Languages are different for a reason

alif the unseenAlif the Unseen
by G Willow Wilson

I was eager to read more G Willow Wilson after discovering her writing in the Ms Marvel comics. This is a lovely easy read that deals with some pretty deep complex issues but manages to never feel like an “issues” novel. Which is a clever balancing act. It’s probably the fantasy elements that help keep it light and fun. Mostly.

The story follows Alif, a young man in an unnamed Arab Emirate who works as a “grey hat” – a skilled hacker who helps paying customers to remain hidden online. He keeps a vigilant watch for the state’s top internet security expert “the Hand” but is widely acknowledged to be the best and therefore safest from arrest. He is also conducting a secret affair with Intisar – secret because although they are both Muslim, their social classes are very different and neither set of parents would approve. But Alif is a romantic and assumes they will somehow find a way.

When the book opens, Alif (which is his screen name, not his given name) has not heard from Intisar (ditto) for two weeks and is trying not to worry about the possible reasons. Then the Hand manages to break most of the way through his computer’s encryption and he is suddenly at real risk of arrest. Friends help him out but there comes a point when he needs more than friendship – he needs another kind of aid entirely.

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Too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core

William Gibson_1984_NeuromancerNeuromancer
by William Gibson

I read this book because I had arranged to take Tim to an evening with William Gibson arranged by Toppings in Bath and, having read nothing by Gibson myself, thought I might as well start with his first and most famous novel, which is 30 years old this year. It was…educational?

Gibson’s language is wonderful, both lyrical and humorous and I often felt I could visualise scenes really clearly. However, the same can’t be said for clarity of plot. Through a lot of this book I felt that I didn’t know what was happening. After I had finished it and turned to the Internet for a little guidance, it turned out I had misunderstood some early scenes and that had thrown me, but actually I had followed the majority of the action. I just somehow didn’t feel that I had.

“Straylight reminded Case of deserted early morning shopping centers he’d known as a teenager, low-density places where the small hours brought a fitful stillness, a kind of numb expectancy, a tension that left you watching insects swarm around caged bulbs above the entrance of darkened shops. Fringe places, just past the borders of the Sprawl, too far from the all-night click and shudder of the hot core. There was that same sense of being surrounded by the sleeping inhabitants of a waking world he had no interest in visiting or knowing, of dull business temporarily suspended, of futility and repetition soon to wake again.”

The story follows Case, formerly a successful hacker in the Matrix, a kind of virtual reality, a “cyberspace” where computer data is visualised in various ways, from a pleasant beach scene to a complex maze. But at some point (before the novel begins? this bit I’m still not clear on) Case was caught stealing from an employer and a terrible punishment was wrought – a modification to his nervous system that left him unable to access the Matrix. So instead he wanders the back streets of Chiba City in Japan searching for a black market cure.

He is saved by a woman called Molly, a samurai who recruits him for a shadowy employer called Armitage, who offers to cure Case in return for a very big, dangerous job in cyberspace. He and Molly work together for Armitage but also begin to try to unravel exactly who Armitage is and what this job really is.

It’s clear from the start that this book was a major influence on the language of computing, computer games and SF films. But what’s interesting – and also no doubt part of why I got so confused about what was happening at times – is that there was a lot of terminology that’s now familiar to us all but in this book it’s not quite describing what I initially thought it was. For instance, “virtual reality” and “hacking” are words that I have clear preconceptions of but Gibson’s interpretation is wider and requires a bit of a brain shift.

Incidentally, at the Gibson talk we went to last week, he said that the only thing he felt he could predict about the future is that the division between reality and virtual reality will blur to the point that children born today won’t understand why us old folk insist on a distinction between the two. It’s clear that Gibson already thought that way when he was writing Neuromancer and it explains a lot about one of my confusions, which was that I wasn’t always sure whether a scene was happening in reality or virtual reality. But apparently the characters don’t think that way, so of course it wasn’t always distinct!

Plot confusion aside, I did enjoy this book. There are plenty of interesting, flawed characters, though none that you really get inside the head of psychologically speaking. Molly is pretty kickass, with inscrutable motivations, which I found refreshing. In fact, the whole novel felt very modern, certainly not 30 years old. I’m not sure if that’s the language or great foresight on Gibson’s part or if he’s actually managed to create something here that’s somehow timeless.

It’s also a very interesting look at addiction. Case gets physical pleasure from plugging himself into the Matrix and at the start of the novel is strung out on drugs in his attempt to achieve an equivalent high. When Armitage has Case cured of his nervous system damage, he also has Case’s pancreas altered so that no drug will have any effect on him. Initially Case is upset by this and showing signs of withdrawal, but once he gets back to cyberspace he no longer misses the drugs.

“The high wore away, the chromed skeleton corroding hourly, flesh growing solid, the drug-flesh replaced with the meat of his life. He couldn’t think. He liked that very much, to be conscious and unable to think. He seemed to become each thing he saw: a park bench, a cloud of white moths around an antique streetlight, a robot gardener striped diagonally with black and yellow.”

And despite my confusion at the time, I think the start of the novel in Chiba City is a very visceral, believable depiction of poor neighbourhoods rife with prostitution, drug-taking and other crime. It’s a dark, depressing place where everyone (especially Chase) is paranoid, but not everyone is miserable. In fact, the novel as a whole has great sense of place in all its various locations, perhaps rooted in Gibson’s early travel around the globe before he settled in Vancouver.

I just wish I’d known at any point what was actually happening.

First published 1984 by Victor Gollancz.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.