Is Our Writers Learning?

While it’s not a formal written goal, one of my goals for this year is to read at least one current fantasy book each month and see what I can learn. Current meaning one that came out within the past year, and isn’t part of a series or author I regularly read. This might seem an easy feat, but given how much time I spend reading nonfiction and older stuff, I can go long stretches between recent books.
This month: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (writer of the Cairo and Air graphic novels)
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The story: Alif is the pseudonym of a Middle Eastern hacktivist whose specialty is helping people evade state security and Internet blocking software (communists, Islamists, peaceful reformers, porn sites—he’ll work with anyone). In the opening chapter, he learns his Great Love is getting married. Then learns it’s to The Hand, the country’s cybersecurity chief. Who uses her computer to steal Alif’s new software program for identifying people online. And to top it all off, the woman sends Alif an ancient text, written by Jinni, which plunges him into a supernatural world he doesn’t exist, and may also hold the key to super-computing on a level beyond anything either he or the Hand understands.
What did I learn?
•You can create something that feels new by remixing things, even if none of them are all that new (I am aware this is not a startling revelation). The different elements—cyberhacking, jinni, ancient texts, Alif’s romance (without giving away spoilers, I could have predicted the endgame about three chapters in)—aren’t fresh but they’re mixed up in a way that makes them interesting (even Wilson’s ruminations on symbolism and metaphor [a favorite theme of hers]and the ties between mysticism and reality aren’t that far from earlier nonfiction such as The Zen of Physics).
•The biggest reason this doesn’t feel same-old, same-old is the setting. A lot of American fiction focuses on the Middle East only inasmuch as it relates to America and America’s goals, which is a limited viewpoint. Wilson (a Muslim herself) gives what feels like the inside scoop: Life under an oppressive emirate, class and racial distinctions, religious details and sights and smells of another country. That wouldn’t be enough by itself, but mixed in with a good story and good characters, it works great.
•Opening with lots of exposition is never a good idea. After an interesting prologue about the origin of the book (which serves the added duty of establishing that the supernatural is an element here) we get several pages about cyberlife in the emirate before the plot gets going. It’s somewhat justified (the issues raised in Chapter One are the ones resolved at the book’s end) but it gave me concern Wilson’s prose wouldn’t work as well as her comics.
•Some bullshit works. Some doesn’t. The program the Hand steals sounds extremely plausible, though it’s quite possible TYG and other computer pros would laugh at it (I’m sure that in practice it would be much more difficult to execute, if nothing else). The programs built using the mystical book seem … well, it’s plausible while I read it, but as soon as I finished I realized it didn’t make much sense, even allowing for the mystical aspect. It’s not a fatal flaw, but I think it is a flaw.
•I find myself wondering if this could have been done using Christianity and, if so, whether I’d like it. I can’t see why not—except that I’ve skimmed so many Christian fantasies that preach, I think I’d have an automatic flinch. I’d see it as preaching, even if it wasn’t.
I’m not sure any of that will actually help me write better, but if nothing else, I enjoyed the book. Wilson talks about how she came to write it here.

3 Comments

Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading, Writing

3 responses to “Is Our Writers Learning?

  1. Pingback: Is Our Writers Learning (Part II) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Is Our Writers Learning: The Condensed View | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  3. Pingback: The Bird King and the power of setting | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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