Alif the Unseen
by G Willow Wilson
I was eager to read more G Willow Wilson after discovering her writing in the Ms Marvel comics. This is a lovely easy read that deals with some pretty deep complex issues but manages to never feel like an “issues” novel. Which is a clever balancing act. It’s probably the fantasy elements that help keep it light and fun. Mostly.
The story follows Alif, a young man in an unnamed Arab Emirate who works as a “grey hat” – a skilled hacker who helps paying customers to remain hidden online. He keeps a vigilant watch for the state’s top internet security expert “the Hand” but is widely acknowledged to be the best and therefore safest from arrest. He is also conducting a secret affair with Intisar – secret because although they are both Muslim, their social classes are very different and neither set of parents would approve. But Alif is a romantic and assumes they will somehow find a way.
When the book opens, Alif (which is his screen name, not his given name) has not heard from Intisar (ditto) for two weeks and is trying not to worry about the possible reasons. Then the Hand manages to break most of the way through his computer’s encryption and he is suddenly at real risk of arrest. Friends help him out but there comes a point when he needs more than friendship – he needs another kind of aid entirely.
“ ‘All translations are made up,’ opined Vikram, ‘Languages are different for a reason. You can’t move ideas between them without losing something. The Arabs are the only ones who’ve figured this out. They have the sense to call non-Arabic versions of the Criterion interpretations, not translations.’
‘So the French translation,’ said Alif, ‘that doesn’t qualify as a real version of the Alf Yeom?’
Vikram gave him a disgusted look, ‘Is anything real in French?’ ”
As the fantasy elements don’t get introduced until later in the book I’m not going to describe them here, but I do think they’re an important part of why this book works. Otherwise the story of a hacker in an unwise romantic relationship during a time of political unrest akin to the Arab Spring would be an interesting but probably very serious novel. Fantasy allows for a lighter touch, as well as exploring the mystical elements of Arab culture, including Islam.
Islam is a major theme in this novel, which at times I found illuminating and others I found a little heavy-handed. In a similar vein, the overarching romantic plot was a little obvious and overly neat but that also made it kind of satisfying. What I cannot fault is Wilson’s ability to create a rollicking adventure or her ability to make someone writing computer code thrilling (on which point, I fully intend to get Tim to read this book to tell me whether the technical language used is accurate or babble; I do know enough that I laughed a little at Alif writing hugely complex programs in days or even hours, but I think we can allow a little artistic license).
“ ‘I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilised in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God.’ ”
The characters are well drawn, for the most part likeable but flawed. But best of all was the setting. Despite anonymising the location, Wilson had me completely believing in a living, breathing city. I particularly liked that most of the characters have come from somewhere else, so we meet people from India, Egypt, Yemen and a dozen other countries, which is exactly what you might expect of a modern city but so often isn’t reflected in books.
So far this is Wilson’s only novel, but she has written plenty of comics besides the still-ongoing Ms Marvel and a memoir about her conversion to Islam, all of which I plan to check out.
Published 2012 by Grove/Atlantic.