G. Willow WIlson: Islamic mythology in action, in Alif the Unseen

9780802121226G. Willow Wilson. Alif the Unseen (Grove Press 2012).

I discovered G. Willow Wilson completely by accident; was just looking through the Graphic Fiction section of the local library, & came across the first volume of Air, a delightful tale of a airline stewardess afraid of heights, a small country that somehow got left off all the maps, & much else. I soon got Air 2, in which there’s a huge aircraft powered by some strange energy, not to mention the still youthful Amelia Earhart. Next I found Cairo, her first graphic novel, a slightly deranged, slightly supernatural, thriller with Israelis, Egyptians, an American caught among them, & the eldritch powers of ancient Arabia definitely involved. As the writer of all of these, Wilson demonstrated both an agile imagination, & a fine sense of wonder attuned to other ways of seeing the world. As a convert to Islam, she has clearly immersed herself in its whole history, concepts, & literary & spiritual traditions.

Alif the Unseen is her first novel, & it’s a terrific whatchamacallit: Islamic-cyberpunk-urban-science-fantasy, perhaps? And winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (so I’m clearly behind the times here). Living in an invented Middle Eastern security state, the eponymous protagonist is a super hacker, whose system shields his clients (& he takes on everyone, from free thinkers to Islamists to political dissidents), protecting them from ‘the Hand,’ the head of the state’s security force, determined to control & censor everything within its boundaries (no Arab Spring here, thank you very much). Going by his hacker name, Alif, a half-Indian, half-Arab, whose father has more or less abandoned him & his mother,  lives in the working class area of the City, but is deeply in love with a beautiful woman of the upper class.

The story begins with her leaving him, & their affair, because her father has arranged a marriage with a prince of the realm. Alif, in despair, creates a program that, to his amazement, is able to detect anything she types, & so keep her apart from him online (& him apart from her). But this program could work for the Hand, & it turns out the Hand is her fiancé, who soon strikes at Alif & his clients. Before he knows what’s happening, he’s on the run, with a strange & powerful book, The Book of the One Thousand Days, his ex-lover sent him, the girl next door, Dina, whom he has known all his life & got involved in his mess when he asked her to return something to said ex-lover, &, eventually a number of the jinns & others who have always lived next to humanity, but have for some centuries been disappearing from human vision & understanding. Along the way, he finds some odd new friends & helpers, many of whom, due to his rather foolish stumbling actions suffer, as does he.

Wilson has created a deeply foolish protagonist, whose failure to understand many of the people he knows puts them all in danger, but she has also made him an empathetic figure, as he tries to make things right. In choosing to make her point of view character a man, she put him in the midst of all the action in what is a rather patriarchal culture. But by letting readers perceive those around him, most especially Dina, as they aid or obstruct him, she also demonstrates just how strong women can be in this situation. Dina is especially interesting, for she chose to wear a burqa when she was just 13, despite her parents’ protest. although seen only through Arif’s perspective, she slowly emerges as the strongest, character of them all. Of course, it takes Alif almost the whole, thriller-like, tale to recognize her for what she is, as well as to recognize the good in many of the supernaturals he encounters.

Alif the Unseen presents an Arab (& Islamic) supernatural world in a dryly comic noir style, with great verve & insight. Wilson has represented aspects of Islamic culture in a way that can both entertain & enlighten Western readers, while exploring both the good & bad aspects of Arab politics. In the end, Alif the Unseen is one of the best & most provocative SF&F novels I’ve read recently, & G. Willow Wilson is definitely a writer to watch. Go read the graphic fiction, too: it’s fabulous.

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Multiduninous Margaret Christakos

9781552452790_Christakos_MultitudesWebMargaret Christakos. Multitudes (Coach House Books 2013).

Margaret Christakos has always challenged herself in writing, & continually pushed her work into new areas of experimentation, & she continues to do so in her latest book, Multitudes. She takes chances, which is exciting but can as easily turn readers off as on. This book is large enough & full enough (well, of course, it contains…) to present something that will satisfy just about everyone at some point. It’s divided into seven sections, ‘Threshold,’ ‘Hoop,’ ‘Enough,’ ‘Weapon,’ ‘Mounds,’ ‘Banish,’ & ‘Play,’ although language is at play, or she is playing with language, throughout. As will probably be the case with every reader, I found some sections more stimulating than others.

