When worlds collide: Alif the Unseen, a review.

Even the cover of a book has a mystical element of rarity

Before beginning a novel, I like to know about the writer; I turn to the back, read the profile of the writer, other works, other life etc. As Martin Amis once said, it’s not about connecting with the characters, but connecting with the author. Just reading G.Willow Wilson’s small, brief biography at the back of the book, you know you are going to be in for something ambitious and she delivers a sprawling, fast-paced debut novel full of ideas; a combination of old age fantasy, genie’s and magic, and the hard, modern day realism of the cultural revolutions in the middle east.

Set at the time of the Arab Spring, Alif is a a hacktivist with no allegiances to any political ideology ‘Alif was not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it’. Alif’s hacking away, until he finds himself the target of ‘The Hand’, an ambiguous, presumably government censor who’s sinister intent, transcends the metaphysical, internet world and into the real one.

 Alif’s is then embroiled in to a catch me if you can scenario with his veiled, female neighbour Dina, as his love interest Intisar is the subject of an arranged marriage. Before she leaves him though, she gives him a used, worn but incredibly rare book, the Alf Yeom, The Thousand and One Days which is an ingenious invention by Wilson, a supposed alternative to Scheherazades, The Thousand and One Nights, except the Alf Yeom is rarer and is a much more powerful entity. Its ironic as Alif’s online prowess cannot translate into physical ability, as he is plunged into a game of cat and mouse in the real world, that has the feel of a video game.

It is the Alf Yeom though that the whole novel centres around, as the second half of the book embarks on a journey of the magical and djinn, Alif complies with Vikram the Vampire, a droll, underworld type figure perhaps a nod to the disputably non-religious The Golden Compass (which gets numerous mentions throughout the novel) the aforementioned Dina, and an American convert, not just to a muslim, but a convert from the western world into this chaotic eastern world, battling prejudices (this arguably resembles Wilson, American born, Islamic convert which she writes about in her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque).
As Alif reads the Alf Yeom he comes to understand that the various tales within it (and Wilson treats us to a few) are sources of deep, metaphorical knowledge. This then is the crux of tale as both Alif and the hand want to harness this knowledge, unlike The Thousand and One Nights, which is effectively binary – black and white text; the Alf Yeom’s stories can be translated as powerful, secret knowledge. However, earlier In the novel, Dina and Alif are discussing the Golden Compass,

‘This book….is full of pagan images. It’s dangerous’
‘Don’t be ignorant. They’re metaphors. I told you, you wouldn’t understand’.
‘Metaphors are dangerous’.

And this is the precursor for the rest of the novel and the Alf Yeom as this is ultimately a book about the power of words and language. Wilson holds no reservations for genre fiction, and in this case she uses it as a powerful tool, because when you strip away the magic, the descriptions of computer programming, you are left with something like the Alf Yeom’s most wanted entity, a powerful philosophy to be harnessed. Centuries of people have tried to exploit and promote their religion with their texts. It has effectively been a war of words, a war of books, as Dina says ‘I was afraid you’d turn into one of those literary types who say books can change the world when they’re feeling good about themselves and its only a book when anybody challenges them. It wasn’t about the book themselves – it was about hypocrisy’. Inevitably Dina uses the example of Salman Rushdie’s, The Satanic Verses. A book produced in the west that sparked outrageous levels of controversy in the east, Rushdie’s use of metaphors for Islamic culture were clearly dangerous. In this age of the internet that Wilson encapsulates, when is a book only a book? And how powerful can a book continue to be.

