|ALIF THE UNSEEN
G. Willow Wilson (www.gwillowwilson.com)
Corvus Books (corvus-books.co.uk)
Released: 1st September 2012
Get your pen and paper, it said. I will tell you the final story. It comes with a warning.
When you hear it, you will become someone else.
From time to time I’ll start reading a book and find myself thinking: this is what it’s all about. It’s a feeling that’s rare enough to be special, and I find myself marking my progress through life by these literary landmarks – “The Mist”, which was my first encounter with the mind of Stephen King; Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series; Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. It didn’t take long for me to realise that Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson’s first novel, would be one such book, and while the warning of the djinn that mark’s the novel’s beginning may not be true in the literal sense, Alif the Unseen is at least as educational as it is entertaining, and does provide plenty of food for thought.
The Middle East, in the midst of the Arab Spring. One by one, revolutions rise, and governments fall, the protestors empowered in large part by the Internet, and the anonymity it provides. In an unnamed emirate, the all-powerful State has employed the Hand to identify these trouble-makers and ensure their swift removal. Alif, a young hacker who makes a living keeping his clients safe from the prying eyes of the Hand and his censors, is having girl trouble. The woman of his dreams has abandoned him to marry a man of whom her family approves, leaving Alif heartbroken and angry. In a fit of pique, he sends her a gift and receives in return a foul-smelling ancient book bearing the title The Thousand and One Days. Hunted by the Hand, Alif takes the book and flees, unsure of why he is now the centre of attention.
With the help of Vikram the Vampire, an ancient djinn, Alif discovers the origin of the book and finds within it a code that could lead to the downfall of the Hand, of the censors, of State, and lead to the glorious revolution towards which he and his friends have been working. But the book is tricky, and nothing is ever that straightforward. Alif must make whatever sacrifices are necessary to save his friends on both sides of the veil that separate the human and djinn worlds.
Alif the Unseen is part Eastern-inspired fairy tale, part cyberpunk adventure, part love story, part fable, a very credible bridge between Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, with an original voice and an inside track on a world that many people in the West (myself included) know very little about. Wilson uses her unnamed fictional state to examine issues faced by people in the region – oppression by tyrannical governments and faceless agents of the State, and the inherent “unease” that comes from so many races, religions, political affiliations and classes living in such close proximity. We see this world through the eyes of Alif, an ideological young man whose roots – his mother is Indian – make him something of an outsider.
There is also a fantastical element to the story, and Wilson places her (unnamed) City on the edge of what she calls the Empty Quarter. This is the realm of the djinn and it is here that Alif will find many of the answers he is seeking. It is a world where humans were once welcome, but which is now largely forgotten by the “sons of Adam”. Amusingly, though, it’s not the ancient Eastern paradise we are initially led to believe it might be. In amongst the bazaar-like marketplaces and beautiful quartz walls, Alif discovers technology of a much more recent vintage.
…I’ve got a two-year-old Dell desktop in the back that’s had some kind of virus for ages. The screen goes black five minutes after I turn the damn thing on. I have to do a hard reboot every time.
Alif felt a new vista of serendipitous opportunity open before him.
“You’ve got internet in the Empty Quarter?” he asked in an awed voice.
Cousin, said the shadow, We’ve got WiFi.
Alif is assisted in his quest by a cast of rogues and outcasts, both human and djinn, and it is through these vastly different characters that Wilson shows us something of the culture and history of this region. Each has a distinct personality, a different perspective on the events that are unfolding, and of the backstory that leads to this point. Amongst them you’ll find Alif’s religious, veiled next-door neighbour; an American convert who has trouble with the language, and trouble reconciling her reasons for conversion; Vikram the Vampire, part-man part-animal, a rogue who turns out to be more loyal than anyone might have thought; Alif’s fellow hacker, whose involvement is all the more surprising when his identity is revealed. Aladdin’s genie of the lamp even puts in a brief appearance. Wilson has a deftness of touch that renders the most unthinkable of beings perfectly in the reader’s mind:
It was a beast, though unlike any other animal Alif had ever encountered: massive, reddish, indistinct, a bloodstain on the pale paving stones. Fur hung down in clumps over the goatish pupils in its gas-blue eyes. There were no teeth in its primitive jaws; instead, row after row of knives receded into the darkness of its gullet. It was a child’s nightmare, the fantasy of a mind too innocent to encompass human evil, but capable of imagining something far worse.
When it comes to in-depth and detailed discussions of technology, metaphysics and philosophy in fiction, Neal Stephenson is the man to beat. With Alif the Unseen, Wilson gives him a run for his money. An early discussion about how one might go about writing a piece of software that could identify a person based on how they type sets the tone, and prepares us for deeper discussions later in the book, including a conversation about fictional characters eating fictional pork (you’ll understand when you get to it), and an examination of the nature of quantum computing and the essence of metaphor. Happily, there is never a sense of getting bogged down in the detail, and the discussions are edifying and entertaining, illuminated as they are by Alif’s quick wit.
At its core, Alif the Unseen is a story about identity and its place in society. We learn few names as we progress through the action – Alif’s given name is revealed towards the end of the book, but for the most part we know him only as his Internet handle, and with only a handful of exceptions Wilson refers to characters by their designation (“the convert”), or by false names (“Vikram the Vampire”, “NewQuarter01”). In this modern society, where many people have an online identity, this is not an unusual state of affairs. The supernatural element brings with it an added dimension in the form of an old moral – to give someone (or something) your true name is to give them power over you. Wilson applies this to the modern Middle East, and shows it to be true there too: Alif is only safe for as long as the Hand is unable to find his true identity. It’s interesting food for thought in today’s society where, for many, social network interactions are as commonplace as real life ones.
G. Willow Wilson has produced an exceptional debut novel that seamlessly melds technology and mythology to astounding effect. A must read for fans of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, Alif the Unseen introduces us to a brilliant new author with talent to burn. With elements as diverse as computing, djinn, love, adventure and an examination of what makes us who we are, there is something here for everyone. The Diamond Age for the twenty-first century, Alif the Unseen establishes Wilson as one of the finest new writers to emerge this year. I, for one, can’t wait to see where she goes next.