‘Threshold’ sets some terms: with its fragmented quotation of Whitman’s ‘sing th body electric’ as an epigraph, it both insists on what words might do to body, mouth, tongue, etc., & asks what ‘I’ can do, thereby demonstrating how the poem can be both confessional lyric & the self-destruction of same. It also assumes that ‘th body electric’ today will extend much further than it could in Whitman’s time: these are poems most definitely of the digital, wired, age, poems emerging from the world of tweeting & texting that nevertheless insist that the body in the natural world remains at the heart of things.

Christakos pays homage to bpNichol, I think, in the little songs in ‘Hoop, like ‘Love Song’:

            in u

            i nu

 which is both a miniscule delight & a signal of the kind of texting-abbreviations she employs throughout Multitudes. ‘Bringing,’ for example, begins some of her word mirroring & other sound games, uses those abbreviations, yet is careful to hold to the words & phrases that push the various poetic politics of Multitudes: ‘Take back th night Hold others 2 sluggish / account Believe in rainforest / 4 th trees 4 what they r / bringing in – ‘

‘Four Years Is It’ takes up FaceBook & the ways it affects all who use it (or are used by it): ‘It behaves like a social life but gradually // erases social life as / much as it creates one / ‘I’ in your third person feels you are speaking to a // ‘them’ . . .’. As ‘Play,’ which is made up of Christakos’s own FB entries for 2012-13 (& I remember seeing many of them there) indicates, she has chosen to use, & turns her poetic & argumentative posts into the final sequence of her book, a kind of poetics-in-action that both articulates some of her processes & demonstrates them in action (‘wordinary’ & vocaholic’ just two of the smallest examples of her wordplay).

There’s so much going on in Multitudes (with its ‘multitumultitumultitumultitudes’) that it’s really impossible to fully represent all it does.  ‘Wish’ offers a glimpse:

             Every leaf on that tree

            looks like a small hand

            typing. Suddenly th tree

            seems entirely inflamed! All of

            nature a diarist.

                                                2 banish

                                                2 vanish

                                                4 one or

                                                th other,

                                                 2 wish.

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Stross does great space opera

9780425256770LCharles Stross. Neptune’s Brood (Ace Books 2013).

Stross’s new novel is set in the same future as Saturn’s Children, but now 5000 years hence, & with another naïve female metahuman, Krina Alizond-114, as our slowly-learning-just-what’s-going-on narrator. Krina is ‘a member of the Alizond lineage, an old and prestigious sisterhood’ descended from the robots that once served humanity (which is nearly extinct, again, for the 4th time; humans are now known as ‘the Fragile’). Neptune’s Brood is another highly intelligent & witty space opera, this time about a huge centuries spanning Ponzi scheme that slowly unfolds over the thriller chase narrative in which Krina discovers that, for a historical scholar, she has depths of survival potential, especially when aided by various odd helpers, including a sister.

As the narrative proceeds, it slowly becomes clear that the problems Krina finds herself in can be traced back to her ‘lineage matriarch, Sondra Alizon-1,’ who ‘was instantiated well over two thousand years ago in another star system…. Her progenitors were a credit union and a gambling cartel.’ But just like Krina so many centuries later, who became a supposedly free agent in the Alizond family business, Sondra was able to fairly quickly pay off her ‘construction debt and, furthermore, buy out the intellectual property rights to her lineage and invest her remaining equity in a starship cooperative.’

Krina & a few of her sister historians have discovered some anomalies in the family archives & begun a small hidden rebellion as a result. However, as she finds out now she’s on an ‘academic pilgrimage’ among the stars, Sondra may know of their disobediences, & intends to stomp it out. In this future, there is no FTL, even sending information, including the ‘souls’ of metahumans to be downloaded into new bodies in other star systems, takes a lot of time. But an awful lot of various people seem to be headed to the system Krina finds herself in, &, as she slowly learns more & more about them & about what really happened at the Atlantis colony, in which nasty work Sondra had a very large hand, things get tight for her.

