Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

I had so many problem with this book! And so many compliments for it, too! First, the good bits: G Willow Wilson’s politics are solid and smart and she clearly knows what she’s talking about regarding the Middle East and class and social distinctions. I also really liked her ventures into metaphysics, theology and, with a caveat that I’ll discuss later, religion. Some of her characterizations were vivid and compelling (Vikram is the best thing about this novel, seriously, with Sheikh Bilal a close second) and everybody and their mom has talked about how awesome it is to read quality popular (urban) fantasy that isn’t primarily about white people and western culture.

But there were parts that didn’t ring quite true. The technology, for example, seemed glossed over to a large degree. The theory behind Alif’s computing seemed much more solid than the actual technical depiction. That’s forgivable: after all, the point of the story is to discuss the (really cool) ideas without bogging the book down in exhaustive detail (looking at you, Neal Stephenson.) But you can tell that there’s more enthusiasm than experience behind the discussions of computing, and as a former IT person myself, it was a little discomfiting to read as I felt constantly on the verge of being incapable of suspending disbelief to enjoy the rest of the book.

That wasn’t even my main issue with Alif The Unseen, which started at p83 with the throwaway sentence “She really was as smart as a man.” Augh. Fuck fuck fuck and augh!!! So Alif is our POV third-person narrator, and I get that we’re seeing everything from his perspective here but there is a certain authorial responsibility to make sure that such casual sexism, if it is meant to be just the flawed narrator’s viewpoint, is clearly marked as JUST the flawed narrator’s viewpoint, else the author becomes complicit in presenting same as her own. I wasn’t bothered when Alif, or any of the other characters for that matter, said anything awful, because that’s well within their roles in the story, but for that one line to be written without specific attachment to one character’s POV made it seem like the author was TOTALLY OKAY with this kind of thinking, i.e. that men are the benchmark for intelligence. This was later compounded by a whole lot of fuckery regarding how women’s world is civilization and women’s power comes through being passive and mysterious and a whole lot of yin-yang bullshit that made me want to punch through a wall.

Tho that didn’t even annoy me as much as the characterization of the three main women in the book did. Let’s get The Convert out of the way first, who’s never given a name because she’s OBVIOUSLY a stand-in for the author. I did enjoy her as a narrative device, especially when discussing racism and the clash of civilizations, but her fate was such obvious wish-fulfillment that it was uncomfortable to read.

I also didn’t enjoy Intisar’s narrative arc, probably because I really liked her! And, to be fair, I did think that her actions in the first and last thirds of the book made total sense. I just have no idea why she showed up at Al Basheera Mosque and suddenly turned into a whiny baby. It felt more like G Willow Wilson needing a bad guy than a natural extension of what Intisar might actually do.



I also have a huge problem with the Intisar-Dina dichotomy, which is presented as a clash between pragmatism and principle. Intisar thinks mainly of what needs doing now, of how to survive, if not enjoy, the present and the foreseeable future, whereas Dina is focused on sticking to her own rigid moral code, no matter how shitty it makes her feel, because she’s convinced that that is what will bring her happiness in the end. These are both valid ways of dealing with life, but Ms Wilson paints Intisar as the bad guy, whereas Dina is a saint. And that’s my main problem with AtU: Dina is the fucking worst. Objectively speaking, I really, really hate the “consolation girlfriend” trope, and I spent a good part of the first third of the book hoping against hope that this was not the fate for her, because Alif kinda sucks, and his sudden decision that he loves her is entirely unconvincing. Also, the whole “she won’t marry anyone else now so I HAVE to get back to her” is gross, because obviously the only way Dina will ever find happiness is to be stuck with this idiot for the rest of her life.

That aside, I hated Dina herself. She reminded me of some of the smugly hypocritical girls from boarding school who always found justifications for their selective application of religion, and enjoyed making other people feel bad about their own behavior (because of course Dina is one of those killjoy bitches who disapproves of women laughing in public.) The incredibly specious argument regarding music, for example, was entirely maddening. Wearing clothing isn’t the sharia of the innocent either, Dina: that doesn’t make not wearing clothes an acceptable interpretation of religious law, especially from someone who chose to wear a niqab due to pride alone (btw, not even the strict Muslim boarding school I went to banned music because that, like the niqab which school also discouraged, isn’t an actual part of Islam at all.) Hilarious that she then tells Alif off for being a hypocrite later. I was also a little uncomfortable at her confrontation of the demons near the end: I kept thinking, “Would I feel comfortable if she were Christian and fighting demons by quoting the Bible?” I have zero interest in reading Christian fiction because proselytization is something I’d like to avoid in reading for pleasure, and that scene felt distressingly close to being the Muslim version of a Left Behind chapter.

Anyway, good book, if entirely problematic in its depiction of women, which was really disappointing to me as a Muslim woman who’s experienced living in both liberal and conservative milieus. That’s likely why I’m harder on this book than most of its readers, in addition to being a former programmer and current book critic who was disappointed that the Alf Yeom wasn’t explored further. Who or what was Farukhuaz really? When she appears to Alif in his fever dream of coding, is she meant to be evil? And how am I supposed to believe that Alif only got as far as the story about Vikram when he was supposed to be using the entire text to write his code (which again led to my discomfiture re: being able to suspend disbelief.) Eh, whatever, if you can get over all that, then a fun, intelligent read. Clearly, I couldn’t.

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