Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson
Publication Date: June 19, 2012
I love fantasy literature awards: the Nebulas, the Hugos, the World Fantasy Awards. Their nominations are stellar recommendations for fantastic novels that might have otherwise flown under my radar. When such a list of nominees come out, I head right to my local library’s website and start requesting the novels honored that I haven’t already read. I rarely am disappointed in any of the titles, and more often than not, a new favorite author comes to light (Jo Walton, anyone? Paolo Bacigalupi?)
It happened again recently, when the 2013 World Fantasy Award nominees were announced. My request queue at the library bulged. And I have just finished reading the first one available for pick up: G. Willow Wilson‘s amazing tech-tinged fantasy Alif the Unseen.
Set in the present day (or near future, it doesn’t really matter), in an unnamed Arabian city (known only as “the City” but evoking modern day Cairo), Alif the Unseen is the story of a young man of mixed Arab-Indian ancestry, who goes by the online handle (screen name) of Alif, which just happens to be the first character of the Arabic alphabet. He is a hacker for hire (“as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it”), but he hates the censors like all the other “grey hats”, and enjoys thwarting them at every opportunity. And he’s good at what he does; very, very good.
Insomuch that he’s of modest means, tends to being anonymous and has no apparent driving ambitions, one might think that Alif would be a somewhat boring central character around which to base an entire novel. But at the onset of the story, Alif has already made the mistake that will imperil his life and the lives of those around him: he has fallen in love with a young woman far above his social standing. When they first “meet” in a digital forum that denounces the emir and his government, Alif knew Intisar was well born, due to her proper way of speaking and the elegance of her critique of both the government and the arguments against it. But it was not until they met that he realized how beautiful she was, and it was not long before they had pledged themselves to each other, in the form of an internet marriage certificate and the consummation of their relationship.
So very quickly, though, reality breaks up this nice little fairy tale that Alif and Intisar had woven, and sets into motion three very major developments in Alif’s life: the loss of his dreams, his creating a software program as a reaction against being spurned and the acute (and unwanted) attention that this program brings to him, and the acquisition of mysterious book, the Alf Yeom (The Thousand and One Days), which interfaces his life with the hidden world of the mystical jinn.
It is not long before the ties that bind the magical, the mundane, the sacred and the technological all become manifest in the struggle between the maniacal powers bent at building an unassailable fortress of information technology aimed at domination of life as we know it (and as we barely comprehend it), and the irrepressible force of one inspired soul with the skill – and the faith – to forge the key which may unleash the processes capable of bringing that fortress down.
“What you are talking about – recognizing a complete, individual personality – is something we do automatically. I recognize your voice on the phone. I could probably recognize your e-mails and texts without seeing your address or phone number. This is a basic function for anybody who isn’t suffering from some kind of mental disorder. But machines can’t do it. They need an IP address or an e-mail address or a handle to indentify someone. Change those identifiers and that person becomes invisible to them. If what you’re saying is true, you have discovered and entirely new way of getting computers to think. One might even say that with this botnet, you have endowed your little desktop machine with intuition.”
Yet Alif the Unseen is so much more than a race to build the perfect technological weapon. It’s main strength lies in how the unassuming, somewhat unremarkable, often unobservant and occasional downright jerk-faced individual can still be decent enough, accessible enough, thankful enough and responsive enough to realize that they don’t know everything and therefore needs to learn from anything that is available, whether that be magical, faith based, mechanical, technological, or just plain common sense. It’s a David and Goliath tale, but David has a lot on his side. It’s this realization that there are so many factors in Alif’s life – many of which are hidden in plain sight – that he needs to recognize and truly see in order to learn from that is the most satisfying aspect of this story.
G Willow Wilson does a masterful job of bringing many disparate factors into Alif’s slowly unfolding realization. From his next door neighbor, Dina, who chooses against all modern factors to veil herself and follow a staunchly devout personal journey to the American known only as “the convert” who brings to him the knowledge of the Alf Yeom and its potential, from the delightfully sacrilegious jinn (in Arabian and Muslim mythology, a jinn is an intelligent spirit of lower rank than the angels, able to appear in human and animal forms, sometimes also referred to as a “genie” or a “demon”) popularly known as Vikram the Vampire to the gentle, to the pious imam Sheikh Bilal, who is inadvertently caught up in the struggle yet refuses to leave it, each brings strange yet nestling insight into personal truth and inner strength. As the “Sheikh Uncle” eloquently says after a harrowing escape from prison:
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 at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word “God”.
In the end, the question becomes not who will win, but what will be lost and what will be found in the struggle. Will the price be worth the fight? Will what is uncovered enlighten us, or merely plunge us deeper into confusion and despair? And perhaps most importantly, what do we learn about ourselves when we gather the courage to cease to be hidden, and brave enough to open our eyes to truly see that which before has been safely unseen? Alif the Unseen is a wonderfully entertaining exploration of all these questions, and a stirring, often humorous, story as well. It is a worthy consideration of the title “Best Novel” for the World Fantasy Awards, and one I was glad to have experienced.