Grove Press, 2012, 320 pages
Alif has encountered three strokes of bad luck. The aristocratic woman he loves has jilted him, leaving him with only a mysterious book of fairytales. The state censorship apparatus of the emirate where he lives has broken into his computer, compromising his business providing online freedom for clients across the Islamic world. And now the security police have shown up at his door. But when Alif goes underground, he will encounter a menagerie of mythical creatures and end up on a mad dash through faith, myth, cyberspace, love, and revolution.
Alif the Unseen is half political thriller, half contemporary fantasy, taking place in an unnamed City (but basically, Cairo) in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where an autocratic regime closely monitors all Internet activity. Thumbing his nose at the fearsome secret service known only as The Hand, "Alif" (his pseudonym is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet) is a moody teenaged computer prodigy provided anonymous access to any who seek his services. Secularists, Islamists, feminists, pornographers, without discrimination.
Alif, despite his computer skills, is just another poor son of immigrants living in the slums. When his rich girlfriend jilts him for an arranged marriage, and he discovers she was basically slumming, he acts like any moody teenaged computer prodigy would - he writes a computer program to monitor her activity on the Internet and erase all mention of him wherever she goes. Yeah, Alif is kind of a jerk.
Then his ex dumps a mysterious book on him, which turns out to be a magical MacGuffin that everyone wants, and his program proves to be very useful for a hyper-monitoring regime like the state, which brings Alif to the attention of the Hand. He becomes a fugitive, on the run and putting everyone he knows and cares about in danger. That's when he runs into djinn.
A girl he loved had decided she did not love him--at least, not enough. How was such a problem usually addressed? Surely not with the clandestine exchange of books and computer surveillance and recourse to the jinn.
Alif the Unseen is an attempt at Western-style fantasy from a Muslim perspective, and while the author (a Western convert to Islam herself) tries to hang a self-aware lampshade on this, I had mixed reactions to it.
"Look at all the Eastern writers who've written great Western literature. Kazuo Ishiguro. You'd never guess that The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go were written by a Japanese guy. But I can't think of anyone who's ever done the reverse-- any Westerner who's written great Eastern literature. Well, maybe if we count Lawrence Durrell - does the Alexandria Quartet qualify as Eastern literature?"
"There is a very simple test," said Vikram. "Is it about bored, tired people having sex?"
"Yes," said the convert, surprised.
"Then it's western."
G. Willow Wilson is definitely a skilled crafter of words. I have also enjoyed her work on the new Ms. Marvel comic. Alif the Unseen is full of clever, quotable bits and it's a fun Middle Eastern adventure with moderate attempts at profundity. Published just before the Arab Spring ignited, and long before it reached its present tragic outcome, it's an optimistic story using Muslims as characters, good and bad, with hefty doses of magic, adventure, and romance.
Where did it fall flat for me? First of all, while not marketed as a Young Adult novel, it is basically written like one. It's clever and well-written and fun, but light and it's a YA adventure and the protagonists get everything they want in the end in a way that I thought was a little too easy, and some of her messages are delivered with a light anvil.
"When have I ever suggested you burn them? I am allowed to have opinions, aren't I? And I don't hate them—I don't give a fig about them. The only reason I cared is because you were so comfortable belittling me for believing things you only read about. I was afraid you'd turn into one of those literary types who say books can change the world when they're feeling good about themselves and it's only a book when anybody challenges them. It wasn't about the books themselves—it was about hypocrisy. You can speak casually about burning the Alf Yeom for the same reason you'd be horrified if I suggested burning The Satanic Verses—because you have reactions, not convictions."
About those messages - I thought G. Willow Wilson was trying just a little too hard to be a proponent of faith (and specifically Islam) without appearing to be. She is not too preachy about it, but even while trying to present a "modern" Islam that has room for diversity and tolerance (a version that sadly exists in no actual Islamic country) in a story for Westerners, it's clear she's reluctant to touch the infallibility of the Quran, say, or feminist critiques of the hijab.
I also could not help noticing that the Western convert to Islam in the story, who is only ever referred to as "the convert," is an obvious author stand-in. "The convert" has taken the hijab, lives in the city of the story, and enthusiastically studies the history and culture of her adopted religion, sort of like a certain Western convert to Islam who now lives in Cairo.
The convert is also prone to making arrogant, Western-centric statements in some of the book's most anvilicious moments (presumably Wilson is poking fun at what she perceives as her own failings before she became more enlightened), but where the author really gave it away was when the convert [Spoiler (click to open)]winds up impregnated by the alpha-male bad boy djinn who then dies heroically.
I don't want foreigners involved in my business. Jinn are one thing but I draw the line at Americans.
I enjoyed this book, and I think G. Willow Wilson is a talented writer. Alif the Unseen is a very good debut novel, just a little too Young Adult and subtly preachy for me to love it. For a more adult fantasy that handles immigrants, djinn, and the clash of Middle Eastern and Western culture, see The Golem and the Jinni, while Greg Egan's Zendegi is a much more mature take on revolutionizing the Islamic world with modern technology.
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