Unimagined by Imran Ahmad – review

UnimaginedI mentioned recently that I was planning to read one non-genre novel for every SF novel I read. With that in mind I’ve just read Unimagined by Imran Ahmad. My wife recommend it to me – “It’s nothing life changing, but I enjoyed it.” It’s billed as “a Muslim boy meets the West” and it received heavy literary credit in several countries. Frankly, I can’t really understand why.

On the whole, I did enjoy it, as a fluffy read of no real consequence. It’s an entertaining account of the life of Ahmad, from his arrival in England from Pakistan at the age of 4, though to his mid-20s. He’s not a bad writer and often has some good turns of phrase. He talks about his school life, endemic British racism, going to a Grammar school and eventually getting into university in Scotland, all the time studying the things he really doesn’t like while spending all his spare time considering things that do actually interest him. Because of this, Ahamd comes across as a pretty sad individual.

More troublesome, however, is that the whole narrative becomes ever more contrived. The book is written in bite sized chunks of Ahmad’s life and it’s easy to read because of that, but the man himself seems to never grow up. The naive four year old at the start of the book still inhabits the twenty five year old body at the end of the book. It’s hard to accept that anyone can remain so unchanged and undeveloped.

The book is also a veiled attack on all religions bar the man’s own chosen Islam, and a subtle push for the veracity of being a Muslim. It’s all very light-hearted, with Ahmad struggling with his belief, trying to apply logic to his choice and seeking out the things that scare him – those people that have such conviction in their own beliefs that he questions his own. He ends up coming down to a choice between evangelical Christianity and Islam, eventually deciding clearly that Christianity is a complete mess and Islam is the one true faith. Regular readers here will know that I hold all organised religion in equal contempt, but I’m not averse to reading about other people’s journeys and perspectives. The trouble with the religious content of this book is that Ahmad uses his own journey to hightlight all the ridiculous flaws of other religions, while studiously ignoring all the flaws in his own, and falling back on “cultural contamination” when the flaws get a little too close to the surface.

By the end of the book I was rather annoyed with the clean-cut, upstanding, morally superior yet still naive Muslim poster boy that Ahmad set himself up as and was pleased I’d reached the end. There’s no real story here, no solid narrative arc and no real reason for this book’s existence other than Ahmad’s own need to document his life. A life which seems to be largely coloured in with things that suit his desired appearance over the probable truths.

I’m being fairly harsh on the poor man, but I always arc up when I feel like I’m being preached to, especially when said preaching is delivered with an innocent smile as if nothing untoward is going on. Regardless, for the most part I enjoyed reading the book and there were several parts that had me smiling and enjoying myself. It’s just a shame that Ahmad didn’t grow at all during the journey, which made the last third or so of the book quite a chore. Interesting and often entertaining, but hardly “The pick of the literary crop” as the cover declares, courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald.

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Give books generously this Xmas

Any regular readers here will know how I feel about Xmas and pretty much any other religious festival. Or any religion for that matter. But I do try to enter into the spirit of a small part of Xmas, that being the whole hanging out with family and sharing gifts thing. Of course, that’s actually nothing to do with the Christ Mass that the holiday is based upon, but the Christians only stole the Roman Sol Invictus festival anyway, so it’s all bollocks. My point is, at this time of year we try to get together with loved ones and share gifts and food. That’s a good thing.

I don’t have much in the way of family these days, but I have my in-laws, who are all very nice people to be around, and I have friends that are as close, if not closer, than family. Catching up with these people and having a big feed, spending time together, sharing gifts, it’s all very important and enjoyable stuff. I always hope that during this time some of the stuff I get will be books. And it usually is. As far as I’m concerned, there are few better gifts than a book. I’m sure I could think of some things I’d rather have than a book, but this is not the place to explore my fantasties – you can read my novels for that.

I also plan to give away a lot of books this year. I dig giving people a book as a gift that I know, or at least suspect very strongly, that they’ll really like. Perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks of the current ebook revolution is that we won’t have so many solid books to wrap up in silly paper and hand over as presents. Regardless, in the meantime, I’ll still be giving a lot of books as gifts this Xmas.

