Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book has a lot going for it, but never finds a way to pull it together in a cogent way. There are so many elements that interest me: technology, programming, mysticism, hidden worlds, magic, dystopia, rebellion. Even so, I can't recommend this book.
The first two hundred pages do a decent job of setting the stage. Alif is a teenager who manages a social darknet where dissidents against the state can freely discuss their political views without threat of retribution. Alif is not a participant in these discussions, merely a facilitator, but he doesn't harbor any love for the State. The State has developed a powerful weapon for sussing out the source of these darknets and exposing their contributors referred to as the Hand.
Alif is a petty, unlikable boy. He is disrespectful and brash. When he is rebuffed by his girlfriend who has been betrothed to another man, he flies into a rage. He directs his rage into writing a virus that can detect the online behavior of his ex and prevent her from accessing his systems. He isn't quite sure how it works, but it works.
Let's stop here for a moment, as this was my first whiff of danger that the story was going to be a real turn off for me at times. I am a programmer. I've been doing this for decades. The descriptions of programming and how computers work in this story are more than just nonsense; they are ridiculous. Writing code does not work anything like what is described in these pages. If you are a coder you will likely find yourself at a point in this book where you must put your hand over your eyes to keep them from completely rolling out of your skull. It only gets worse from here. At one point Alif is in a fit of code writing where he goes into a daze and pictures himself riding a "column of data into the sky as he looks down at a crumbling base". Good grief. When Alif awakens from his stupor he finds that the PC he was coding on his literally melted to slag (conjure to mind that awful Sandra Bullock movie The Net). It was here that I nearly put the book down and decided not to finish, but the allure of the mystical jinn in the story enticed me to move on. Without beating this horse too much, suffice it to say that the writing on technology was poorly researched at best.
Alif's struggles change him as a person. By the end of the book he is humbled by his experiences as he sees the start of the Arab Spring (a bit of prescience on the author's part here, as the book pre-dates the rebellions throughout the middle east). Even so, there is still a lot to dislike. The story finishes a total mess. Hundreds of rioters rush up a staircase into an apartment for no particular reason. Alif has a final confrontation with the big bad of the story where they get into semantic discussion of their opposing views (keeping in mind there is a riot going around them, within this apartment).
Do not read this book if you know anything about programming. You will hate it. Do not read this book if you are a feminist. The women in the story are set dressing at best, and targets of derision throughout. Honestly, I'm at a loss at who I would recommend this to. It is a YA book dressed to belie that categorization. Its failings far outweigh its merits.
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Posted by Adam Jones at 11:14 AM