Monday, November 25, 2013

What if religion is really just a computer program?

Alif the Unseen
Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, has a really great cover design.  I love the Arabic window shape and the lettering.  And the circuits!  It fits so perfectly with the story, I just love it.

Let me tell you about the story so that you can see just how perfect the cover is.  The back cover summary is good at sharing the plot without giving away key details, and it certainly inspired me to pick the book up, so here it is for you:
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 fiancĂ© 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.
There was a lot going on in this book.  Arab Spring, computer hackers, a Big Brother-type government that spies on its citizens (ahem), the idea of books as programs, religion, stories and so much more.  It was a bit overwhelming, but certainly ensured that I kept reading!  In many ways, Alif the Unseen reminded me of Ready Player One, though that could just be because they both involve tech nerds saving the world from large, scary conglomerates, and both of them have a lot of technical and background story that bogs them down.

One of the key insights of Alif the Unseen is that religious texts such as the Qu'ran adapt and change with the times even without editing one word.  They are a bit like computer programs, and if you can code the books into an advanced computer, then you can know everything about everyone in the world.  This was very difficult for me to wrap my head around, and all the metaphors that Wilson used to try to help me understand were lost on me.  I still enjoyed reading the book even without this knowledge, but I feel like I missed something important.

There were a few things about this book that I truly loved.  The first was how Wilson portrayed Dina, a very religious Muslim woman.  When we first meet Dina, we get the impression that she is dowdy and conservative and not a very fun or interesting or confident person.  Many of us would read through the lines and assume that the lack of fun and interest and confidence was due to her beng such a religious person.  But as the story goes on, Dina is just magnificent.  She's strong and loyal and kind and practical, and she is all of those things without ever losing her faith and belief in her God.  So often, Muslim women in books are portrayed as oppressed, as victims who allow other people to tell their stories for them.  I love how Dina had her own voice and how amazing that voice was.

I also really enjoyed the challenge that Wilson brought to her readers about what we believe and don't believe.  Many people believe in their religions passionately and whole-heartedly.  But while they believe some things, there are others that they ignore or believe to be metaphorical.  Such as burning bushes, fornicating gods, and jinns.  Why is this?  How can we believe that some miracles are possible but not others?  Why do we accept some things on faith but require so much proof for others?  We are willing to give so much of ourselves to our technology but we do not give that same trust to what we deem the guiding force in our lives.

I did not love this book completely.  Alif really bothered me, and parts of the story felt clunky and too long.  But I am so glad that I got to know Dina, who was such a wonderful character, and that I had the opportunity to reflect on how I read stories and internalize them and incorporate them into my life.


  1. I might have to check this out at some point. Even with your few issues it sounds interesting!

  2. I've seen this one everywhere, but truthfully I hadn't paid enough attention to really follow along and know whether or not I want to read it. But now I definitely do!

  3. I'd love to read this one. I've seen it around a few times but not much. It's still on my wishlist though.

  4. Dina sounds good enough to read through in spite of other problems. I am always complaining that there aren't enough sympathetic religious characters in fiction these days!

  5. Your review explains to me why the people I know who have read this book recommended it--or not--in such an uneven way.

  6. I've also seen this one everywhere, but hadn't really thought about reading it right away. Your summary makes it seem so much more interesting suddenly...time to get myself a copy!

  7. Hm, this sounds fascinating. As I started reading your description, Ready Player One came to mind, so it's funny you mentioned the comparison!! I think this is the kind of book I'd either really enjoy or really dislike.

  8. I had a lot of thoughts and feelings about this book, but I could never quite put it all into words. I liked it, and it actually made me think a lot about how I feel about religion in fiction, and it wasn't perfect, but it was a really fun read and I'm glad I read it.


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