Tue
Jul 24 2012 1:00pm

Secular and Mystical Sci-Fi: G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen

Politics and fiction can be a powerful combination; classics like Wells’ The Time Machine, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Brin’s Uplift series, all orbit around recognizable political quandaries. You can even see it on television (Battlestar Galactica, I am looking at you). But few authors chose to set these stories in the present, in our own world — a little distance, a new galaxy, a future time, these are almost de riguer.

In her debut novel (she’s written graphic novels before) Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson has chosen to buck the trend, meshing the world of information technology with the mystical aspects of Islam and contemporary life to weird and captivating effect. I spent half the book thinking, “Where can this possibly go now?”, only to find out in the next chapter. Alif the Unseen is a true chimera, combining magic and technology, fantasy and sci-fi, the secular and the mystical, literature and genre.

Alif is a programmer of no small skill, using his technical acumen to protect the digital presences of political dissenters of all stripes in an unnamed emirate. He’s your typical slacker-hacker living at home, relying on his mom for all his daily needs, condescending to the devout girl-next-door (more on her later), falling for an intellectual woman over the internet, known even to his IRL friends by his username. He does his best to stay off the radar, but trouble comes looking for him. His secret relationship falls apart, and the watchdog of the emirate, the mysterious Hand of God, has somehow tracked him down and broken through all his security protocols. And the Hand doesn’t just want to stop Alif from hacking — he also wants something in Alif’s possession. It’s an old book called the Alf Yeom, which Alif can’t read and doesn’t understand the significance of. And the Hand will do anything to get it, including staking out Alif’s home and ordering his immediate arrest. On the run with the book, that devout-girl-next-door named Dina, few friends, and no time, Alif’s and skills are stretched to their limits and beyond.

Dina is a fascinating character, one of the most multi-faceted heroines I’ve had the pleasure to meet. She’s forthright, but not sassy; emotional as well as pragmatic; principled and cool-headed, but still clearly struggling to find her place in a torn world. Whereas one might expect that Alif and his programmer cohorts would be the best-prepared for the battles ahead, it’s her convictions that allow her to rise to the challenges they face again and again. For a thoroughly Western reader, especially one not versed in Arab culture, traits like her insistence on the rules of modesty might make her seem quaint, but she’s not to be underestimated. To borrow the words of another scrappy heroine, Dina’s got true grit.

Alif and Dina are forced to seek help in the unlikeliest of places, a black market that is also a gateway to an alternate dimension. Their guide Vikram, a jinn inclined to aid them more out of caprice than noble intentions, is violent and unpredictable but also their best bet. As the human world becomes increasingly dangerous and the importance of unlocking the secrets of the Alf Yeom grows, they seek safe haven and guidance in the world of the jinn. The jinn city is a creepy and awesome construct, one that I can’t stop playing with in my head, and watching Alif try to wrap his head around things that aren’t based on numbers or facts is truly entertaining.

And then there are the battles. Weird creatures and suited enforcers, malicious codes and incendiary devices, Wilson throws anything and everything at her characters. After one particularly heated battle centered around a mosque, I could have sworn my ears were ringing from the explosions. The fights are cinematic and engrossing, a whirlwind of feints and counterfeints, and the most effective defenses turn out to be spiritual and mental rather than physical.

Lest the inclusion of religion scare you off, let me direct your attention to other great works of genre fiction with similar leanings. For instance, Mary Doria Russell’s heartbreaking sci-fi classic The Sparrow is one of the best analogues I could come up with, despite being worlds (hah hah) away. Whereas Russell takes us away from our normal habitat in order to look back, Wilson takes us deeper into our own world, both physical and digital, but both manage to ask the big questions about faith without ever once preaching on either side of the issue.

There are few authors who can pull off dealing with religion, dogma, and mysticism as well as sci-fi, and Wilson is one of them. Alif the Unseen contains elements that will appeal to fans of the ecstatic digital visions The Neuromancer, devotees of the mythological richness of The Thousand and One Nights, international-news junkies and fellow hacktivists. Come for the fast-paced action; stay for the gedankenexperiment.


Jenn Northington has been a bookseller since 2005, and is currently the events manager at WORD in Brooklyn. She also writes for Book Riot, is a founding member of the Bookrageous podcast, and aspires to be a big damn hero when she grows up.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
3 comments
Niall Alexander
1. niallalot
Have been on tenterhooks waiting for this book's UK release for so long it's unlikely. Alif sounds terrific, anyway. Thanks for the review, Jenn.

I wonder, am I awfully wrong to be reminded of Scarlett Thomas? I fear I may be.
Jenn Northington
2. jennIRL
i don't know Scarlett Thomas! but it sounds like maybe i should...
beverlyqueery
3. beverlyqueery
Agreed. 'Alif' is compulsively readable. Just when you think it might veer towards a trope, it banks in a different direction. My favorite aspect is that it evokes mystical elements of Islam and the Middle East without veering into exoticism (like 'Habibi', for instance). Dina is complex, interesting, and the girl next door who triumphs in life and love without getting a makeover. And the jinn city? Even with the sickness and possible death, i would book my trip stat.

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