G. Willow Wilson’s marvelous first novel, “Alif the Unseen,” takes events similar to those of the Arab Spring, adds a runaway computer virus, an unconventional love story and the odd genie to create an intoxicating, politicized amalgam of science fiction and fantasy.
An American-born journalist, Wilson is a convert to Islam who’s written eloquently about religion and politics in numerous publications and a memoir, “The Butterfly Mosque.” She also penned the award-winning graphic novel “Cairo” and the comic series “Vixen.” These various literary enterprises dovetail in her new book, which also manages to get in a few amusing nods to “Star Wars” and uses Philip Pullman’s irreligious novel “The Golden Compass” as the springboard for a heated, protracted discussion of the power of words to change the world.
That debate begins early in the novel. Alif, 23, lives in a modern, unnamed city in an unnamed emirate. (Alif is his screen name, and the first letter of the Arabic alphabet.) The son of an absent Arab father and a Hindu mother, Alif is an online mercenary who provides cover for various Web sites run by a “coterie of bloggers, pornographers, Islamists and activists from Palestine to Pakistan.” At the novel’s outset, he’s more Han Solo than hacktivist: “Alif was not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it.”
He’s also not much of a religious believer, as demonstrated when his more conservative friend and neighbor, Dina, returns a borrowed copy of “The Golden Compass”:
“This book is full of pagan images. It’s dangerous.”
“Don’t be ignorant. They’re metaphors. I told you you wouldn’t understand.”
“Metaphors are dangerous.”
Alif is oblivious to the fact that, behind the veil that reveals only her emerald eyes, Dina is deeply in love with him. He’s too embroiled in a clandestine affair with Intisar, a beautiful young aristocrat who severs all contact when her arranged marriage to a fellow blue blood is imminent. Distraught, Alif does what any self-respecting geek would do to mend a broken heart: He hacks Intisar’s computer and designs a program that can monitor her every online move by identifying her unique pattern of keystrokes.
But no sooner is Alif’s binary genie out of the bottle than his pattern recognition program is hacked by the government’s Internet censor, known as the Hand of God. The Hand’s sinister m.o. is to “discover, dismantle, subdue.” As Alif quickly learns, its reach goes far beyond the online world and deep into the real one.
Wilson has said that her novel grew out of a “wonderfully clarifying kind of rage,” fed by her frustration with the failure of many Americans, including some in the publishing industry, to grasp the significance of social media as a medium for social change, especially in the Middle East. Yet she is far too canny a writer to let earnest or angry didactics hijack her tale. Instead, she seduces readers with a narrative that integrates the all-too-familiar terrors of contemporary political repression with supernatural figures from “The Thousand and One Nights”: jinn, marids, sila, demons.
Her most uncanny move is the invention of her own fabulist masterpiece: “Alf Yeom” or “The Thousand and One Days.” A sort of distaff retort to Scheherazade’s tales, “The Thousand and One Days” is a one-of-a-kind rarity that’s secretly passed on to Alif by his former lover, Intisar. As Alif reads it (under the tutelage of a jinn who keeps a stockpile of automatic weapons), he realizes that the magical stories are actually “secret knowledge disguised as stories.” It’s a kind of knowledge that’s all too familiar to him, as Alif learns during a terrifying imprisonment: “Our impulse to store and access data through coding languages predates computers by thousands of years, and that’s really all magic is.”
“Alif the Unseen” confronts some of the most pressing concerns of our young century, but it’s also hugely entertaining. Wilson has a Dickensian gift for summoning a city and peopling it with memorable characters, and she doesn’t shy away from showing us the terrible price Alif pays, first for his ignorance, then for his courage.
She’s also unapologetic about her love and respect for genre literature. As a wise sheik tells Alif, “If man’s capacity for the fantastic took up as much of his imagination as his capacity for cruelty, the worlds, seen and unseen, might be very different.” Wilson is equally unapologetic about the value of religious belief. As Dina says angrily to Alif, “You lent me The Golden Compass! It’s full of jinni trickery, and you were angry at me when I told you that made it dangerous! Why do you get mad when religion tells you that the things you want to be true are true?”
“When it’s true, it’s not fun anymore. All right? When it’s true it’s scary.”
“Alif the Unseen” is true and scary — and ends on a note of well-earned hope. It doesn’t take magical powers to predict it will be one of the year’s best-loved books.
ALIF THE UNSEEN
By G. Willow Wilson
Grove. 431 pp. $25