Review: Alif the Unseen

I discovered G. Willow Wilson quite by accident, while perusing the adult graphic novel section in the library. I stumbled on a pretty little book called Cairo. It looked to be a stand-alone—rare in the world of comics as I’m sure you’re aware—and it was set in the Middle East! Of course I read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it, though to be honest that was several years ago and I don’t remember much: a boy with a hookah that might have been possessed by a jinn, a spunky American girl, secret passages.

I didn’t find it particularly deep, but I did like it enough to see if the library had anything else by G. Willow Wilson. It did: The Butterfly Mosque, a memoir about Wilson’s conversion to Islam and move to Cairo. I loved it. It opened my eyes wider.

So I was pretty excited to read her latest work, and first novel (as opposed to graphic novel): Alif the Unseen.

In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.” –  Amazon.

I have really mixed feelings about this book.

On the one hand, it’s an incredible book, thoroughly modern, especially coming soon after the Arab Spring. It’s a page-turner. On the other, it suffers from a lacklustre plot.

But I’ll start with the good, and don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot going for this book.

The Internet blends easily into the book. Wilson writes about computer programming and hacking in a mystical, poetic way that elevates the act yet maintains the logic and reasoning behind it—an impressive feat. Her descriptions—the battles—of Alif coding are amazing. They are complex enough that she had me convinced that Alif knew what he was doing, and simple enough that I followed the action easily. She blends the metaphysical into programming and language seamlessly.

And the metaphysical is what really makes the book, what fattens it and makes it rich. Political philosophy is the backdrop of Alif: metaphysics (to use the term loosely) is the meat. It’s taken for granted that the reader knows something about the political situation in the Middle East: class disparities, oil-rich princes, the way a military state works; Alif is somewhat apolitical. As he states, he will protect erotica sites, Islamic sites, feminist sites: “Alif was not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it.” It is censorship that bothers him. However, the world he inhabits is not simply politics: there are jinn. And magic. And the eerily conscious program that Alif writes, Tin Sari, which can analyze and then pinpoint anyone by the way they type. Wilson’s jinn-informed technology is fascinating to think about. It’s a change, to read a thoroughly modern fantasy story from a mystical, Islamic point of view. It brings a lot of originality to the fantasy table.

But for all that, it still feels so incredibly familiar. Alif is our smart—yet immature—streetkid (albeit with a house and a servant), there’s a love triangle. He’s the hero, he does hero things, like get in trouble and have extra special surreal powers. Basically, the main problem I had with the book was that the plot was incredibly predictable. I caught all the beats before Alif did. I even guessed his name—not revealed until the last chapter—before the first few chapters were over. The plotting is really tight in that genre-author comic book sort of way: very interconnected, and it makes the plot feel a bit cheap. It skimmed the surface of interesting details which would have enriched the backdrop, instead of making the Cairoesque city feel like just a backdrop. I wanted to know more about Alif’s mother, for instance, and his servant.

Furthermore, many things felt too convenient. People help him because he’s the hero. The cat jinn sleeps with him because she does, and then helps him in a crucial way at the end of the book—and we’re never told why. There are people Alif knows from childhood, locations he’s spent years at, and we barely know anything about them.

And then there’s Dina.

Dina is a really interesting character, and you know what? My biggest question is why the book isn’t about her. She’s really loyal to Alif, but we don’t know why. Because Alif’s the hero, I guess. They grew up together.

Dina wears an abaya and niqab, which is a huge deal because her family doesn’t want her to veil. In her milieu, it’s uppity for her to do so: she claims herself as a human being sacred to God, as opposed to a daughter or servant who can be sold for labour. For the first half of the book, she’s strong. She tags along with Alif even though she’s perturbed by his illegal activity. She stands up to men and jinn for him, with aplomb and verve. She’s ultra-supportive.

In fact, she has so much verve, it’s a huge letdown that Alif is the main character. Why not Dina? Seriously? Why couldn’t she be the computer hacker? What even is the point of Alif? Honestly, as a character, he is outshone by most of the cast. In a lot of respects, he’s kind of slow-witted and he doesn’t think too hard, and stuff is just kind of handed to him by happenstance. Dina is a dynamic character who is shackled to Alif because of maincharacteritis, when her problems and struggles are so much more interesting. Her perspective would be original and provoking, her struggles as a woman trying to actualize in a culture that is more strict re: women as actors than in the west would be much more engaging as there would be more odds stacked against her. Another thing is that she rarely doubts the Quran, and that perspective would be interesting to read about.

It would have been a very different, and probably both more fun and more weighty, if Dina the hacker had either friendship troubles or lover troubles—queer Muslim women exist!—with Intisar, provoking her to write a program with disastrous results…

If Dina had not been written with such care, I might not be saying this. But it feels like Wilson copped out: she wanted to write a strong niqabi woman, but she didn’t want to go all the way and make her the main character. (Maybe because fantasy often feels like a male power ghetto.) Alif seems like a safe insert for the reader, but he comes across as unworthy and a tedious when we could be in the head of someone better integrated into the world. Alif surfs by on male privilege, and only gradually becomes aware that Dina is a person through the book… and when he becomes interested in her, she is put on a pedestal and stops acting so boldly.

This is problematic. Also problematic: the cat jinn has sex with Alif for no sensible reason and then barely shows up for most of the book. Her brother is a vital character, and she for the most part isn’t. Intisar is just a cliché of cold princess on a pedestal; she has no depth or character development. Dina’s verve only comes out when she’s standing up for Alif. There’s a very conservative tone that runs through that feels… not thought about, even though Wilson is a woman and should be thinking about these things, in my opinion. Women as accessories with few motivations of their own irritate me. We don’t need more of them in fiction. Especially fantasy.

I couldn’t put Alif the Unseen down; I tore through it. But for all its wonderful trappings, on reflection Alif the Unseen feels safe, tame and empty. I’d still recommend it, but it’s very … genre. The stuff that’s original is really good: jinn, magic books, metaphor, programming. I only wish the structure held up the trappings better.