Alif the Unseen

  • G. Willow Wilson
  • Grove Press
  • 320 pp.
  • July 23, 2012

A young man finds himself fleeing from government forces and into a world that combines Arab folklore with modern-day hacker subculture.

Reviewed by Daniel Leaderman

Computer hackers, genies, government agents and Arab Spring revolutionaries are thrown together in G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, an ambitious mashup of fantasy, techno-thriller, political drama and mythology that is as likely to frustrate and exhaust as it is to enchant.

Alif, a young hacker in an unnamed emirate, uses his computer wizardry to provide an online security service, keeping his clients — online users all over the world — from having their systems and websites hacked, particularly by governments.

After being jilted by his lover in the opening pages, Alif looks for a way to make sure they never meet online again. He invents a new program that can single out and identify computer users, no matter where they are or what alias they may be using. Not even Alif knows how it works, but he soon his finds himself fleeing for his life from agents of the state’s security force and in possession of a mysterious book called the Alf Yeom. Thought to be written by a jinn, or genie, the book may hold the key to creating even more powerful programs.

The world of codes, handles and IP addresses will feel familiar to fans of Lisbeth Salander, but the parallels between Alif and Stieg Larsson’s titular girl with the dragon tattoo end there. Wilson’s touch is much lighter, and without the horrific sexual brutality.

As Alif searches for both protection and the meaning of the book, he joins forces with Dina, his friend and neighbor. Together they encounter a series of magical creatures and realms that at times feel refreshingly original — at least to a reader relatively unfamiliar with Arab folklore — and at others like a mixtape of modern pop-fantasy tropes.

The melding of science with religion and myth evokes Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy — name-checked by Alif and Dina early on — while a trip to a hidden area of the city has more than a little in common with Harry Potter’s mysterious train platform or Diagon Alley district.

As Alif, Dina and some new friends with insight into the Alf Yeom move farther from the recognizable world and into the realm of “the unseen,” readers will quickly know whether they’re on board for the ride or not.

For some, the gradual unveiling of new characters, creatures and planes of existence may be a thrill unto itself, well worth the price of admission. For others, the mix of realism and mythology is likely to cause frustration.

Numerous characters are given a chance to sound off on the supposed nature and significance of the Alf Yeom, but the book itself is far less interesting than the people who want to possess it. It’s what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin, the thing the characters care about but the audience doesn’t. Its function is to get the story moving.

And as Wilson’s characters discover that genies are real and that magical texts may contain secrets of great power, it’s never really clear what the rules of this universe are. Can the genies be killed? If the bad guys have magic, are computers and codes even important anymore? Without a better sense of what might happen, it’s hard to be invested in what does happen.

The art of computer programming is impenetrable to most people, so when characters taunt each other with boasts of who can write more powerful and more perfect computer programs, we essentially just have to take their word for it. We may like the characters, but we aren’t particularly engaged in their fight. Throw in some mysterious, unpredictable magic and the outcome, whatever it may be, feels arbitrary.

Wilson isn’t able to imbue her world of genies and demons with the sort of texture, atmosphere and verisimilitude that made Pullman’s trilogy so absorbing, and the novel suffers because the author can’t quite bring the details to life. Her juxtaposition of computer programming and magic throughout the novel is ingenious, but when all is said and done, those elements distance the reader from the action rather than drawing him or her in.

The action picks up again as Alif prepares to confront his nemesis, a state security agent known as the Hand of God, who wants to use the secrets of the book to impose digital dominance over the country.

Wilson pushes the last third of the novel forward at an enjoyable clip. The climactic face-off is set against a sudden popular uprising — spurred on by the state’s censorship of the Internet — whose success and moral authority are far from certain, and the ambiguity lingers and resonates after the final page.

Words are power, Wilson suggests, but the ones wielding them can always change.

Daniel Leaderman studied English at Kenyon College and journalism at the University of Maryland. He is a reporter covering state politics in Maryland.

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