Arab-Indian hacktivist decants belief, genies in timely thriller
Seattle author G. Willow Wilson's "Alif the Unseen" is a sociopolitical thriller set in an unnamed Arab emirate where a computer "hacktivist" obtains an ancient book narrated by genies. Wilson (author of the memoir "The Butterfly Mosque") will discuss her new book July 6 at Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
G. Willow WilsonThe author will discuss "Alif the Unseen" at 7 p.m. Friday, July 6, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Unlike the 14th-century Persian mystic in the eerie opening chapter of her new novel, G. Willow Wilson doesn't need to conscript a genie to create a magical book.
The supernatural and sociopolitical thriller "Alif the Unseen" (Grove Press, 440 pp., $25) is timely literary alchemy, a smart, spirited swirl of current events and history; religion and mysticism; reality and myth; computer science and metaphysics. Wilson, author of "The Butterfly Mosque," about her conversion to Islam, and several graphic novels, divides her time between Seattle and Cairo. She has long had her finger on the pulse of an oppressed, Internet-savvy populace and conceived of "Alif" before the Arab Spring.
Our hero is a 23-year-old Arab-Indian hacker-for-hire in an unnamed oil-rich emirate who adopts the first letter of the Arabic alphabet as his handle. He "was not an ideologue; as far as he was concerned, anyone who could pay for his protection was entitled to it" — Islamists, feminists, Communists. "I don't work for anybody," he declares. "I work against the censors." Alif evolves from a young cynic with a chip on his shoulder reeling from a doomed love affair into a true hacktivist committed to wresting freedom from "a government terrified of its own people," regardless of the dangers.
Despite his brilliance with computers, Alif's opportunities are limited due to his mixed parentage. His homeland is "divided into three parts: old money, new money, and no money. ... One was either a nonresident of Somewhere-istan, sending the bulk of one's salary home to desperate relatives, or one was a scion of the oil boom."
It is also a place of stark man-made and natural beauty, where, after a sandstorm, "the skyscrapers of the New Quarter looked as though they had been built out of pearl and ash ... a natural extension of the great interior dunes."
Alif's world begins to expand beyond visible borders when he comes into possession of an ancient text, the "Alf Yeom," or "The Thousand and One Days." The inverse of the "Alf Layla" — "The Thousand and One Nights" — it was narrated by the jinn (genies in Arabic) and is purported to hold "secret knowledge disguised as stories."
Wilson enchantingly creates the parallel universe of the jinn, living among us but unseen by most "children of Adam." Jinn, both benevolent and demonic, present themselves in various forms: as floating shadows, as flames, as pointy-toothed human-animal hybrids and, yes, as smoke that can be bottled. Entering the realm of the jinn, Alif "was assaulted by the scent of ozone, and a static charge rippled over his skin, causing the hair on his arms to stand on end ... The ozone smell seeped into his nostrils, his mouth, the pores of his skin, until he felt he would dissolve in it, becoming a cloud of stratospheric particles ... When he blinked again he was standing on a shoal of stardust."
"Alif the Unseen" is populated by memorable characters, both human and jinn. There is Dina, Alif's devout, veiled and spunky neighbor; Sheikh Bilal, a wise, kindly imam; NewQuarter01, a rebel prince who totals his BMW in a heroic act; and Vikram, a shape-shifting, yellow-eyed jester jinn.
A jinn who comes to Alif's aid says that humans "have unlearned the hidden half of the world ... Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out. ... "
"Alif the Unseen" richly rewards believers in the power of the written word.
Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi is a desk editor at The Seattle Times.