Alif the Unseen is an unusual mixture, to me, of modern technology and politics with magic and legend. Set in an authoritarian Middle Eastern regime it tells the tale of Alif, a computer-programming prodigy. Alif is a grey hat, protecting a virtual community of programmers, hackers and bloggers from government censure. His ability to code keeps him and his clients one step ahead of the grasping ‘Hand’ as it searches out unacceptable online opinion. But Alif’s illicit relationship with a wealthy young woman, Intisar, puts him in greater danger than either of them could have imagined. When Intisar’s family arrange a marriage for her she breaks it off with Alif, but entrusts him with an ancient book. As parting gifts go, it is not a particularly welcome one.
The book that Alif must guard is called the Alf Yeom, or the 1001 Days. Full of jinn knowledge, humans have for centuries attempted to understand the meaning of the stories within, convinced they will reveal new power. The stories are imbued with layers of meaning, wrapped up within metaphors that have kept scholars baffled. Alif must make sense of them; it is not only his own safety that is at stake anymore. The Hand is tightening its grip around the whole country.
Fortunately for Alif he has the calm and strong Dina, his next-door neighbour and childhood friend, at his side. Her unflappable nature, rooted in faith and tradition, are invaluable in the difficult trials ahead. He also has a network of fellow grey hats, a wondrous cat and Vikram the Vampire. Vikram is widely considered the most powerful thug around, capable of unimaginable violence and almost impossible to look at directly. Unsurprisingly he is not actually human, but jinn. Remarkably, Alif gains his sympathy. Vikram is a force of nature, but also capable of humour. There is a funny skit on the ‘these are not the droids you are looking for’ that made me chuckle. Alif’s alliance with Vikram forces him to confront the truth about the unseen world. Reeling with new knowledge Alif is in danger of crossing forbidden boundaries in his attempt to save the world.
There is an interesting interview with the author here. The story was written in the year and a half before the Arab Spring uprisings; Wilson has really tapped in to the sense of unrest and dissatisfaction that was obviously brewing. I love the way she mixes this real and important stuff with magic and a dash of superhero style. I also enjoyed all the technology chat too, despite being non-techie myself. The way data is created, interpreted and transformed is described beautifully, and has implications far beyond computer code. Information and knowledge are not static, nor necessarily straightforward to understand. Meaning must be carefully unpicked. But, the old cannot be thrown out thoughtlessly; tradition and history are vital components of understanding.
I got totally caught up in the world created in Alif the Unseen. It has a hard edge to it; suffering and death are not glossed over. It also has a beauty to it in the potential of the human spirit and the hope of a freedom to come.