"A computer geek with girl issues” helps remake his country in Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson's outstanding debut novel, which combines hackers, the Arab Spring, and shapeshifting jinni without even a pause for breath.
Alif, an Arab-Indian hacker whose clients include everyone from revolutionaries to pornographers, is having a bad week. “Alif was not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it."
First, he finds himself the target of The Hand of God, the code name of a shadowy government censor. Then his fiancee, Intisar, tells him her father has arranged a marriage for her with another aristocrat. As a parting gift, she sends Alif a used book. In a fit of geek pique, he designs a code that can identify Intisar, no matter what computer she uses, so that she can never contact him again.
This, his fellow hackers assure him, should be impossible.
“What you are talking about – recognizing a complete, individual personality – is something we do automatically. … But machines can't do it,” said Abdullah. “They need an IP address or an email address or handle to identify someone. Change those identifiers and the person becomes invisible to them. If what you're saying is true, you have discovered an entirely new way of getting computers to think.” And then the government confiscates Alif's computer, complete with a program that will let them identify and imprison any hacker in the country.
Alif, who has zero action skills in the real world, and his Egyptian neighbor, Dina, go on the run. An underworld figure named Vikram the Vampire becomes their sardonic shepherd. He also claims to be an immortal jinni, but Alif, no matter how skeptical, isn't in a position to turn down aid. (And frankly, supernatural intervention is probably the only way he's not going to end up dying horribly in prison.)
“He's already in terrible trouble,” Vikram notes. “A little more won't hurt.”
The book Intisar gave him, it turns out, is an incredibly rare copy of “The Thousand and One Days,” a coded counterpart to Scheherazade's famous tales, and the government wants it even more than it wants Alif.
“This is not the kind of artifact you find lying around in a used bookstore. Or in a rare bookstore. Or in the Smithsonian,” a female American scholar known only as “the convert,” tells him.
Alif's and Dina's flight takes them to the Empty Quarter in the desert, a parallel world populated by jinni, eefrits, and other supernatural folk, who, as it turns out, are in need of tech support. After debugging a Dell, Alif is shocked to find out jinnis surf the Internet. “Cousin,” an eefrit tells him, “we have Wi-Fi.”
Wilson's novel delights in bending genres and confounding expectations: It's both a literary techno-thriller and a fantasy that takes religion very seriously.
Wilson, who has lived in Egypt with her husband for a decade, wrote her memoir, “Butterfly Mosque,” about her conversion to Islam.
Her unnamed City, walled by quartz, is full of contradictions and societal inequities that Alif used to navigate by instinct.
“They had no idea what it was like to live in a place that boasted one of the most sophisticated digital policing systems in the world, but no proper mail service. Emirates with princes in silver-plated cars and districts with no running water,” Alif thinks about “coddled” American and British hackers.
As its characters careen from the Empty Quarter to the mosque, “Alif the Unseen” covers everything from theological questions to whether a Westerner has ever written a novel that fully embraces Eastern thinking (a topic no doubt dear to Wilson's heart).
What about Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet," the convert wonders?
“There is a very simple test,” said Vikram. “Is it about bored, tired people having sex?”
Well, yes, the convert admits.
“Then it's Western."
Based on that criteria, “Alif the Unseen” is most decidedly not Western. But it is one of the most inventive, invigorating novels of the year.