Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

alif other cover

Alif the Unseen is what it says in the title: unseen.  Just a description of the titular protagonist is something that’s uncommon in genre fiction: a Muslim living in a modern day (though unnamed) Middle Eastern country.  Such settings and characters are far too rare, especially in fantasy/science fiction literature.

To the outside world, Alif is a layabout, even a loser.  He’s (probably) in his 20s, though his age is never named, and he spends most of his days shut up in his room.  His mother presses him to get “a real job,” so he can be a more attractive prospect for marriage.  What Alif actually does in his room is grander than his mother realizes.  Alif is a hacker.  It’s his specialty to get around the restrictions put on the Internet by the government.  His clientele ranges from Islamists to anarchists; Alif will help anyone hide from the prying eyes of the restrictive state.

alif the unseen coverOne day when working on a personal project, Alif goes too far.  He was always on the government’s radar, but now he’s created something they want.  He has to go on the run, and his female neighbor and childhood friend Dina gets pulled along with him.

What was up until now a cyberpunk story becomes an urban fantasy, as Alif elicits help from the only beings who might have the power to protect him from the state: his (not so friendly) neighborhood jinn.  Alif’s gotten his hands on a text that’s almost sacred to them, and it just so happens that’s the book the government’s chief cyber security officer wants as well.

All of the elements of the story — the fantasy, the technology, the political thriller, the religious musings, the post-Arab Spring hopeful speculation — are woven spectacularly into one novel.  There are so many varied parts and themes and genres that it should feel choppy, but it’s not.  Alif the Unseen is many things at once, but it’s also one simple thing: a real page turner.  I devoured the book in three days, and it only took me that long because I put off reading a bit toward the end so it would last longer.

Alif is author G. Willow Wilson’s first fiction novel.  Before, she wrote graphic novels, some in worlds of her own creation, others in the DC mythos.  Wilson is an American who converted to Islam in college, and subsequently moved to Cairo.  Those who want to know more about her should read her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque.  I only really started wondering about the author, however, when I got to the character of the convert.

The convert is yet another figure who gets caught up in Alif’s mess.  We know little about her background: just that she is a blue-eyed American who converted to Islam, and is now attending university in Alif’s city.  She studies Middle Eastern literature and works in the manuscript dating lab, which is how she meets Alif, but she spends much of her time defending herself against Alif’s skepticism.  It’s hard not to wonder if, particularly in these scenes, the convert isn’t acting as a stand-in or mouthpiece for Wilson.

G. Willow Wilson

G. Willow Wilson

I also mention the convert because she’s the most fleshed out of Alif’s female characters.  I thought a lot about Wilson when reading and struggling with one thing: no matter how much I liked the story, parts of it irked the feminist in me.  I understand that perhaps in order to be genuine to its setting, the book has to have exchanges like Alif telling his neighbor that she’s as smart as a man (though that could be inaccurate as well; it’s hard to tell because the story is set in a fictional country).  What I really struggled with was how much of a creeper Alif could be.

Much of Alif’s early motivation in the story revolves around a recent breakup: his girlfriend, whom he met online, is being forced into an arranged marriage, and she breaks up with him.  In response, Alif takes the sheets on which they first had sex, which he’s kept in a box in his closet (ew), sniffs them (EW), and sends them to her house (UGH).  Then, because she said she doesn’t want to hear from him, he uses the backdoor he left himself into her personal computer when clearing it of viruses (creepy), to create a program that will prevent her from ever seeing or finding anything about him online (creepier), though of course he’ll still be able to cyber-stalk her, reading anything as slight as the shortest instant message she sends to someone (creepiest).

I’d defend the character choices Wilson makes, if only Alif’s actions were made out to be wrong.  He comes to severely regret the computer program he creates, but only because it leads the government right to him, causing the primary conflict of the novel.  Alif never regrets what he did as wrong, aside from how it wasn’t practicing good cyber security.

Alif’s actions could still be condemned by the story even if they aren’t done so in the story, except I’m not even convinced that much happens.  Toward the end of the novel, Alif conveniently switches his feelings from his ex to his neighbor.  He has one of those super-cliché moments when he realizes that it’s really her he cared for all along.

When I read that part, I had a real double-take, cue-the-cartoonish-screeching-tires sound effect moment. It’s just: Really?!  You spent this whole book consumed with girl #1 (who’s either up on a pedestal or demonized, depending on how Alif is feeling that day), and the moment she betrays you, you immediately see girl #2 in a different light.  Of course he gets her in the end, because he’s the hero and that’s the way it’s done; that’s what he deserves.

alif another coverI am so sick of representations of creepy men in genre fiction.  It may be a perfectly legitimate characterization, and maybe we’re never supposed to think that what Alif is doing is O.K., but the fact that we have yet another male character like this only further normalizes such repulsive behavior.

I caught myself wondering about Wilson the most not in relation to her religion and how that plays out in the character of the convert, but in her femininity.  I was disappointed that a woman would write a male character the way she’s written Alif, and that made me wonder: do I believe that female authors have a greater responsibility to write feminist-positive stories?  I’m not saying that all their protagonists must be female, but in my disappointment, is there a part of me that expects female authors to know better than to contribute to problematic representations of men?  Is that fair?

It might not be.  But that doesn’t mean I should hand-wave Alif’s actions.  He never once realizes or admits that his stalking of his ex is wrong, and at the end of the novel he’s rewarded for his heroism with a female character that was actually kind of cool (though, as I said before, the convert is the best-realized female character).  At the end of the day, that message is that it was O.K. for Alif to treat women the way that he did.  He’s still a romantic hero.

Now, I’ve just spent half of the review arguing against the story, or at least arguing against the enjoyment of some of it.  That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth a read, merely that it’s not a perfect novel.  The story is rife with things to discuss, some of them positive, some negative.  Everything I said at the beginning is still true: Alif the Unseen is a gripping, engaging book.  It stands out in its field for both its setting and its characters, but also for its deft handling of multiple genres.  If you’re a fantasy or cyberpunk fan, it’s a must read.