Alif the Unseen
G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press, 2012
review by Tessa
Alif – teenage hacker, selling online anonymity to the highest bidder
The Hand – whatever mysterious part of the semi-dictatorial/monarchical government that wants to destroy the hackers and gain control of everyone’s secrets and therefore lives
Intisar – rich Arab girl who knows a little too much about ancient secrets (also is sort of stringing Alif along even though she’s arranged to be married)
Dina – Alif’s serious & smart neighbor & friend since childhood, pulled inadvertently into the political turbulence caused by his chosen profession.
Vikram – an out of this world underworld contact who sees fit to help Alif and not eat him, thankfully
Alif’s life is falling apart a little. The government’s men in black have found an advisor who actually knows what (s)he’s doing and all the best hackers are being shut down. It’s the worst possible moment for Alif, as his one true love totally broke his heart, then sent him a really old book called The Thousand and One Days that makes the Hand’s pursuit of him even more frantic. He’s got to find out how it all connects before he loses his mind or dies or a little of both.
Alif’s world is never named, but it is populated with Muslims and Hindus and full of references to the class differences between Arabs and Indians and how Alif can’t get anywhere because he’s half one and half the other. The reader can feel free to assume that it’s a fictionalized version of a general Middle East – it’s only described as “The Persian Gulf” — with all the political unrest and religious and cultural heritage that implies.
One of the things I loved about reading Alif the Unseen was how the world was immediately itself but never explicitly named, which gave it a real world grounding with a sheen of fairy tale. The prologue opens the story in ancient Persia, with a conversation between a jinn and a manuscript writer, full of dankness and mysticism loaded with real dirt and organic necessity:
“‘Why?’ Reza had asked the creature desperately. ‘Why won’t you let him see you?’
In response, the thing had grown teeth: row after row of them, crowded together in a sickening grin.
. . . The thing seemed amused. It had appeared without a sound, and sat quietly within the confines of its chalk-and-ash prison at the center of the room, regarding Reza with yellow eyes. Reza suppressed a shudder. The sight of the creature still filled him with warring sensations of horror and triumph. When Reza had first summoned it, he had half-disbelieved that such a powerful entity could be held at bay by a few well-chosen words written on the floor, words his illiterate housekeeper could sweep away without incurring any harm whatsoever.”
After introducing the fact of the jinn, the book moves into the present, from one chalk word that traps a jinn so that it will have to come back night after night to tell its stories, to a device that can send as many words as one likes out into the world and never guarantee a response. A reality grounded with a smartphone set up with a bypass of the “encryption installed by whatever telecom giant monopolized its patent. It displayed the fourteen text messages [Alif] had sent to Intisar over the past two weeks, at a self-disciplined rate of one per day. All were unanswered.”
Wilson smartly builds her world so that it doesn’t have to explain itself. Dina knocks on Alif’s wall in an Arabic message – the Arabic script shows up within the text matter of factly and without footnote. The reader is never told what “praying maghrib” means, what a chaiwalla is (though we can guess) or what article of clothing a thobe could be, in that annoying way that authors can insert a word in another language and immediately translate it, as if that’s how code-switching people speak, for the benefit of invisible readers watching their lives unfold. The references are part of Alif’s life, and he doesn’t have to explain them to himself. The reader can decide whether to look it up – it’s not there to make the narrative more “exotic”, it’s there because it’s his reality.
When Alif is thrown into the knowledge that his world and the world of the jinn both exist, it’s pretty rad. Pret-ty rad.
What is the book’s intention? Does it achieve that intention?
The back of my copy of Alif the Unseen (it’s an ARC, okay, so check the real thing out and make sure I quoted everything correctly) calls it “cyberpunk adventure with the enchantment of Middle Eastern mythology”. Well, copywriter, I don’t know about “cyberpunk”. That puts me in mind of Billy Idol.
Alif combines a tense chase-based plot set in a society rife with baddie government spies and underground freedom fighters. I’m glad that Wilson chose Alif as her protagonist – he’s a smart teenager with the misguided idealism of neutrality – he doesn’t care who uses his skills as long as they pay him. He’s young and inexperienced enough that I can laugh at this line of his and still believe it would really come out of his mouth:
“‘You can’t marry this chode,’ he said hoarsely, ‘You’re my wife in the eyes of God if no one else.’”
Don’t judge the book by that line, by the way – it’s an example of good characterization through embarrassing dialogue.
So instead of a spy thriller set in the oh-so-trendy Arab Spring or an updated Kite Runner-esque allegorical knockoff, we get something so much better. A story with a conflicted narrator I can believe in, who has a real friendship with a real girl who lives a life according to religious beliefs that are portrayed in a real way, with respect but also through Alif’s slightly cynical teenage eye. You can feel the years of friendship between Alif and Dina, and the ways that they have put the armor of stereotypes on each other as they grew up and a little apart, but how they can’t ever really believe that armor. Alif lends Dina his fantasy novels (Philip Pullman!) and chats with her on his roof, and I could feel the comfortableness between them, and also the tiredness that had already sprung up from knowing where they were bound to go in life.
It’s Alif’s involvement with the studious, beautiful, and ultimately fickle Intisar that changes those courses, and sets them off through the city and into the blurred borderlands between worlds. Along the way there’s a seriously ridiculous hacking scene that deserves top billing with the stuff that goes on in the classic movie Hackers, or even Lawnmower Man. It’s forgiveable, because the rest of what Wilson writes is nimble and exciting. She argues culture and political morality through the reality of her characters and their world – sure, at a couple points the fabric of the story wears through a little and we see the bare philosophical points sticking through, but mostly I’d say that you’re in for a fun and substantial reading experience, one that’s probably unlike most of the other books published this year.
I wrote this review referencing an Advance Reading Copy, so any mistakes in quotation are mine, and you should buy a copy of the real book or get one from your library today.
Isn’t G. Willow Wilson a really cool name?
Daughter of Smoke and Bone / Laini Taylor – similar mix of fun and meaty story with Issues Underlying, and the whole World Beyond This One