Once I'd glanced at the list of nominees for the World Fantasy Awards, I simply had to give Alif the Unseen
a try. I'm glad I did! It's one of my first science fiction/fantasy reads set in Arab and Islamic cultures. I need to read many more.
I love Wilson's play on the word "unseen". Not only is the world of the djinn unseen, so are the lives of the poor, multiracial, women and other disenfranchised segments of society. Alif the Unseen
's about these worldly and otherworldly unseen working together to overthrow the authoritarian status quo. It's a work resounding with the revolutionary fervor of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements.
A surefire way to light a revolutionary fire is to have a privileged few lord their power over the marginalized, unclean, and infidel. Revolutionaries like Gandhi, Jesus, and Mohammad spend lots of their time taking Pharisees, imperialists, and rich people down a peg or two, while also bolstering the marginalized. Wilson has Sheikh Bilal provide theological framing for why caste and Jim Crow systems are bogus:
"I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God."
Desmond Tutu gives a similar message when he says all people are made in the divine image, and mistreating someone is the equivalent of spitting in the face of God. Now that's a revolutionary message! No wonder the powers that be flinch when liberation theologians and prophets remind the downtrodden of their inherent dignity. The Beatitudes scare the heck out of elites and despots. I very much appreciate Wilson's willingness to explore the role of class struggle in insurgencies.Alif the Unseen
's not perfect. The forbidden love story between Intisar and Alif--seen and unseen; light and darker-skinned; Arab and half-Arab; rich and poorer--has been done so many times that the device has lost it's power for me. And it certainly doesn't take Dr. Drew to figure out within the book's first few pages that underdog Dina and awkward Alif would fall in love with each other. The scene where Alif shuns Intisar for Dina felt very John Huston teen flickish to me, and not suited for the revolution-in-the-streets setting. But in the end, the revolutionary, Islamic, and supernatural contexts made me happy and won the day for me. I enjoyed the read very much.