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Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson.

August 30, 2013

Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson.  Grove Press (2013), Paperback, 448 pages

 A marvelous, sophisticated fantasy novel set in a small, composite Arabic emirate and weaving together computer geeks, Muslim mythology, and the meaning of language.

In the world of computer users, Alif takes his name from the letter, ALIF, the clear downward stroke that appears in the Arabic alphabet.   He is an expert, ‘a grey hat,” adept at providing computer protection from all sorts of people from outside surveillance. Then he receives a rare, ancient book, Alf Yeom, which inspires him to develop a new way of computing, and he soon finds himself in danger.  A variety of non-humans help him out.  The most important are jinns who “think about the world differently, and inhabit it at an angle,” giving Alif and readers the ability to see life in new ways.

Only Willow Wilson could have created this wonderful fantasy.  As she described in her fine autobiography, The Butterfly Mosque, she is a young American woman who fell in love with Islam, with Egypt and the entire region, and with an Egyptian man.  She has written several prize-winning graphic novels.  A bright, perspective woman and an excellent writer, she has delved deeply into her new-found world, often placing herself as a bridge between “east” and “west.”

Alif the Unseen works on several levels. The story is full of adventure and suspense.  There is also a love story as Alif considers Intisar, beautiful but unavailable, and Dian, the quiet Moslem girl next door.  And there is a political dimension.   Alif cares less about the ideologies of his clients than he does for their freedom to speak out.  When the state surveillance system fails and the “unknown” people take to the streets, he knows he has had a role in the changes.  He helped them find a temporary freedom which we could use for better or worse.  Alif himself is not particularly religious, but the book has two great characters who are committed to Islam; the sheikh of the mosque where Alif takes refuge and Dina who hides her intelligence and her charms under her veils. Appropriately the inside of her dark cloak is embroidered with bright silks and satins.

Wilson not only writes about a part of the world unfamiliar to many of us.  She also explores what it means to live in a post-colonial world where immigration and cyberspace have broken down old cultural certainties and national boundaries.   Alif is the son of an Arab father and Indian mother.  He lives in a section of town filled with immigrants seeking better lives for themselves. They have come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and the countries of North Africa, and like Alif, do not fully belong in the emirate.  Alif depends on his computer to make connections.

When his computer was on and connected to the grid, he never felt as though he was alone; there were thousands of people in rooms like his, reaching out toward each other in the same ways he did. Now [with his computer down] that feeling of intimacy seemed fraudulent.  He lived in an invented space, easily violated.  He lived in his own mind.

Another focus within the novel involved the value of stories, languages, and metaphors.  Alif realizes that within the ancient book, “Stories aren’t just stories….They’re really secret knowledge disguised as stories.”  He begins to see how all language, verbal or computer, points to something beyond itself.  The book provides him with an exciting new way to program his computer.

Every so often he paused to reread a portion of the Alf Yeom separating the frame story into two threads of code:  Farukhuaz, the dark princess, became a set of Boolean algorithms; the nurse, her irrational counterpart, non-Boolean expressions.  There was nothing he could not interpret numerically.  The numbers, like stories, were merely representative, stand-ins for meaning that lay deeper, embedded in the pulses of electricity within the computer, the firing of neurons in Alif’s brain….

Alif and the others begin to see that the whole world has changed fundamentally.

We have reached a state of constant reinvention.  Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and onto home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era.  Fictional governments are accepted without comment, and we can sit in a mosque and have a debate about the fictional pork a fictional character consumes in a video game, with every gravity we would accord to something real.

Yet in the end, they discover that “real” world still matters in the probabilities of life and death, and in friendship and love.

I enjoyed this book even though I realize that its primary audience is probably younger and more computer literate than I am.  I found it both fun and important to get a glimpse of the world that Wilson sees emerging.

This book is strongly recommended to all. Those who think they won’t like it may be the ones that find it most meaningful.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    September 1, 2013 3:27 pm

    This was on my radar for a while and then I forgot about it, so thank you for reminding me of it! It sounds like one that would be really good on audio, nut it doesn’t seem to yet be available that way at the library. I hope it comes out in that version soon!

    • September 4, 2013 6:01 pm

      This one is your kind of book. The author is not a person of color, but she writes from within the culture and does so very well. Are you doing the “Fantasy by People of Color” again?

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