Which brings me to another point. I’ve decided to start giving books away all the time. I’m basically starting a new policy as from this Xmas. If anyone asks me if they can borrow any particular book from now on, I’m not going to lend it to them. I’m going to give it to them. If it’s a special book, a rare or limited edition, or a signed copy or something like that, then I’ll say no, they can’t borrow it. If it’s just a book that anyone can still buy off the shelf, I’ll give it to them. If I really like it, I’ll get myself another one, or look out for it in secondhand bookstores.

Now, don’t immediately think to abuse my new found book philanthropy and start asking me for books left, right and centre. This is something that will happen naturally. Someone sees a book in my house, expresses an interest, asks if they can borrow it and I’ll say, “Here, have it.” I think that’ll make everyone involved feel good and the book goes on to do its thing for more people instead of just sitting on a shelf.

Try it. You might like it.

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Video interview with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn

I was recently interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn about all things dark fantasy, genre fiction and thrillers. We chat about my books, about writing thrillers and what defines a genre. We also discuss violence, mythology, research and travel, podcast and my new ThrillerCast with David Wood. There’s also an exclusive mention of the working title of my next book. It’s a bit over 12 minutes long. Hope you enjoy it.

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Is fantasy really escapism?

Of course it is, but is it the most escapist? A recent blog post by Anne Hamilton (which was part of Helen Lowe’s blog tour for the launch of The Heir Of Night) got me thinking about this subject again. In that post, Anne says:

When I was growing up, SFF was generally derided as ‘escapist’. I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘realistic’ fiction is far more deserving of that title. It’s ephemeral and transient, rarely lasting to the end of a decade. It doesn’t transcend its own culture or time or deal with anything beyond the superficial. However the best of SFF – fantasy, in particular – engages in a struggle with name and thus with identity and destiny.

That’s a great quote. But how accurate is she? I’d suggest that she’s revealed a rarely considered truth.

She says that non-genre fiction, or ‘realistic’ fiction as she calls it, is “ephemeral and transient, rarely lasting to the end of a decade”. It’s true that non-genre fiction, slice of life stories, often date very quickly. But I dispute that that makes them any less relevant. Take a classic like To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee as an example. That book is a masterpiece, a beautifully crafted story with fantastic characters. Pretty much everything about it is still relevant today and it explores some very important concepts. I don’t think a book like that is transient or short lived. I do think it’s escapism though, however much it makes us look at ourselves and question how we might react in a similar situation.

Other non-genre work might date and age more quickly, becoming largely irrelevant beyond an interesting peek into days gone by. Science fiction, however, is way more likely to date very quickly. At the speed of technological advancement we’re currently experiencing, you can start writing a sci-fi novel and the concept is no longer sci-fi by the time you type “The End”.

So why am I suggesting that Anne Hamilton is right? Most non-genre fiction is looking at the trials and tribulations of people whose lives are very similar to our own. They live in the same world, the same time, more or less, and have similar concerns. When we read about those lives it’s pure escapism because those people aren’t us. We might wonder what we’d do in a similar situation, but that’s about it.

When you start to look at SFF, particularly fantasy, you open up doors not available in contemporary non-genre fiction. You get to explore the human condition within a mythic framework where anything goes. As much as stories like this are the wildest kind of escapism, they also serve to hold a mirror up to humanity as a whole. While a story about a white suburban family’s social wranglings might make a white suburban reader consider their own life, a good science fiction story will make us consider humanity as a species. Good SFF takes us on a journey not only of personal exploration but beyond ourselves to our culture and identity.

Of course, non-genre fiction can do these things too, but nothing does it so well or with as much scope as SFF.

Ever since people could speak they told stories. Stories about real people was gossip. Stories about life were myths. Myths are the original fantasy epics. Every race has its creation myths – these great mysterious stories from beyond the human, trying to answer the massive questions about why we’re here and where we come from. Of course, just because we can ask those questions doesn’t mean there’s an answer. Religion is built on the concept that there’s an answer for every question we can ask, and there’s nothing more human than that kind of arrogance. And religion is just where people take a lucky dip of all the great myths and decide completely arbitrarily (though usually by birth) that one is the absolute truth while all the others are funny stories. Which is astounding. But I digress.