Stross manages the highly intricate plot with great finesse, & articulates both the science of this future universe & of its economic grounding by having the novel be Krina’s history of how eventually she became part of the way various agencies outwit Sondra. So there are a number of what Samuel R Delany would call ‘expository lumps,’ but because they are Krina’s explanations of how money works in any, but especially this, interstellar civilization, they slowly bring to light the atrocities implicit in any capitalist system that runs unchecked (which is what happens in all scams or Ponzi schemes).

Krina is knowledgeable but she is also naïve, & only slowly comes to comprehend the massive complexity of the centuries-spanning scam her matriarch helped mastermind, at the cost of millions of people as well as ‘slow money’ (a brilliant concept). Stross lets her discover everything slowly as she runs, hides, & attempts to both stay alive & bring her & her few sisters’ plot to fruition. Neptune’s Brood is the perfect contemporary space opera, wide-screen epic, full of colour & detail, slyly intelligent in its intellectual understory, & genuinely moving in its emotional representation of people so strangely removed from us ‘Fragiles’ reading it.

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Does He? Jon Paul Fiorentino Needs Improvement

9781552452806_Fiorentino_NeedsWebJon Paul Fiorentino. Needs Improvement (Coach House Books 2013).

As anyone who’s seen his theoretical version of Archie comics will know, Jon Paul Fiorentino likes to play games, not least with theory & theoreticians, and to do so ‘with the most love.’ I think we can trust him on that. With its sly & deliberately ugly/banal cover imagery of a report card, Needs Improvement lets a reader know from the get go that nothing inscribed herein is to be trusted. There’s a sense that all forms of official discourse is out to get ‘you’; not ‘I’ for here Fiorentino, with his ‘alyrics’ takes a firm step away from the them that is traditional lyric speech. One could say he steps away from speech itself: Needs Improvement is all about writing, is writing as it is. Even when it pretends to speak:

When I said we made a minimal pair
I was deep in linguistic conceit

It had nothing to do with your character
It was strictly labio-dental

That’s one of the ‘alyrics’ in the first section, ‘Things-As-Facts,’ the title of which reminds us that we perhaps trust the nouns of the world too easily. Most of the pieces here are artfully rearranged lines of uncommitted free verse, but there are a couple of prose poems that deny most of Baudelaire’s concept, except perhaps its commitment to the modern city. This is especially true of the long ‘Winnipeg Cold Storage Company,’ which is ‘appropriated and manipulated (with the most love) from Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative by Judith Butler.’ Oddly enough, the piece also performs a strange but real love for Winnipeg. Each section torques Butler’s theorizing through both this particular city & its ‘cold storage’ (of people, ideas, recognitions, senses of place, etc). The reader is tempted to laugh at the playful undermining of both the theoretical writing & what happens to it when cold storage substitutes for larger ideas, but then such larger ideas loom out of the fog of rhetoric & make their sneaky points: ‘The spectre of regionalism has become a privileged haunting in which to re-evaluate the cause and effects of civic shame.’

In the middle section,‘Needs Improvement: Pedagogical Interventions,’ Fiorentino plays hard with ‘Instructions for Invigilation,’ guides, Report Cards, Rubrics for Evaluation, & blurbs. Some of these are laugh-out-loud-funny, but only for a moment, then the things sting. Especially ‘The Report Cards of Leslie Mackie,’ in which, as adults, we might at first sympathize with the teachers but that only leads us into complicity with a culture of bullying that we soon learn to fear. As satire, this is subtly brilliant. There are a number of other manipulations of received texts & a series of ‘summaries,’ visual works that test theory (or theories) hard.

