G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen starts as a thriller about an eponymous computer hacker who specializes in hiding dissidents from the digital eyes of the State’s security apparatus. But then things get more than a little weird after Alif received a book from his former girlfriend. The book is very old, and tells the story of The Thousand and One Days–the jinn version of The Thousand and One Nights. The original author, and many others since, think that the book contains hidden knowledge and unbelievable power. Mostly, the book just makes Alif’s life a misery.
The City–never named–lies on the Persian Gulf. Like many of the real emirates on the Gulf, the City was forced to jump from the pre-industrial world to the modern world in a hurry. It has a lot of oil, which has made the royals and aristocrats very wealthy (but no one else). There are migrant workers from south Asia and poor natives who make up the rest of the population. There are communists and Islamicists and free speech activists constantly protesting online about the death grip State security has on the Internet in the City, and about the secret prisons and brutal methods used by the security people. Alif isn’t a dissident himself, instead he makes his money by hiding actual dissidents. His small life is moving along pleasantly enough until his girlfriend, the rich Intisar, breaks up with him and announces that her father has made a match for her. She asks him, somewhat hyperbolicly, to hide himself from her online as will as in real life. Alif, being a talented coder, actually tries to create a code that will recognize Intisar online and cloak his presence. He succeeds in creating a program that works, even though everything he knows about computers tells him that it shouldn’t work. And then, Alif gets hacked by a member of State security known only as the Hand of God and Intisar sends him her copy of The Thousand and One Days, the Alf Yeom.
This is were the book starts to get really good, because the story changes from a thriller to something like you might see in the Thousand and One Nights. Alif, and his neighbor Dina (who really is just in the wrong place at the wrong time), go on the run from State security. The only one who might be willing to help them is a mysterious character known as Vikram the Vampire. Once they meet him, its clear that’s something very strange about Vikram. Alif and Dina have their entire view of the world rearranged, pretty much over night, as Vikram gives them a crash course in the unseen world of the jinn. After a spectacular fight at the mosque and an even more spectacular online duel, Alif is arrested and Dina escapes with Vikram into the Empty Quarter and the land of the jinn. It becomes apparent that the Alf Yeom is a tool that Alif can use to do quantum coding–though it might be more that it puts him in the right frame of mind rather than contains the secret itself in its stories.
This is far from the end of the book, because you have to know that Alif is going to find a way to get his revenge on the Hand of God. And the book has to be protected. And Alif has to be reunited with Dina, his true love. But I’m not going to talk about how it all works out because it would ruin the story. Alif the Unseen is worth all the hype its received. Wilson is amazing in the way she blends Arabic mythology and technology. There are parts in this book that are absolutely incandescent. I highly recommend it.