G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen is an embracingly fresh and layered novel that has its faults, but remains entertaining and thought provoking throughout. Not to mention timely, as it deals with the idea of revolution and change in the Middle East, a book that is about the Arab Spring despite being written before the Arab Spring actually took place.
Alif the Unseen is set in a nameless “City” in an authoritarian Arab country ruled by an Emir whose security apparatus has long kept the population in check. Included in that apparatus is “one of the most sophisticated digital policing systems in the world,” though one that up to now our main hacker protagonist Alif has managed to elude as he lends his considerable computer skills to “anyone who could pay for his protection… Islamists, anarchists, secularists — whoever asks.” Alif’s ideology is freedom of information, beyond that he seems to believe in little, save that he is in love with an upper-class woman (one well beyond his economic class and his mixed ethnicity). Everything is quickly turned upside down almost immediately in the novel though, as his love tells him she must marry another man, and as Alif begins being tracked by a mysterious State agent with legendary capabilities in tracking down and disappearing hacktivists, a person known only as the Hand of God.
Soon, Alif is on the run, joined by his very pious neighbor Dina, a jinn known as Vikram the Vampire, an American referred to only as “The Convert,” an elderly Imam, and a low-on-the-rungs-of-power prince who has turned against the State. Alif is tortured, visits a city of the jinn out in the desert, gets mixed up with an ages-old text of jinn tales known as the Alf Yeom, and sparks a revolution in the streets. He also learns belief.
There’s a lot to like here. First, just the welcome difference of having an Eastern setting and jinns and effrit and the like rather than the same old same old medieval Europe setting with your typical dwarves and elves. What I also enjoyed about this was that Wilson doesn’t simply transfer the usual actions/motivations of said dwarves and elves over to just differently shaped otherworldly creatures. The jinn et. al. are portrayed as truly mysterious, beyond the full ken of mere humans; we might interact with them for good or ill, but we don’t fully understand or even fully see them.
The thoughtful and substantive use of religion was also an aspect I responded to (says the apathist — my preferred description for a view that falls somewhere between atheism and agnosticism). The Imam of course is one of the main conduits for such discussion, as when he comes to a revelation about the trappings of ritual and prayer:
I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray. . . . But I did pray, because I am not these things. . . . I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God.
All of the characters get in on the discussion, however, including the jinn, as when one tells Alif:
Belief . . . It doesn’t mean the same thing it used to . . . Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out . . . Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational but not the transcendent.
It is rare that one gets such consistent, intelligent, and thoughtful exploration of religion and Wilson does an excellent job in making it not only substantive but also moving at times. The political aspects are also welcome, and again, obviously timely, though I don’t think they are handled with quite the same deft touch or subtlety.
The characters are mostly well done. The standouts are the Imam and Vikram, both wonderfully drawn characters that show a wide range. The prince, though he gets much less time, was also a good full character who also added a bit of needed humor. The Convert felt a bit too blunt of a character (though I’m guessing the author is well aware of that). Dina was maybe a little too close to being the “saint” Alif calls her, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of her in a more fully active role; I felt she didn’t quite meet her potential. Unfortunately, in many ways Alif is the least impressive character, not particularly likable at the start (though he does mature and grow on the reader), not particularly compelling at any point really. His blandness is a flaw, but luckily one that is outweighed by the depth of those who surround him, human and non-human alike. As a bit of a side note, it was also a nice touch that many of these characters are betwixt and between worlds: Alif of mixed ethnicity, the Convert an American turned Muslim and transplanted to the City, Vikram a once-human possessed by a vampire demon (if the stories are true), and so forth.
A few other flaws include a somewhat muddled ending, both in terms of plot and simple physical logistics. I really liked the idea of the mystical world mixed with the modern, though I didn’t feel it always was executed cleanly or clearly enough. Though one of my favorite exchanges was this one, which takes place in an inn of sorts inside the city of the jinn:
“Effrit,” said the shadow. “I’m an effrit. And I’ve got a two-year-old Dell desktop in the back that’s had some kind of virus for ages. The screen goes black five minutes after I turn the damn thing on. I have to do a hard reboot every time…”
“You’ve got Internet in the Empty Quarter?” [Alif] asked in an awed voice.
“Cousin,” said the shadow, “we’ve got WiFi.”
Wilson takes a few turns toward melodrama here and there. There’s an unfortunate chase scene where the girl falls, turns her ankle, and needs to be helped up and out by the guy. And a few other issues crop up now and then. But Alif the Unseen is definitely worth reading, and I would look forward to the next novel by Wilson, working under the assumption that many of these rougher edges will be smoothed out.
G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen might be a thrilling techno-fantasy, or a fantastical techno-thriller, or even a fantasy-political-techno-thriller. I don’t know quite how she pulled off the genre blending, but she did.
In an un-named Middle Eastern City, a young hacker whose handle is Alif comes to the personal attention of the State’s head of security. Alif pings “the Hand’s” radar for two reasons; he is in love with that man’s fiancé, and he has created a program that identifies any computer user simply by keystrokes, a boon to any security force trying to shut down internet use. Alif and his duplex neighbor, the devout Dina, are forced to go into hiding, and this brings them into contact with the mysterious man known as Vikram the Vampire. Vikram, it turns out, is not a vampire. He is a jinn.
From there the story weaves breathlessly through techno-thriller territory and well-defined fantasy. Alif and Dina meet other mythical beings, the Hidden. Alif is captured and tortured; he journeys to The Lost Quarter, where the Hidden dwell; he seeks refuge in the City’s premier mosque and is befriended by its imam. Alif, who starts off as a callow, amoral youth using his hacking skills to protect anyone who can pay, changes over the course of the story, choosing to do the right thing even though he is frightened, choosing faith over fear and even recognizing the difference between love and infatuation.
Wilson packs a lot into this book. There is a lot of talk of religion, specifically the Muslim religion; there is a discussion about classism and racism in the Middle East — Alif is half Indian, and looked down upon by many in the city. The power of the internet, and the power of stories, is not to be dismissed or overlooked. All of that sounds heavy-handed, and frankly in a couple of places it was heavy-handed. Those spots were rare, and the combination of suspense and action combined with her lovely descriptions balanced out the lecturing.
I thought Wilson reached for the easy plot resolution a couple of times, too, and the ending came up very quickly and rather neatly, given that it took place in the middle of an uprising. Still, these quibbles did not ruin the experience of reading this book.
Despite the many layers of meaning and the serious discussions about religion, politics and prejudice, this is a fast-paced adventure with real stakes for the main characters. Secondary characters like the imam and the un-named Western “convert” are well-drawn. I don’t know what the term for the opposite of a “guilty pleasure” is — this is a book you can read by the pool while sipping a refreshing beverage, and enjoy completely, yet still learn lots of interesting facts that make you look educated. Perhaps that’s “mind candy,” but I don’t want to compare this book to something that’s considered mostly empty calories.
After I finished Alif the Unseen, I googled the author and read one of her articles for Atlantic Magazine, and read her blog posting about the concept of the “Side Entrance.” I do not remember the last time I did that for the author of a fantasy book.
As someone who frequently forgets the obvious, I was reminded that a phrase like “Middle Eastern” or “Muslim” is not a one-size-fits-all thing. The people in Alif the Unseen approach their faith from different perspectives. The range of characters, human as well as Hidden, creates the feel of a real cosmopolitan city with real people coping with their problems.
I recommend Alif the Unseen for anyone who wants a good contemporary fantasy, for anyone who loves “hacker” books, readers who loves books about stories, and for those who are genuinely curious about different cultures. I can’t wait to see what Wilson writes next.