G. Willow Wilson's "Alif the Unseen"
June 09, 2012
I still remember how I felt when I first read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in college. Its blending of internet imagination and ancient Sumer, the power of text and the power of code, felt as though it had been written just for me. I felt the same way reading G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen.
I've written here about Wilson's work before -- her graphic novel Cairo; her beautiful memoir of choosing Islam and living in Egypt, The Butterfly Mosque -- and given how much I enjoyed both of those, I knew I was going to like this one. But I didn't know how much. (A lot.)
Alif the Unseen interweaves a story about jinn, and about the power of stories, into a story about a young man who's chosen the nom-de-internet Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. Alif is a "grey hat" hacker who offers his services to those whose online speech is otherwise in danger, whether they be Islamists, dissidents, or pornographers.
I don't want to spoil the book for you -- its twists and turns are so delicious! -- but Alif's programming choices get him into trouble with the dangerous government figure known colloquially as the Hand of God. He and a childhood friend wind up on the run. And his world turns out to be much bigger than he, and likely also the reader, imagined.
As I read, I kept marveling at places of intersection between Willow's religious tradition and mine; the notion that angels are like computers, e.g., devoid of free will. Or the sense that the holy language in which scripture was revealed has its own kind of power, and that the words of holy text are uniquely rich because they contain endless unfolding meaning.
Of course, I'm a religion geek and a rabbi with a longstanding interest in the places where Islam and Judaism mesh; it stands to reason that I would dig that stuff. But I'm also a longtime lover of comics, a SF geek (there's a moment in the book where a jinn archly references the original Star Wars movie, which made me literally laugh aloud), and a denizen of a handful of different online worlds -- and this book works equally well for me on those levels, too.
Alif the Unseen is a gorgeous expression of the post-Arab-Spring world -- which is prescient, since (here's a quote from a post at Wilson's blog:)
The titular character is a hacktivist in an unnamed emirate who battles shadowy, oppressive state security forces using methods both digital and arcane. (There are jinn involved, and ancient texts that are supposed to be hoaxes but aren’t. And at least one car chase.) While I was writing, even I thought I was maybe overdoing it just a little, and assigning too much importance to hackers and internet junkies in the Middle East. But I was fresh off a visit to Cairo, where a group of guys I’d met through Twitter organized a signing for me at a bookstore that was packed to the gills. We talked about comics and politics and the media, and I walked away with my heart pounding, thinking “this is really going to work.” I wasn’t even sure what “this” was.
Five months later, those same kids were overthrowing the government. I finished Alif the Unseen just as Mubarak left office, Tunisia was under new management, and uprisings had begun in Libya and Syria, in what would come to be called the Arab Spring.
Anyway. If anything I've said here appeals to you, you will almost certainly dig this book, as I did. Get a copy, read it, and then feel free to come back here and tell me what you think! I had a blast reading it, and I can't wait to foist it on several friends, Ethan first among them. (Given that he just gave a talk entitled Cute cats and the Arab Spring, I think I can safely say that he's going to enjoy this.)
Still need more convincing? The first chapter of the book is available online: Excerpt, Alif the Unseen. Enjoy!