‘Moda; Alyric Villanelles,’ the final section, plays off the traditional villanelle form, in a number of cases by choosing various civic mottos & slogans for the repeated lines of each verse, as in ‘Concordia’:

Salvation through harmony
is a fallacy: skewed, satiric saltire, a
royal gift

of cigarettes and deep wine
and the knowledge that any kind of
salvation through harmony

would not require you to learn
notation but your tone deaf
royal gift

grub, cross-clutch self
would no longer stand.
Salvation through harmony

can only be a sick twinning –
an abstraction, a don’t, a receipt for a
royal gift

unopened. What more do you need in this
anachronic city of tracts proclaiming
salvation through harmonious and
royal gifting

Oh this Fiorentino is sly, all right, & so most of the pieces in Needs Improvement sneak critique through the twisted phrasing & manipulated texts appropriated for this task. ‘Salter Street Strike,’ the final poem, pays homage to bpnichol as it wears its heart on its sleeve:

                  — Nichol’s heart
can be ours. H is a door to many
people before profit.

Listen, it’s a healthy nostalgia if it owns you
or at least not the worst thing ever if you are
one with the strength of many
people before profit.

Needs Improvement plays so many games, it’s impossible to note all of them in a review, but beneath all the play something serious happens. These poems & proses ask us to open our own doors of perception, especially about the various political systems under which we live, be they in writing, publishing, or the larger world in which we all have a part. What Needs Improvement is everything & one, & this little book points some of the ways.

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PrintMari-Lou Rowley. Unus Mundus (Anvil Press 2013).

Rowley, who has long been a science writer has also utilized her scientific knowledge in her poetry, finding wondrous images & symbols there. The title of her latest book  might owe something to Yeats, but she is as interested in the material as the spiritual worlds. In fact, as Unus Mundus implies, there is only the one world, everything there is is there. Yet, as one of her epigraphs insists about that world: ‘we bring [it] forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth.’ Unus Mundus therefore finds a fresh lyric mode to argue the affair between science & art, among other things.

In the five sets in Unus Mundus, Rowley demonstrates a wide range & a wide comprehension. ‘Space-Time Dialogues’ presents little dramatic arguments between past thinkers & modern ones, with wit & precision. If Plato tells us that ‘Time came together with the heavens so that just as they / were begotten together, they might be undone together.’ Einstein suggests there’s ‘No absolute bus stop in time or space, only the speed,’ while Roy Orbison chimes in:

All around the round world, just a wanderer, wondering
a voice caught in time so plaintive and fine
[Humphrey and Ingrid immortalized in melody]
girls all undone tilt their heads star-ward
pretending to be kissed
by just that kind of guy

All the ‘Dialogues’ jump through such hoops, with a smart delight. The ‘CosmoSonnets’ jump, too, but in a more specifically science oriented manner, yet always remembering the deeper connections: ‘Particle energy measured in electron volts, / the untidy oblate geometry of love.’ (And when footnotes are needed, the poet happily supplies them: ‘The Ramen effect is the inelastic scattering of a photon. How the heart heals after it I broken.’)

The two parts of ‘Strange Terrains’ get ‘Lost in Space’ & then come ‘Back to Earth.’ Where the poet can perceive the world we touch as we move through it, feeling ‘the ripple effect / of waves, skin / under fingers’. ‘Animalus’ is but a few pieces, a kind of prose-poem act of remembrance for those ‘lesser beings’ humans are killing off. Which leads (naturally?) to ‘Feral Verses,’ some of Rowley’s most striking, & stricken, poems in Unus Mundus. Here the human animal encounters ‘bone memory’ &

a dream of feathers

of flying, falling, running

out, down


Unus Mundus is a wonderfully challenging volume, in which both reader & writer join in an explorative journey through time & space, the human & animal worlds it reminds us are being ever more torn apart.

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-1Don McKay. Paradoxides (McClelland & Stewart 2012).

McKay, whose previous book won the Griffin Poetry Prize, is now a major Canadian poet whose work is reviewed in The New York Times. He can be described, among other things, as a ‘nature poet,’ but the ‘nature’ he explores is geological/psychological, & it demands much of both him & his readers. Paradoxides is a wonderful title, as it refers to a genus of trilobite from the Mid-Cambrian period found on the remnants of ‘a micro-continent called Avalonia. During much of a Paleozoic Era, Avalonia existed as a separate island in the middle of the Iapetus Ocean (the Atlantic’s predecessor), and so developed species unique to itself’. But, of course, it’s a terrifically poetic title as well.

