Set in presumably the near future in an unnamed Arabian city (known only as “the City” but evoking modern day Cairo), Alif the Unseen is the story of a young man of mixed Arab-Indian ancestry who is a hacker for hire. He’s good at what he does; very, very good.
At the onset of the story, Alif has already made a mistake that will imperil his life and the lives of those around him: he has fallen in love with a young woman far above his social standing. When they first “meet” in a digital forum that denounces the emir and his government, Alif knew Intisar was well born, due to her proper way of speaking and the elegance of her critique of both the government and the arguments against it. But it wasn’t until they meet that he realizes how beautiful she is, and it is not long before they pledge themselves to each other, in the form of an internet marriage certificate and the consummation of their relationship.
So very quickly, though, reality breaks up this nice little fairy tale, setting into motion three very major developments in Alif’s life: the loss of his dreams, his creating a software program as a reaction against being spurned and the acute attention this program brings to him, and the acquisition of a mysterious book, the Alf Yeom, which interfaces his life with the hidden world of the mystical jinn.
It is not long before the ties that bind the magical, the mundane, the sacred and the technological all become manifest in the struggle between the maniacal powers bent at building an unassailable fortress of information technology aimed at domination of life as we know it, and the irrepressible force of one inspired soul with the skill – and the faith – to forge the key which may unleash the processes capable of bringing that fortress down.
Yet Alif the Unseen is much more than a race to build the perfect technological weapon. Its main strength lies in how the unassuming, somewhat unremarkable, often unobservant and occasionally downright jerk-faced individual can still be decent enough, accessible enough, thankful enough and responsive enough to realize that they don’t know everything and therefore needs to learn from anything that is available, whether that be magical, faith based, mechanical, technological or just plain common sense. It’s this realization that there are so many factors in Alif’s life – many of which are hidden in plain sight – that he needs to recognize and truly see in order to learn and grow that is the most satisfying aspect of this story.
G Willow Wilson does a masterful job of bringing many disparate factors into Alif’s unfolding realization. From his next door neighbor, Dina, who chooses against all modern factors to veil herself and follow a staunchly devout personal journey, to the American known only as “the convert” who brings knowledge of the Alf Yeom and its potential, from the delightfully sacrilegious jinn known as Vikram the Vampire to the gentle, pious imam Sheikh Bilal who is inadvertently caught up in the struggle yet refuses to leave it, each brings strange yet compelling insight into personal truth and inner strength.
In the end, the question becomes not who will win, but what will be lost and what will be found in the struggle. Will the fight be worth the price? Will what is uncovered enlighten us, or merely plunge us deeper into confusion and despair? And perhaps most importantly, what do we learn about ourselves when we gather the courage to cease to be hidden, and brave enough to open our eyes to truly see that which before has been safely unseen? Alif the Unseen is a wonderfully entertaining exploration of all these questions, and a stirring, often humorous, and deeply satisfying story as well.