BECAUSE I WILL probably forget to mention it later on: Alif the Unseen is a rattling good yarn, full of action and adventure, revolution and romance. It is smoothly written, compassionate and generous, and has important things to say. It is the sf debut of the year.
It begins in Persia, long ago. Reza summons a supernatural being to tell him the stories contained in the Alf Yeom, also known as The Thousand and One Days, which contains “all the parallel knowledge” of the jinn. The stories seem to shift and change as they are doubly translated: first transforming from the “diffuse” and “voiceless language in which the creature spoke” into the Persian that Reza hears, and then into “mathematical and efficient” Arabic as Reza transcribes them in the scholarly language so as to keep them safe from his unlearned countrymen. Reza plans a further translation — he will give “each element of each story a number” so as to “create a code that determines their quantitative relationship to one another.” As the brief prologue closes, the jinn begins to tell the final story of the Alf Yeom, which, he warns, will make the listener someone else.
Alif the Unseen then jumps to an unnamed Gulf emirate in a very near future, not long after the Arab Spring has been pretty much neutered and channeled into the status quo ante. The half-Bedouin, half-Dravidian protagonist, Alif, is a computer hacker. He provides digital security for anyone who can afford his services: pornographers, Islamists, communists, feminists, he does not care. He is not for anything in particular; he is against censorship. And he has just been dumped by his girlfriend, Intisar, an “upper-class Old Quarter girl” whose father is marrying her off to an influential friend. Being a console cowboy, Alif responds in the only sensible way: he severs all potential avenues of communication between them by developing, although he is not entirely certain how he does it, a program that can identify, from a negligible sample and however well disguised, anything Intisar ever writes on a computer.
Which is when things start to go really badly wrong. Suddenly, Alif and his childhood friend Dina are on the run from the Hand of God, the murky head of the emirate’s security agency and the brutal enforcer of state censorship, who has repressive uses for Alif’s innovation in mind. He also has the very wrong hands into which an ancient book must not fall — an ancient book that has just been given to Alif. Which is when things begin to get generically interesting, especially for anyone expecting the kind of North-African cyberpunk adventure found in George Alec Effinger’s Marîd Audran trilogy or Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy, or the kind of pointed but conceptually thin political allegory of Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s Utopia. Vikram the Vampire, the gangster to whom Alif and Dina turn for help, provides a definitive turning point in the narrative because he is actually a vampire — or, at least, one of the jinn described in the Quran who, though rarely seen by humans any more, inhabit our world at an angle. This move is neither a failure of the novel’s science-fictionality, nor the kind of facile genre mash-up designed merely to indulge in romps about, say, dirigibles and zombies, Cthulhu and automata. Rather, the genre dynamics at work in Alif the Unseen are key to its concern with seeing the multiplicity of the world and perceiving that multiplicity from several perspectives simultaneously — themes G. Willow Wilson’s began to explore in her graphic novels Cairo and Air, and in The Butterfly Mosque, the memoir of her conversion to Islam.
Tawfik’s Utopia, an Egyptian novella proleptic of the Arab Spring, divides its future Egypt between a devastated land of the utterly impoverished and a walled, luxurious city for the super-rich, protected by a western PMC which also serves US interests in the region. Utopia’s urgency and brevity require this simple opposition. Alif the Unseen retains a strong sense of this economic gulf between classes but, as a minor character’s quip that the City “is divided into three parts: old money, new money, and no money” shows, it also insists upon the social complexities that arise from, rest upon, and generate such basic contradictions. For example, Baqara district, in which Alif lives, is populated by “imported labor from India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and the lesser Arab countries of North Africa,” while the censors whom he opposes are “united by no creed … they were Ba’ath in Syria, secular in Tunisia, Salafi in Saudi Arabia [yet] their methods were as identical as their goals were disparate.” The convert, an otherwise unnamed western woman who, mirroring Wilson’s own experience, moved to Egypt and converted to Islam, will always be regarded as a foreigner — “Ajnabi. Ferenghi. Khawagga. Gori. Pardesi.” — while Dina has given up trying to speak English because “she could not seem to speak it without resorting to Urdu loan words,” both languages falling into “the same category of foreignness in her mind.”
In addition to such carefully drawn contrasts between heterogeneity and homogenizing tendencies, Wilson elaborates upon the diversity within Islamic religion and culture, particularly in relation to women. Alif”s clandestine relationship with Intisar was probably doomed since a “pretty and well-mannered … daughter could marry up,” but a mixed-race, lower-class son cannot. If Intisar had chosen to adopt the veil, it would have served as “a mark of rank, not religion,” but for Dina — “imported labor,” “a shabby Alexandrian, expected to become the bare-faced, underpaid ornament to someone’s office or nursery, perhaps even discreetly available to whomever was paying her salary” — to so “declare herself sanctified, not by money but by God, looked like putting on airs.” Moreover, doing so when she was fourteen “upset” her parents, not least because being a “saint was not profitable.” When Alif states that “women who believe the veil is mandatory also believe that music is forbidden,” Dina replies that only some do, and that she is not one of them: “Birds make music, river reeds in wind make music. Babies make music. God would not forbid something that is the sharia of innocent creatures.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Dina and the convert are the most interesting characters in the book, and it will be intriguing to see how these two smart, capable women who have embraced Islam will be received. In Butterfly Mosque, Wilson recounts how her article on Cairo’s women-only subway cars was perceived by many New York Times Magazine readers as a regressive defense of such arrangements, rather than an attempt to express the sense of community and mutuality that female passengers create in such segregated spaces, only for the subsequent announcement that the Tokyo subway was introducing such measures to be welcomed widely as progressive. And for all its rather gentle tone, Alif the Unseen does not shy away from making uncomfortable observations about such hypocrisy, not least in reiterating the point, first noted by Thomas Hobbes, that individualism and absolutism are inextricably entwined. For example, Sheikh Bilal, who offers Alif sanctuary in the Al Basheera mosque, argues that the absolutism of the emirate largely derives from Western demands for a modern, secular state, which stripped away traditional checks on authoritarian abuses; and the Hand of God notes parallels between the U.S. and the sharia states, in both of which citizens have willingly surrendered freedoms and subjected themselves to power.
Against this backdrop, Alif”s program and the Alf Yeom prove to be no mere McGuffins, brought into play to set the characters in motion, but vital components of Wilson”s exploration — begun in Cairo — of the problem of ethical behavior in a world that does not conform to black-and-white moral certainties. The amused jinn of the prologue observes that words substitute one thing for another, thus disguising meaning and rendering all language metaphorical, while Dina notes that “calling something by a false name changes it, and metaphor is just a fancy way of calling something by a false name.” Vikram insists that “all translations are made up. Languages are different for a reason. You can’t move ideas between them without losing something.” Later, he explores the paradox that while the word “atom” means “the smallest indivisible thing,” it has also over time meant “a grain of sand,” “a mote of dust,” “a cell,” “a molecule,” and “an atom”: while today “the original meaning might be hadron,” tomorrow “it might be quark.” In each case, Wilson draws attention to two excesses: the polysemy of words, and the fullness of the world that exceeds language.
Drawing on the Alf Yeom, and on the idea that “each word in the Quran has seven thousand layers of meaning,” Alif moves beyond binary codes and teaches an ordinary computer to think in metaphors — “knowledge existing in several states simultaneously and without contradiction.” And Alif the Unseen quietly insists that such knowledge is the basis for an ethics of compassion, generosity, and understanding — and, in the words of Reza’s jinn, that “stories are their own message.”