#CBR5 Maneuver #11 – Alif the Unseen
Profile: Modern Fantasy, Religion
Summary: From the dust jacket, “The Unseen:1: anonymity, a space or state of being occupied in order to commit mischief; 2: That which cannot be perceived by human eyes; 3: an unimaginable new dimension of power waiting for someone to grasp it…
In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients–dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups–from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif–the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his compter has just been breached by the state’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line.
It turns out that his lover’s new fiancé is the “Hand of God,” as they call the head of state security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.
After Action Report:
Alif the Unseen is honestly one of the best novels I’ve read in recent memory. It practically sparkles with fresh ideas and invigorating prose. Like Throne of the Crescent Moon, I picked up Alif on the recommendation of io9.com’s best speculative fiction of 2012 list, and out of a desire to read more non-Eurocentric fantasy. But the two books shouldn’t even be compared. Alif is on a completely different level of fiction, the same level occupied by giants like China Miéville’s Kraken and Neil Gaimen’s American Gods, or perhaps more saliently, his Anansi Boys.
The novel is also a triumph of multiculturalism. The author, G. Willow Wilson, an American journalist who converted to Islam and moved to Cairo where she wrote for a number of magazines and newspapers, has written a magnificent window into contemporary Middle Eastern culture, and one that stand surprisingly accessible to readers who might not know anything about the history or culture of this incredibly interesting and diverse region. Where Saladin Ahmed utterly failed to connect with the richness of Arabian and Islamic mythology in his Crescent Moon, Wilson has succeeded in stunning fashion.
At first glance Alif the Unseen resembles a spy-thriller novel. The setup of a talented hacker drawn into unexpected conflict with the national authorities over a piece of advanced software is standard fare these days. Although from the very beginning, Alif has a certain feel of verisimilitude brought on by America’s exposure to repeated news stories of young, idealistic and tech-savvy people in authoritarian states bucking internet control to organize protests or anti-establishment blogs. Even if we find Alif’s motives a little questionable, it is hard not to admire the sentiment. When Alif finds himself on the run, he ends up turning to an urban legend, Vikram the Vampire, for help and unexpectedly finds himself caught up in the world of jinn and spirits.
Wilson crafts a careful balance between the mundane and the supernatural, keeping the main story of the book rooted firmly in the real world with the various jinns and spirits acting as allies or supplemental characters. The fundamental conflict stays between Alif and ‘the Hand of God,’ with both sides calling on supernatural aid by the end. The juxtaposition of magic and computer code is hardly new, but it is handled better here than I’ve seen anywhere else. Wilson uses The Thousand and One Days as a sort of mystical equivalent of a programing language, but one we are fundamentally unequipped to grasp. As a result, the ‘magic’ code that Alif and the Hand use is unstable in the real world.
Another point in Wilson’s favor is her blending of the metaphysics of language with our experience of the real world. A number of scenes hint at the connections that the ancient Arabs were making between their observed world and the scientific reality that we are still learning to understand. Two strong examples stand out, one, an offhanded comment made by an aging priest, Sheikh Bilal, regarding the similarities between the belief that every line in the Qur’an has a thousand thousand meanings, and the theory of quantum computing, which would use q-bits instead of binary bits, each with an infinite number of possible ‘states of being.’
The other and more accessible example of the two is a piece of comparative linguistics. In a conversation between the jinn Vikram, Alif and an American convert to Islam referred to only as ‘the convert,’ Vikram asks what the word ذرة (I believe this is pronounced ‘tharrah’ but I’m relying on the internet so it could be wrong) translates to in English. The convert replies that ذرة means ‘atom,’ and then realizes that it would be impossible for that word, which appears in passages within the Qur’an, to have the original meaning of ‘atom.’ They go on to discuss that Arabic has some unique properties that have allowed its words to change over time. In this case, ذرة contains the meaning of ‘the smallest indivisible particle’ and remains correct when referring to a grain of sand (or possibly the offspring of ants), as it is believed to have been translated centuries ago, or atoms and subatomic particles today because both definitions fit the meaning of the word at the time. The word evolves without losing its meaning.
At its core, this linguistic wordplay is the essence of what we normally call magic. Naming magic, or true-naming, is as old as history itself and this is a fundamental extension of that theory. This modern and logical approach to magic is quite simply spectacular, if a little understated, and would be enough to propel Alif the Unseen to the top of the modern fantasy genre even without Wilson’s compelling look into modern Middle Eastern culture.
I am not an expert in Middle Eastern writing or its culture, and while I have studied the history of the region, my knowledge of its recent history and current affairs basically boil down to a series of soundbites and article headlines. Fortunately, I have a good friend who is up to speed on the region and she assures me that Wilson’s depiction of an Arab security state is both accurate and compelling. The internal conflicts between dissident forces, both conservative Islamists and liberal youth, and the authoritarian governments are very real. Our media is perhaps too eager to paint the entire region with the same brush, leaving us with little to no knowledge of fascinating cultural groups. Such as the Syrian town of Kafranbel (Kafr Nabl), whose witty and timely protests have put a human face on the Syrian rebellion and offered up insightful critiques of the impact of international efforts in the region.
There is a depth to Wilson’s depiction of the realities of Middle Eastern life that goes beyond simple explanation. The character of the convert is a fairly transparent stand-in for the author, and much of this book feels like it is relating a story that Wilson saw or heard about from a friend. The convert is also the only character who isn’t afraid of Vikram or the jinn, and ultimately falls in love with the Unseen, much like I imagine Wilson became enamored by the tenants and principles of Islam and Arabic culture. This personal aspect of the novel is probably what takes Alif the Unseen from being merely brilliant, to something that is truly heartwarming.
Alif is not afraid to make you uncomfortable, but the book is all the stronger for its assumption that we can all afford to take a step outside our worldviews and learn something new, be it the depiction of life in a security state, or the complex linguistic underpinnings of magic and communication. Maybe some that read Alif the Unseen will gloss over the cultural commentary, or the weird, geeky humor, but they’ll be missing out on the heart of this excellent piece of literature.