There might even be a tiny hint of Wittgenstein influence on the view of language when Alif says ‘So you walk, and the path gets rockier, and then there are gaps, and eventually, you find you’re not even in the garden anymore, but out in some howling desert. And you can’t retrace your steps because the path itself was all in your head’  reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s ideas on private language, or more an ironic clash of philosophies between religious (heavy understatement i know) Gandhi and atheist Wittgenstein. People have likened Wilson to Neil Gaiman for the blend of philosophy and genre fiction, but there is a hint of Dickens in the way she evokes cities and its people; the wealth divisions as Wilson contrasts the New Quarter part of the City with the Old Quarter and the Empty Quarter; a city in conflict not only now with its people and its government, but also with its history and its future, its old and new culture. One might even go so far to say that magical realists like Garcia Marquez are evident, evoking the scenes in One Hundred Years of Solitude, with the gypsies bringing magic to the town of Macondo, another capital city (we can assume the City Wilson’s novel is Cairo) in constant revolutions and upheavals.

Besides this, the dialogue at times is a bit clunky, and a touch more subtlety in the mixing of the magical and real elements might have sufficed, and with everything else that it is going on, the love story feels a bit neglected. These are relatively minor, because there is not much to detract from this triumph and as Wilson continues to mature as a writer, these are likely to become more accomplished. Corvus Books (in house publisher of Atlantic Books) should be optimistic of its future with Wilson, because she undoubtedly has a big future as a writer. At times, it reeks of silver screen adaptation.

As we enter the denouement of the tale in the closing scenes, it evokes the scenes witnessed last year in the Arab Spring; a clash of the authority with the people, the bourgesoie and the proletariat, the clashing of old history and the new-age future, the clashing of the religions, the east and the west. A clash of cultures.

Alif the Unseen (427 pp) by G.Willow Wilson, is published by Corvus Books and is out in hardback now for £12.99.

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Daleks, Orwell, and the Power of Language.

Over the decades, famed Doctor Who villains the Dalek’s have proved to be impervious to the challenges threatening them; stairs, the Doctor himself, a tellytubby style makeover in the new series, complete obliteration, being written out, and BBC cuts, because they keep returning no matter what challenges there are to their fictional life as the Doctors enemy, or to their reputation as salt shaker looking, overly used props. They keep returning, and despite producer Steven Moffat saying that he was shelving them for a while, they returned after a very brief period in the warehouse.

 

However, what castigated my interest in them was not just the imminent return of them, but a podcast from The Philosophers Stone. In fact it didn’t really inspire my fear and intrigue of the Daleks, more the power and beauty of language. The podcast, fronted by the late Alan Saunders, discusses several classic philosophical and contemporary issues. In The Evil of the Daleks, Saunders was joined by Robin Bunce, an academic from the University of Cambridge promoting the publication Daleks and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside, and discussing what makes these legendary foes, visually benign looking entities, so scary. Initially there is the historical context. When the Dalek’s were introduced back in the early 1960’s, people genuinely thought that World War III was about to ensue due to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Indeed, the episode The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964) which was set in 2164 was effectively an allegory of the political mechanics involved in the crisis. As the episode centres in ‘New Washington’, the Daleks have been interpreted as the Soviets.

 

Bunce also cited how the Daleks may have been humans, and gone through a period of dehumanisation. There were theories that the Daleks’ predecessors were the Dals who were exposed to radiation and mutation after a war with the Thals. This is not wholly certain, but this element of nuclear war reverberates with the times and the missile crisis and, clearly, the Daleks have gone through some kind of mutation, not just physically, but mentally and, ultimately, represented what the human race feared happening to them.

 

Without wanting to divulge too much into Dalek geneaology, another point Bunce made was of the dystopias created in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World(1931), and George Orwell’s 1984(1949). The two books focus on the omni-powerful state, but differ in their methods of doing so. Huxley’s was achieved through technological interventions and emphasis on the consumerist society, and making its citizens so happy that they disregard their personal freedom and will. In 1984, the state uses constant surveillance, torture, or as Christopher Hitchens put it “a house of horrors”. The nightmare society created by Orwell lays a strong foundation for the totalitarianism of the Daleks. The Daleks represent both the power of selective language use on thought—as well as fear. Likewise, these two themes are explored in Orwell’s classic novel.

