Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Revolution Will Not Be Fantasised: G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen

I'm very glad that Alif the Unseen exists - and indeed, glad that its author G. Willow Wilson exists and is making work in comics and fiction. What she says of the Arab Spring -- "For good or ill, those kids were imagining a brave new world" -- is also true of her work. Alif the Unseen is an exciting, credible and witty fusion of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, and the films, blogs and fiction that have come pouring out of the Arab Spring. It's full of gorgeous ideas about metaphor as world-coding (like China Mieville's Embassytown) and about reversing the Enlightenment cleaving of the rational, empirical world from the spiritual (or science fiction from fantasy, to put it generically). The best, most paradigmatic line in the book is probably when a shadow-djinn in the sideways spirit world of the Empty Quarter tells Alif, the hacktivist protagonist: "Brother, we have Wifi."

I'm with Willow Wilson in her take on Asimov's third law --"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" -- which is that any technology, from making fire onwards, is magic; that is, an extension of the human imagination made possible. There's a lovely scene where an imam explains to Alif that scholars considering the laws concerning travel to Mecca predicted, legislatively, air travel by several centuries. Technology actualises imagination one way; magic another; fictional writing partakes of both. Human cultures include both, strategically as it serves them, and often make technology in the image of magic, and vice versa.

So why did I feel dissatisfied at the end of the book -- a book, moreover, in which a book is all-powerful; in which language is revered; in which politics are foregrounded? I wonder if it's because the book-within-a-book highlights another division, one that transcends genres and the whole "science fiction is more radical than fantasy because it's futurological, technological, rationalist / fantasy is more holistic than science fiction because it embraces and expands tradition/history, is non-teleological, non-techno-fetishist" blah blah blah. The book-within-a-book is Alf Yeom Wa Yeom, Wilson's fictional counterpart to Alf Layla Wa Layla, or The Thousand and One [Arabian] Nights. The Alf Yeom is a classic narrative device, like the Ring of Power in Lord of the Rings: stolen, powerful, ambiguous, carried by an innocent who gradually taps into its power. It drives character development and action.

Yet Wilson also goes William Gibson/Kathy Acker/Samuel Delany/Mieville and suggests the book does more: it can hack reality. Not just through its ideas (which is fortunate, as Wilson's attempt to write allegorical, multivalent tales on the model of Alf Layla is a little embarrassing) but through its linguistic and narrative properties. The idea of the book-as-code (and the story-as-code) is not a new one, but Wilson runs with it impressively. Until she doesn't: the book fails as code, the world doesn't change, and it's left to old-school narrative fiction and its car chase/dream/fight/puzzle tropes to save the day.

The book doesn't follow through formally on what it's saying narratively, in other words. It's not a multivalent allegory, nor - like Acker's Empire of the Senseless - does it hack language and linear narrative as codes that structure the world. Instead - details of Gulf culture aside - it reproduces them. As the argument runs, car chases and shoot-outs make accessible radical material (the fusion of Islam and computer technology) that readers might otherwise resist. But master's tools, master's house: reproducing the form of EuroWestern science fiction, down to its getting-the-girl ending, is frustrating; it's just as frustrating in Doctorow's Little Brother, which argues for revolution but faithfully reproduces the beats of conventional narrative (less successfully than Wilson does, although her fight scenes are rather confused and desultory).

On the other hand, readers hardly flock to Delany or Acker, says conventional wisdom -- aka, the accountants at publishers. It's true that His Dark Materials spread critical thinking about fundamentalisms far and wide -- but ultimately, the books were broadly palatable and their political message dulled by their narrative imperatives. Thus, I think there is an argument for relocating the binary, if we need to have one, not between science fiction and fantasy, but between books that follow conventional narrative structure (as inherited from the Victorian novel via Hollywood cinema), often with didactic purpose; and books that take the premise of their content seriously in allowing it to affect their form, so a novel isn't just about hacking, it's hacked -- it's not just drawing material from sagas, it explores the saga form.

What's radical is not only the ideas a book puts in the mouth of its characters, but whether it puts its money where its mouth is, and lets those ideas change the novel itself. Wilson appears to explore this through the Alf Yeom, with its allegories imparted through interactive oral storytelling, but in the end the story tells us explicitly that this revolution - in which metaphors fully mean, in which their multivalence is realised as the structure of reality, in which imagination and the empirical world are recognised as mutually constitutive and thus fiction can hack RL - makes the world unstable. And that applies, it seems from the final chapters, to other revolutions too...

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