With mythology we can escape the boundaries of real life and explore those great big questions far more deeply than we ever can with non-genre fiction. That’s what makes non-genre stuff pure escapism while fantasy is much more. SFF often addresses far bigger questions and concerns than non-genre fiction ever does. Of course, the lines are very blurred and all fiction is escapism. Good fiction is escapism that makes you think. Nothing makes you think more, in my opinion, than good SFF. As Anne Hamilton said, it “engages in a struggle with name and thus with identity and destiny”.

Caveat: I know this is likely to be a fairly contentious post, with people citing many examples to back up one side of the argument or the other. Most arguments find their truths somewhere in the middle, but bring it on. Leave your comments with your thoughts. I’ve written this with a purely rambling mind while I thought about the subject and I’m very open to others’ thoughts on it.

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Well, fuck me with a Koran while I read Harry Potter

Did I get your attention? I hope so. It’s International Blasphemy Day today and it’s also currently Banned Books Week.

International Blasphemy Day was the concept of the Centre For Inquiry in response to the outrage over the Mohammed cartoons controversy. The Day is designed to commemorate the controversy and to celebrate free expression and everyone’s right to mock, ridicule and blaspheme religions. It’s also important in the face of increasing censorship of free speech, with things like blasphemy laws being passed in Ireland last year, among other places. The problem with this kind of ridiculous law-making is that it makes opinions illegal. Anyone is free to believe what they want, therefore anyone is free to believe that someone else’s beliefs are complete and utter bollocks. This is not a place for law.

The argument is that religious ridicule leads to the incitement of violence. Which is rubbish. Religious belief leads to the incitement of violence in many clearly recorded cases. Ridiculing said religions usually only leads to members of that religion calling for violence against the intolerant. Oh, the crushing irony.

It’s perfectly reasonable to hold any opinion you like. If you go online and tell people to attack any religious group then you are certainly inciting violence and should be brought to justice for that. Just like when the religious call for the heads of the infidels. In the same way that you should be dealt with harshly by the law if you actually do violence against anyone, for any reason. But if you go online and say that you think any given belief is a load of rubbish and that its adherents are a bunch of willfully ignorant losers, then that’s actually fine. You’re perfectly entitled to that opinion. Just like the religious are entitled to their opinion that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, or that a fella that liked nine year old girls was the conduit for god, or whatever.

Would you expect to be jailed for saying that anyone who voted for Tony Abbott in the recent general election is an idiot and should be ridiculed?

Of course not. What makes religion so special that it has to be treated differently?

This crosses well with Banned Books Week, because it’s usually religious wowsers that crap on about banning books. I mentioned Harry Potter in the title to this post as so many Christians in the US called for the book to be banned because it celebrated witchcraft. That still astounds me. It’s okay for them to tell children that a Jewish zombie that was his own father is the saviour of the world AND MEAN IT while it’s not okay for a work of fiction to celebrate a young man rising above adversity and defeating a powerful evil.

Have a look at that Banned Books page (linked above) and prepare to be astounded at some of the books that people have called out. According to the site, “People challenge books that they say are too sexual or too violent. They object to profanity and slang, and they protest against offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups–or positive portrayals of homosexuals.”

Oh no! Don’t let on that the gays are actually, you know, human or something.

The most confronting things in human nature need to be discussed. Taboos are things that cause division and ignorance. Fictional representations of real human issues are often the best way to generate debate of this kind of thing. Unless a book is a direct work of hate, deliberately targeting a given person or group, then there is no reasonable excuse to ban it. Some things might be considered too intense for kids but that’s a whole different debate. You might remember my post about the Taboo panel at Worldcon where classification of books was mentioned. And soundly shouted down. When it comes to kids being exposed to questionable material, that’s a matter of parenting. Know should what your kids are reading and vet anything that might disturb them. (Incidentally, if you’re an especially religious person, I would suggest that your indoctrination of your kids is doing way more harm than any book they’re likely to read.)

Reading and triggering thought and debate is essential. Banning books is just endorsing ignorance. I should declare a certain bias – my own books would certainly be considered blaphemous by pretty much every religious group. But I held this opinion long before I wrote those books. In fact, I’d love a religious group to call for my books to be banned – you can’t buy publicity like that. Come on, you fuckers – come and have a go!

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