Thursday, January 23, 2014

Alif the Unseen

I liked Alif the Unseen.  A bit slow in places, but an interesting mix of middle eastern mythology and technology.  My primary complain would be that G. Willow Wilson went a bit light on the mythology, and even lighter on the technology.  It was a good book.  It could have been absolutely exceptional.  When I was at Code Freeze, there were discussions about the misuses of big data and the algorithms that could be generated from using it inappropriately.  Wilson talks about the use of some of those algorithms, but didn't seem to do the research to fully explore it.  Perhaps that's valid.  You wouldn't expect a script kiddy to necessarily know the terminology, even if he had the skills.  But a book demands a bit more in my opinion.

Alif also suffered a bit in my opinion because it's in the same style as Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, set in Minneapolis in the Prince era.  Rather than a mix of tech and mythology, War for the Oaks is a mix of funk and technology.  While that might not sound appealing to some, to me it is - and it's wonderful.  Alif doesn't hold up in comparsion.  I also liked King Rat by China Mieville better - same style.  Not as good as War for the Oaks, but solid.  Here's an old, lengthier, post on the two.  And of course there's Gaiman's American Gods which is right up there with War for the Oaks.  So there are three books you should read first.

Where it didn't suffer, despite what some Amazon commentators state, is in its use of Arabic terms and social practices.  It's not anything that isn't easily discoverable with the internet (and it's not the end of the world to set down the book for a moment and look up a term - no one reads end-to-end anyway - at least no one I know).  And the practices, such as female circumcision being referenced, while potentially upsetting, aren't there to endorse the practices.  They're a way to stress the difference of the culture involved in the fantasy.  I can see that using that as a way to enhance the theme might seem unacceptable, but glossing over cultural differences doesn't strike me as necessarily better. In conjunction with how the characters acted, the mythology, and the general tone, it served to really give the book a different feel from the other books listed above.  I'd recommend the book, but primarily as an interesting addendum to a history of worlds-along-side-our-own-and-within-our-own.

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