Alif the Unseen is the debut prose novel by G. Willow Wilson, author of the critically-acclaimed graphic novels Cairo, Air, and Vixen. This is a breezy yet thought-provoking blend of techno-thriller and urban fantasy, set in an unnamed Arab emirate. It will whisk you away to the new vistas of wonder and wisdom, then return you before the waterglass falling from your nightstand has time to hit the floor.
Top image: Djinn by Remton on Deviant Art.
The Middle East is often either ignored or over-romanticized in the West. Worse, we allow our own fundamentalists, both religious and secular, to demonize Islam, which is an integral part of life for so many humans. Nuanced depictions of Muslim life in speculative fiction have been infrequent, and have usually been penned by well-meaning infidels. I highly recommend George Alec Effinger's novels and stories of Marîd Audran. The Budayeen may be a thinly-veiled New Orleans, but Effinger really did his homework. The Arabesk Trilogy by Grimwood is good, if a bit dry for my taste. The Jiin, that elder race of numinous power created from smokeless fire, play a role in the excellent the Dervish House by Ian McDonald, Declare by Tim Powers and recently in The Mirage by Matt Ruff. I admire Ruff's explorations into ethics and morality. Meanwhile, children of all ages will marvel at Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life.
But this year has brought a surprising bounty — first, we had Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed, a Scheherazade-fueled swashbuckling fantasy. Now another Muslim American, G. Willow Wilson, draws from the same rich folkloric tapestry for this excellent modern fairytale. Spoilers ahead...
Once there was and once there wasn't a city on the edge of the desolate Empty Quarter. In the poorest neighborhood there is a young hacker who goes by the handle "Alif" (The first letter of the Arabic alphabet, when written resembles a "1" which is an anagram for "Neo".) Alif is the product of a star-crossed love. He lives with his mother, an immigrant worker from India, and his estranged father belongs to the local Arab aristocracy. He's a street rat with a distrust for the staus quo and the hacker skillz to do something about it. Under the watchful gaze of a Robert Smith poster, Alif codes for clients of all subversive stripes. Revolutionaries Islamicist or Communist, pornographers, or anyone who needs to escape the digital scrutiny of the Powers-That-Be. It's not the cash or the cause that flips Alif's grey hat, he's doing it for the lulz.
Alif's own illicit romance with the beauteous, brilliant, and wealthy Intisar ends abruptly when her family promises her hand in marriage to another aristocrat. She pleads that they never meet again even accidentally — not even on the net. Heartbroken, he agrees to this and creates a special program, Tin Sari. It can identify her, or anyone else, based on their keystrokes, grammar, and other patterns. With this a user can be identified and blocked, no matter what address or machine they use. Tin Sari works better than he could have possibly imagined, and attracts the murderous attention of the Emir's spymaster, the shadowy genius terrified hackers have dubbed the Hand of God. With his next door neighbor and childhood friend, Dina, he goes on the run — but not before Intisar sends him a musty old book for safekeeping. It is titled Alf Yeom wa Yeom, "The Thousand and One Days", and it will prove to be information far more dangerous than Tin Sari.
Alif and Dina seek out the protection of Vikram the Vampire, a criminal who turns out to be much scarier than his reputation or nickname. He is a classic trickster, and not of the "merry wanderer of the night" mold. Vikram is dangerously mercurial, possessing great knowledge and driven by the basest of instincts. They also meet a blonde American scholar, who appears to be an obvious stand-in for the author. This woman, known only as the convert, suffers the suspicion and ridicule of her co-religionists who see her as little more than a jumped-up tourist slumming in an Exotic Land. Further companions include the wise, avuncular Sheikh Bilal, who gets the funniest lines, and another badass hacker with considerable resources but very little piety or etiquette.
The ancient book, the Alf Yeom is a collection of fairy tales with strange and contradictory morals allegedly told by the jinn. The tales contain hidden knowledge; spiritual lessons like the teaching stories of the Sufi, but also great secrets like the Philosopher's Stone or the power to raise the dead. The Hand wants this book, and not for bedtime stories. Sublime power may be real, but can we ignorant beni adam really hope to control or even understand it?
Alif and the sheikh discuss quantum computing, and the holy Quran as the ultimate metaphor. According to Wilson, metaphor is the power of symbols to hold multiple meanings without contradiction. There is much in this novel about being of several worlds at once: magic and technology, spiritual and secular, East and West. Alif deals with the little bonuses and annoyances of his mixed parentage without going all tragic mulatto. As a person who proudly checks the Other box on forms, I can dig it.
The glimpses of life behind the veil for a modern Muslim woman are intriguing as well. The approach to love and romance in this book is refreshingly chivalrous, even with a hormonal horndog like Alif in the mix. A different world indeed. I will definitely be checking out Wilson's memoir, The Butterfly Mosque.
Alif and his new friends, human and otherwise, face dangers both sacred and profane. They will plunge deep into the unseen world all around us and encounter all manner of jinn— the marid, effrit, sila and demonic shayateen. I didn't see any ghuls, maybe next time. Another parallel between the old lore and programming that Alif finds is protocol — choosing your words carefully and minding your manners when dealing with powerful systems. Sadly, this does not work as well on secret policemen with jumper cables and rubber hoses.
I had not read any of Wilson's graphic novels before my review copy for Alif turned up. In a cursory perusal of Cairo I see some similarities with this novel: hip young people, some with glowing eyes, who read right to left and hang out in teahouses. Many of my favorite novelists share a common bug. These author may be compelled to stuff in Every Cool Thing They Ever Thought Of. Disparate, esoteric subjects straining against the slenderest of connections, often flying out of control in debut novels. This is a far from fatal flaw; I regularly enjoy the exuberance of Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas, & Electric, China Miéville's King Rat, and even The Big U which Neal Stephenson infamously tried to disown for years.
Wilson's Eisner-nominated Air does have a daunting, even Pynchonesque amount of Crazy Stuff Going On. But her first novel without pictures continues to explore the symbolism/technology theme, but is a slightly more mature, restrained work. If the description of Alif's plot seems disconnected, it is the fault of the reviewer, not Ms. Wilson. I am eager to see how this bright young talent develops.
The prose of Alif the Unseen is smart and agile; romance and adventure flow easily between Deep Thoughts. Coding and the Quran are presented simultaneously as information theory and spirituality, her theory of Metaphor works well. The plot avoids crashing to a halt for a classroom lecture or an entry from the Monster Manual. In this, she surpasses the early work of Stephenson and Gaiman, with whom comparisons have already been made. I was a bit disappointed that for a story firmly set in the Arab Spring, oppression and looming revolution are little more than framing story. All the unpleasant politics and struggle of the masses seem forgotten during the middle acts. The same thing happens to a key character who inspires Alif then vanishes from all consideration, and then pops up with clumsy convenience at the coda. These are minor quibbles amidst all the enjoyment I found in these pages. Alif the Unseen will find many fans in both West and East. They will appreciate it for being just the fine story it is and as a seed for potent ideas yet to come.
For more about Islam and Science Fiction, Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad has a useful website by that very name.
Grey_Area is know to all the People of the Book as Chris Hsiang. He is a bookseller with Books Inc. in the San Francisco Bay Area and loves shawarma.
You may follow him @greyareareads
Special thanks to Leef at Mission: Comics & Art