 

For example, Orwell created Newspeak as a hallmark of his dystopia. As Syme the Big Brother loving worker puts it “It’s a beautiful thing, destroying words”. Beautiful it might be, the impoverishment of language, such a simple concept. What the Party hopes to achieve through Newspeak is to remove meanings of old language and construct new meanings. By eradicating a word that implies something is negative, could you still perceive something as negative? This creation then is an invention of controlling thought by leaving simple concepts: bad becomes ungood; bad is now not negative but neutral or un-positive: excellent becomes doubleplusgood; not entirely neutral, but still good and positive, it is exceedingly positive, and can be placed on the same spectrum as ungood. Now there is one singular concept of good and it is very large and encompassing. The word orthodoxy comes under scrutiny in Newspeak, but orthodoxy is treated as a verb. It’s probably best exemplified by the following passage:

 

“How could you have a slogan like ‘Freedom is Slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconscious.”

 

It almost seems that by eradicating words, you are eradicating thought, which in turn reduces the opportunity of judgment, emotion and morality, all conscious acts; maybe not so much emotion, but the effect of emotion on thoughts, or thought preceding emotion. If the whole state become orthodox not doing anything other than the norm, where the norm is created by the state then the Party could ultimately create a society of unconscious Sentients to their needs.

 

When you look at 1984, it is not the torture that helps achieve this, the torture and Room 101 is only really reserved for those most resilient to Big Brother’s ways. Newspeak’s power strikes at the unconscious. In the form of a novel it works, but its resonance permeates more than fiction. Back in the late 1920s, two linguistists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf were studying the effect of language on thought. Their hypothesis (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) was linguistic relativism, ie.the structure of somebody’s language affects the way in which speakers conceptualise their world. Still, its not as simple as that. There is little empirical evidence for the hypothesis, and its counterpart linguistic determinism. Even more so, most of the research has been done in a cognitive paradigm, which is encountering problems about its theories of language itself, mainly those of Noam Chomsky and Universal Grammar (which suggests that all humans have a capacity to produce language, and there is a universal, cognitive mechanism of grammar which supports this).

 

What is emerging however is a new approach to language and its effects on thought and psychology which may give us a greater insight into the world of the Daleks and Newspeak. The linguistic relativism debate was before Orwell’s and the Dalek’s time. One provoked nearer the time was by Ludwig Wittgenstein. His philosophy was based on the way language can change not quickly and obviously, but in a more evolutionary manner. What’s more his views on language were deterministic – language and its structure determines human knowledge and thought. Language is a powerful, human tool. Language, is governed by implicit rules in its social and private uses. A man has private language, which nobody will ever be able to access, and if a solitary man tried to translate his inner, private language which is composed of sensations, its translation to somebody else would render it pointless. It is easy to see how Newspeak could effect its population. If language really did determine thought then the limited vocabulary available would constantly reduce the ability of its members to participate in linguistically diverse world. Wittgenstein did also state “about what one can not speak, one must remain silent.”

 

Language as we know it, is human. The Dalek’s limited vocabulary suggests that they were once exposed to human language or were once human. The Dalek’s world is limited by its primary purposes to kill enemies and world domination. But the point Wittgenstein made about language means the limits of the world, also means the limits of the other speakers world. It restricts the ability to empathise, to understand, and simply communicate on any level. The Dalek’s vocabulary reduces any level of compassion because their social language is nothing but a few words, and when there is no reason left, one is left to physical means. If we had an ability to talk to lions and bears, would we feel the need to shoot them, run away, or use any other physical action if they attacked us?

 

It’s harder to speculate on the private language of a Dalek and the inhabitants of George Orwell’s 1984 for example, because it was ultimately a philosophy. It suggests there is a finite distinction between a private and social language. Winston Smith, when finally converted to loving Big Brother, may still resent and abhor the regime in his mind, but without the ability to overtly express it he is a prisoner to his own language capabilities. There is no power to create a flexible social world.

 

This may enhance the Dalek’s villainy, but what about humans? This is not just a human vs alien argument. It would be assumed that the Daleks’ other worldliness, their extraterrestrial being-ness would make them more scary for viewers. But it would arguably be much more scary if they had gone through this transformation from once human to alien.

