The Perfect Techno-Thriller/Urban Fantasy Mashup (For Teenagers) – A Review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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As I type this, it has been two days since the draconian Cybercrime Law was passed in the Philippines. I say “draconian” rightfully, specifically where it concerns the concept of libel and the punishment thereof, which include time spent in prison and an exorbitant bail fee just because someone could take a tweet or a Facebook comment or a blog post out of context and have one arrested for “malicious intent.” Filipinos, as a rule, do not take to this sort of thing kindly, since we have had a long history of being colonized and oppressed, and so have reacted very badly to the passing of this law (which was done with unseemly haste). This attempt to control freedom of speech on the Internet, what many consider the ultimate platform for freedom of speech anywhere, has been met with so much condemnation that many of the Senators who let the law pass have now been forced to find ways to amend it, justifiably fearing that they will find themselves without a job when elections come around.

The question of controlling the Internet is nothing new, and has proven challenging and problematic in many ways, particularly for regimes and governments that like having a tight control over their citizenry. They are aware, as a lot of people are aware, of the power the Internet possesses when it comes to information and opinion: how it can be used (often for free) to create or crush support for one cause or another. Nowhere was this more visible than in the Arab Spring movement, in particular the events of Tahrir Square in Egypt back in the early months of 2011. Atrocities were recorded and then broadcast the world over via YouTube; photographs were taken and posted on Facebook; 140-character news updates went out via Twitter. The government tried to slow things down by shutting down the Internet, but that just made things worse until it went back online; by then it was too late for the government. While it’s true that it wasn’t the Internet alone that contributed to the revolution, it certainly gave it a very large boost by allowing people to freely share and discuss their ideas, and share them with the world.

Alif the Unseen is set in a very similar world: an unnamed emirate on the coast, with a stranglehold on freedom of speech and an Internet surveillance system that has, so far, kept the malcontents underground. That does not mean, though, that there aren’t people who are trying to get around that, and one of them is Alif: half-South Asian, half-Arab, who spends most of his time helping fellow subversives get around the government’s system. He doesn’t have any particular political loyalties; he’ll help anyone who has a bone to pick with the government. In the meantime, he’s in a forbidden relationship with a noblewoman named Intisar. One day, Intisar is betrothed to someone else, and sends him a book called the Alf Yeom, along with a message telling him that she’s pretty much breaking it off with him. The problem is, the Alf Yeom is no ordinary book, and it makes Alif and his friends a target for the man who will stop at nothing until he takes the Alf Yeom and turns it to his own nefarious purposes.

From that premise it’s easy to think that Alif the Unseen is a techno-thriller in the same vein as Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon: hacker versus hacker, the Internet their own personal battlefield. Except that’s not the case, because there’s the element of the Alf Yeom, which isn’t quite a normal book. At this point the reader, like Alif, stumbles across a world that exists right alongside ours, except it is one we deny on a regular basis. For the Alf Yeom is a book of tales, but one told by the jinn, and as such, they have a stake in this whole thing. This is where Alif the Unseen becomes a unique creature: a blend of techno-thriller and urban fantasy.

One thing that will immediately strike the reader is Alif himself. He starts out as a sad, sullen young man, and is not exactly the best example of his kind. It’s easy to see that his obsession with Intisar is not the healthiest thing ever, and that it can only lead to heartbreak. But he does grow out of it eventually – especially after certain events in the second third of the novel force him to grow up. He is, however, rather predictable and colorless as a character unto himself. He doesn’t have any notable, standout qualities, though as a foil for the reader he is extremely successful. He occupies a safe middle ground, which is rather unfortunate since I rather enjoy truly standout characters like Julia from Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series, or Locke from Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series – characters who are not only excellent foils for the reader, but also fun on their own.

Fortunately, the characters around Alif make for much better reading. Intisar isn’t all that interesting, but Dina, Alif’s neighbor, is. She’s got lots of steel in her spine and is very intelligent, despite being very traditional in the practice of her religion – and in many ways, it is this very firm grounding in her belief that she draws much of her personal strength. She reminds me a lot of Oe Kanade from the manga/anime Chihayafuru, who is extremely traditional and yet finds strength in those traditions. Dina shows that, contrary to Westerners’ sweeping generalization that Islam is oppressive towards women, such oppression is usually the fault of the men enforcing the religion, and not the religion itself, which most women find reassuring and even well-suited for protecting themselves from the unwanted attention of men.

Sheikh Bilal is also another interesting character, and equally important in shattering generalizations and assumptions a Western reader may have regarding Islam. Bilal is the imam of the oldest mosque in the City, and presents an incredible level of wisdom and tolerance that he also attributes to the practice of his faith. He and Alif, and later on he and Vikram the Vampire, have some very fascinating conversations that reveal the wisdom of Islam – wisdom that most people tend to overlook entirely because of the bad press Islam has received in the Western world thanks to extremists. Particularly memorable is Bilal’s discussion regarding the nature of the Quran – indeed, of the written word and its relationship to reality – that is difficult to summarize in a few words, but which any reader and lover of books will find incredibly fascinating.

In fact, it is these philosophical conversations, scattered at various points throughout the novel, that are the most enjoyable part about this whole book – on top of the thrilling plot, of course, because this novel as got a pretty rip-roaring storyline going for it. The conversations, however, reveal insight into the practice of Islam and its views on literature as a whole. Islam has a great deal of respect for books, mostly because it respects the permanence of the written word – and the power the written word has to give form to that which is otherwise ethereal and ephemeral. Many of the conversations and a significant amount of the plot revolve around the dichotomies of the ephemerality of thought and the solidity of written language, of the unchanging Word versus the shifting interpretations of it thereof. This is very much like Islam’s relationship with the Quran: the Word is unchanging, but its interpretations, both across space and over time, shift like mirages in the desert.

Where does cryptography come into this? Much of cryptography is about symbols and symbolized: code and language are the same in that they make use of symbols to pull otherwise-ephemeral thought and ideas out into the solid reality of the world. When one throws computers into the mix, and the Internet too, well, things get even more complicated because in that one moment one gains a glimpse into the modern crypto-wars currently being fought in cyberspace. Through Alif, the philosophical discussions scattered throughout the book find their practical application in the real world, as Alif uses the Alf Yeom to create something monstrous – and something magnificent, too.

All of this is well and good of course (not least Dina, who is an exceedingly lovable female character, and the ideas scattered throughout the book), but I find the novel isn’t quite as meaty as I would have liked it. It moves along at a fast-enough clip, and the characters are interesting enough to hold my attention, but I can’t help but think that this novel was written for a somewhat-younger audience than myself. it has depth, yes, but it’s not quite deep enough for me. To be sure, I’m glad that it’s not as brain-melting as Neal Stephenson’s creations, but I do wish it was just a bit more layered, a bit more nuanced, than what it is.

Overall, Alif the Unseen is an enjoyable novel: Alif might not be the most intriguing character, but everybody else is, and the reader can opt to focus more on them than on Alif. There are also some rich ideas embedded throughout the text, brought up by the characters themselves in conversation, and it is these gems that make this novel worth reading in the first place. The only problem is that the novel itself doesn’t have quite as much depth as I hoped it would have; it goes by a bit too quickly, and while it does challenge one’s thinking, it went down a little too easily for my taste. I think it would be a pretty satisfying read for a teenager, though – certainly it’s miles and miles better than anything available on the YA shelves nowadays, barring a very few select reads.

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