, and remains a pig farmer. He has a sense of proportion at any rate. But none of this is intended as a sneer at G Willow Wilson, who seems deeply spiritual and wonderfully intelligent and creative.

incidentally, I don't believe it is accurate to translate "Islam" as submission. Oddly a lot of Islamic missionary literature seems studded with ugly and inappropriate words - revert, primordial, submit, as if it's actually courting the image of reverting to a Primord and submitting to the Master. Islam has the same root as Salam, Peace, and means more "acceptance". Ie: surrendering one's fate and responsibility for the world to God. Somewhere between "Let it be" and "Thy will be done". Certainly no S&M overtones in the Arabic.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 9 months ago

Just because I'm doing a book on Wonder Woman doesn't mean I think all uses of the word "submission" have a pervy side. Wilson has used the word overtly in one of her graphic novels, and so I feel comfortable using it here, but I agree, the sense in which submission is relevant here is thoroughly un-S&M.

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jane 4 years, 9 months ago

Well off-topic, excepting that this bonus comment is about a non-Who novel, but I'd like to add Audrey Niffenegger's "The Time Traveler's Wife" to Phil's daunting list of reading material, perhaps sometime after he's kicked off the 8th Doctor stories? No, it's not as literary as Alif the Unseen (now on my own daunting list) but it sure seems like an influence on Moffat's work with timey-wimey relationships.

Well, a girl can hope.

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cubisia 4 years, 9 months ago

Went out to buy this at lunch...and it doesn't seem to be out in Australia yet.

You've really let me down, Sandifer. Really let me down.

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jane 4 years, 9 months ago

Oh, and The Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus. Completely bonkers weird. Could even make for an interesting episode of Who.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 9 months ago

Phil, the amount of work that you can get done in a day amazes me. I'll put this book on my list.

Looking forward to Dragonfire on another hot summer day tomorrow.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 9 months ago

The standard and blase liberal western response to Islamophobia - "they're just like us" - is as wrong-headed as the xenophobic "they're horrible others."

What about "they're horrible others, just like us"?

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BerserkRL 4 years, 9 months ago

When I was in college there was a literary review whose posters, encouraging writers to submit stories to it, carried the tag line "Submission is ecstasy."

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storiteller 4 years, 9 months ago

I mentioned it on an earlier thread, but I'd also like to see him cover How to Stay Safe in a Science Fictional World, as it plays fast and loose with the concept of time travel as relating to storytelling, memory, and words. It's definitely influenced by Doctor Who, but in the "Mind Robber" way rather than any traditional fannish sense.

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William Whyte 4 years, 9 months ago

I was in Istanbul four years ago, and came away convinced that the most interesting country in the world at the moment is Turkey, and the most interesting city in the world is Istanbul, and anything that isn't about Turkey or Istanbul is a bit of a waste of time. And it's precisely because of this: The standard and blase liberal western response to Islamophobia - "they're just like us" - is as wrong-headed as the xenophobic "they're horrible others."". Turkey is trying to be modern without being fully Western, and it's fascinating.

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Wm Keith 4 years, 9 months ago

I don't think it's right to write off "submission" as an unidiomatic translation or as a mistranslation. It's certainly the translation of choice for Muslim writers, who will understand the concept of islam better than I do.

The very name of the religion highlights how important, how infinitely comforting, the concept of submission actually is. You can't mention Islam without mentioning submission. And this is not something that we in the Christian or secular West really do comprehend. Hence the way we used to miss the point completely and call it Mohammedanism.

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Tom Watts 4 years, 9 months ago

The concept of "submission" in English has implications of physical dominance and masochistic self negation. Muslims I have asked about this do not hear that in the Arabic. It's like the meaning of Salam. Not "peace" but "the state of being at peace", which is not necessarily the opposite of war. Buddhists understand this too. You can be perfectly at peace while you lop someone's head off. But it's perhaps more what Christians mean with "in his will is our peace", but not what JC meant when he said he came not to bring Peace but with a sword. A Muslim couldn't say that, because peace is not necessarily incompatible with the sword and the meanings of Salam and Islam itself are so deeply intertwined.

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Tom Watts 4 years, 9 months ago

And Muslim writers in English sometimes seem deaf to the implications of the English words they use - this may be a consequence of believing that the Arabic is untranslatable anyway, or a way of demonstrating (perhaps subconsciously) their alienation from their mother tongue - if English is their MT.

The above points btw are my regurgitations of a lecture I heard at uni from a distinguished professor of Arabic. That's not meant as an appeal to Authority, but just to say that I didn't come up with any of these insights myself, and don't have the learning to defend them or add to their arguments if they turn out to be baloney. Can't remember his name I'm afraid.

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Wm Keith 4 years, 9 months ago

I'm not convinced that the kinkier meanings of "submission" either come to mind first (but I have spent more time in church than in bondage*) or preclude the more traditional religious meaning, but be it unto me according to thy word.

*except in a Marxist sense

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Shane Cubis 4 years, 6 months ago

Aaaaaand I just bought and finished it over the weekend. Will definitely be passing my copy on to other readers!

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