 

The classic Zimbardo prison study where the participants of the study were split into either prisoners or guards demonstrated how If given orders, people can easily lose empathy. The guards gradually became more sadistic to those who had to act as prisoners (and it must be remembered these were not actual prisoners but people who were also participants in the study). As a result, Zimbardo had to call a premature end to the study. Anybody familiar with the Milgram study, which had similar aims, will understand how people can be quite easily made to inflict misery on another person when they are in a state of subordination to a higher power. Even more so, this highlighted how atrocities like the Holocaust can occur. All this adds up to paint a rather vivid context in which the Daleks operate. They may seem like silly looking aliens to an outsider, but they have been expertly written to reflect the social and cultural context of society’s fears of the past and the future.

 

If anything, the Daleks tell us more about ourselves than their perception as a prop in a sci-fi television show – as some people might see them. In Nazi Germany, who were the Prison Guards that were caught up in an extreme regime of fascism? It’s highly unlikely they were all brought up to be evil workers of Hitler, but were most likely everyday people caught up In the nihilistic rhetoric and subordination of higher order. It also tells us the power of language, rhetoric and discourse. Orwell, and then writers of Doctor Who both recognise this. You can torture the most resilient, but you can win over the masses with cleverly nuanced rhetoric, good or evil, and this what the leaders of our day do.

 

In the past language and its repercussions have been, sometimes, ignored. Social constructionists have followed on from Wittgenstein, and a postmodern stance on not just language but psychology itself. Instead of focusing on numbers and statistics as sources of information, discourse psychology focuses on specific language use instead of the mind as computational device. This is also potentially what makes the Daleks more relevant. Modernism in culture peaked after the first world war, and despite cognitive science not gaining ground until the late 1950’s it is easy to see its influence; it emphasizes structure over process, information over meaning; one can see the human mind structured like a cubist painting. Modernism was psychology wanting to be a science, psychology wanting to tell the truth.

 

Humans were constantly being regarded in this mechanistic metaphor and still are. Culture was being ignored and traditional western science and psychology was bound in the individualism that capitalism can create. Indeed postmodern psychology is postcognitive. The boundaries of the world are created by discourse, which means they are not set in stone, they are not technically there. Its inhabitants are continually creating, reaffirming and changing them with their use of discourse and its constructions. It is real world.

 

One particular take on it is how the media can enforce anti-semitic and fascist ideology through its rhetoric. Michael Billig in Banal Nationalism explores how the these hidden ideologies can be reinforced and are prevalent throughout the media. Billig highlighted how the division of ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ news almost makes it an implicit and subliminal – which makes it all the more worrying. This is all achieved through language use and rhetoric.

 

This is just one of the instances of the applicability of studying language, as cognitivism, potentially dies away (although it will questionably never be left as a paradigm in the Kuhn sense) there is a door open for a post modern stance to psychology and human behaviour. But what about the Daleks? Exteriors aside, they have been one of the most famous villains and have played a monumental part in the longest running sci-fi show on the planet. Certainly in its old format before the return in the 2000’s, they provided fear for the youth of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. Originally their context has played a big part in why this is so, the 20th century was a turbulent decade. Here I’ve presented the case that they represent the power of language and how this seemingly human invention can be used more destructively than any gun or weapon. The Dalek’s, though, also represent fear; the fear what made Orwell write 1984 – our fear of what we could turn into, emotionless beings ruled and conquered in a perpetual war zone.

 

Humans evolved to produce language, its what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, but we will continue to evolve, but in too what, and language is certain to be a prime factor in the moulding of our minds and societies. A future without emotions, would be a future a lot more frightening than a future without language.

The new series of Doctor Who airs this saturday on BBC1. Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside is published by Open Court Press. 1984 by George Orwell is published by Penguin, and there is a wealth of information about social constructionism, sapir-whorf hypothesis, and Wittgenstein wherever you want to find it. This essay also featured on popmatters.com