These poems enter & entertain science as a vocabulary of possibility, scientific of course, but also psychological & spiritual. They’re oddly experiential: the writer as thinker undergoing specific events & ruminating on them in an eccentrically lyric manner, but he has sought them out, to explore as deeply as possible aspects of the material world most of us too often engage unthinkingly. One of the shorter poems, ‘Deep Time Encounters,’ encapsulates this:

Every dose is overdose,
every thing that’s done’s
done to death.
Good old ineffability –
that fine froth, that gossamer cliché –
runs amok and bites you, there,
somewhere secret, somewhere
in the ancient backstreets of the brain
where pleasure and pain promiscuously
mix. Ordinary stone
turns to the time it’s made of,
each empty O a lens,
and why is there not nothing arcs,
its first full dolphin,
through the mind’s stunned air.
Long pause. Well?
Then that depopulated silence.
That darker dark.

I see I’ve chosen an example that eschews the geological, except by allusion. But this poem rests among so many that engage weather, animals & birds, &, of course, the underworlds of rock formations where ‘petrified deep time rises in welts / to prod our soles, here and there / breaking into sudden bas-relief: / a fernlike creature, a creature / like a picket fence, a shrub, a miniature / Christmas tree, a pizza disk – preserved, like Pompeii, under the cushion of volcanic ash / that killed them.’ As you can see, McKay is a master of both analogous description & the sharply directed epigram: ‘Who needs ghosts when matter / nonchalantly haunts us?’

One longer piece, ‘Thingamajig,’ takes up a slightly different dichotomy than those we usually philosophize about (which he listed in an earlier poem: ‘mind and body / nature and culture / rock and stone / substance and accident / mysticism and materialism / allochthon and autochthon / dressed and overdressed’), that between ‘thing’ and ‘object,’ the latter always used. McKay, apparently willingly assuming the mantle of lyric poetic speaker, then concludes this volume with two somewhat proleptic elegies, ‘Taking the Ferry,’ which seems to be for himself &, finally, ‘Descent,’ which opens up to all the world:

Who will name
the dark’s own instrument? Riprap,
slag. Music
tearing itself apart.

Rich in invention, vocabulary, imagery, & emotional connection, Paradoxides can only add to McKay’s already lustrous reputation.

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978-1-77089-011-4Erin Knight. Chaser (Anansi 2012).

A little late with this one, having heard Knight read from it last year but then it ended up in a pile.

Reading through Chaser, one quickly realizes that it’s a very clean, observant, distanced, & objective sort of writing, apparently. Also, as the Notes indicate, a ‘number of these poems are built around lines drawn from source texts’ on such matters as the consumptive (ie, tuberculosis) expanded metaphorically into the whole economics of illness & consumption, or the concept of consumption economics (capitalism) as illness.

Although each poem can stand alone, Knight has shaped her book into a collation of 3 intertwining implied narratives: the consumptive, I——-, who ‘is not always at peace / with himself,’ travels, a tourist of cures; the scientist travels too, seeking answers, finding more questions; & the economist appears to be on the run from ruin, always tracking him, waiting to strike like a virus, consuming the consumer. Proceeding through Chaser, a title with many possibilities, readers will find these figures, sometimes seen in 3rd person, sometimes (the scientist) speaking directly in first (yet so a-lyrically, it feels like a lab report), trying to make their way to knowledge, some kind of understanding. On the punning play of ‘consumption,’ these purloined poems turn, & turn about. They seem to affect a scientific distance, then suddenly drop into something other & troubling.
As an example, one shorter poem, ‘Autobiography is prized in heaven’ (& the titles are another delight of this book), sharp fragments cutting against each other (& the rest):

How lonesome it was
to catch this toad

The east wind set up pools
and ponds in my lungs

The leeches I raised
on my own

Like the bodies attempting to find a cure, escape sickness, buy their way out of society’s ills, these poems become ‘a recrudescence, a resistant strain.’ In Chaser, Knight has constructed a brilliant roller coaster of a book, rushing up & down but, like the fevers it explores, heading for a crash.

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