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Book Review: Alif the Unseen

I gave this four stars on Goodreads. I'm not sold on the idea of ranking novels and I know my rankings are completely consistent, but this is a book to read and to recommend. It doesn't get five stars mostly because I need to give Wilson room to grow as an author. This book has the seeds of greatness in it, but I think she still has greater work to write after this.

Summary: Alif the Unseen is a story of IT, Arabic folklore, religion, politics, and love. It mixes Jinn with security forces, ancient texts with C++ code, and insight into the human heart with a political axe to grind. The big takeaway is to humanize Islamic culture for Western audiences and to move the discussion of global politics away from "axis of evil" and towards the human in all of us.

This novel wrapped me up from Chapter Zero and kept me entralled most of the way through. Wilson does an impeccable job with her choice of setting, of tone, and the way she shows us layers of things. Most characters and themes are shown with complexity. In fact, the novel only breaks down when one looks closely at parts that seem to be fully one thing or another. (The love interest and the villain are among the least interesting bits, because they are too polarized. Everything else seems human and fascinating.)

The views on spirituality and politics are especially refreshing. She doesn't give us simplified versions of these two things, but messy, bloody, complex and risky versions. It is clear to me that Wilson loves humanity and loves her characters because she allows them to be flawed without endorsing the flaws. (Again, this breaks down in the character Dina, who was almost a great character. I loved the risks the author took in making the heroine a conservative-by-choice Islamic woman, who veils herself by choice, but in the end Dina was too didactic and perfect and not human enough.) Wilson's spirituality and politics are realistic and not idealized and by themselves they would make the novel worth reading, but there are other things even more appealing in her work.

Wilson deftly weaves together threads from the 1001 nights and information technology to put our world into both a new and a familiar context. Sure, some IT details are glossed over, but she knows her stuff and includes enough realism to engage nerds in the tale. The Jinn and the half-world are used to make a point, not just to add spice to the story. Many other authors who try to mix magic and technology should read Wilson and learn from her style.

There are a lot of places this novel could have gone wrong. Wilson took some huge risks, but she clearly has the chops as a writer, a thinker, and a religious person to pull it all off. I look forward to reading more of her work.

It should be noted that characters insult each other with accusations of homosexuality "ass coveter" is a favored slur, but there are no positive examples of sexual diversity. In Wilson's world there is only sexual and gender polarity.

Liberry Humor

Justin from 8bitlibrary posted a question to Twitter this morning, wondering if he should register 8bitliberry and redirect traffic over to the new URL.

This question led me to wonder how difficult it would be to write a browser plugin that would replace every instance of the word "library" with "liberry". A very short Google session later, I learned that w/ Javascript and Greasemonkey, this is very easily done. In fact, I didn't have to do much of anything. An existing script was available, so all that really needed to be done was to enter in the words I wanted changed.

The resulting Greasemonkey script (liberry_word_change.user) is nothing more than the above script with a list of liberry words to be changed.

It's small, but fun. When it's time to climb down off our liberry high horse, this is a fun little trick to help us relax and stop taking ourselves so seriously.

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Dead Letter Office

You may notice some increased posting traffic here at informationgames for a while. I've been teaching certain aspects of WordPress and so have been reminded that my site architecture needs some work. This led me to look into my drafts folder and I discovered that the drafts folder is where hot new ideas go to become cold and dead. I'm hoping to resurrect the ones that show potential. So if you see a bunch of new posts coming from informationgames, it isn't that I'm suddenly a prolific writer, it is more that I've been writing all along, just stopping before the posts were ready for publication.

More information than games…

Focus shifts. My time spent gaming has been waning for a couple of months. I finally plugged my way to the end of STALKER: Clear Sky. I liked the game and love spending time in that universe, but I didn't find a lot to write about, either about the game or about my experience playing it. What I liked about Clear Sky was a continuation of what entranced me with Shadow of Chernyobl and what makes me anticipate Call of Pripyat. There isn't a lot new to say there. If anyone wants to know why I love the STALKER game mechanic and the narrative universe that surrounds the zone, let me know in the comments.

Otherwise, I don't have either time or much desire to play games. I have a huge backlog of titles to play. Dragon Age: Origins for whatever reason, hasn't captivated me yet. It is beautiful and big, but it isn't the right game for me to play right now. Mass Effect 2 is coming and there are still some big titles from last year that I've missed, but my mind isn't on games and I don't think that will change in the next month or so. Plus, one of my two cards (4850s) I use in a crossfire setup just died and I won't be replacing it soon.

Still, I do have some ideas that I want to work out and my mind is active. What this means is that for the time being, this blog is going to be more about information than about games. Expect more thoughts about the future of information and the role of libraries in that future.

This weekend at ALA Midwinter in Boston has been rich with thought, conversation, and ideas. The richest conversations came outside of the conference and committee structure, as usual. The value that I get out of national library conferences is usually weighted towards personal networking over programmed content. (Note: regional and local conferences are quite the opposite, even if I have more connections with colleagues at those.) Usually, I've credited ALA with creating the context for these conversations about librarianship and the future of information. After this weekend, I'm less inclined to think so. Following the tweet streams of great library folks like @kgs @alncornish @tadawes @0rb and too many others to list fully has convinced me that there are vital conversations about the future taking place here. They just haven't taken place in my hearing.

So I'm going to try and work out some thoughts about the future of libraries and the future of information. I imagine I'll write about games again, but not until something catches my imagination again and I have time to focus on what makes it fascinating.

Brief maintenance note:

I just upgraded informationgames to the latest version of the WordPress software. It is silly easy to keep up on the WordPress maintainance, yet somehow the minimal effort of downloading and transferring the new files up to the server is a rewarding task. It falls into a similar category to changing my own oil, nothing really to be proud of, but satisfying on a visceral level.