The worlds of high-tech cyberwarriors and that of ancient spirits seem at first glance unlikely bedfellows. After all cyberpunk as a literary genre is one which generally tends to eschew the supernatural in favour of the power of technology. Man’s intellect obviates the need for angels and demons, relegating our myths and legends to the back alleys of the modern world. G. Willow Wilson’s Alif The Unseen seeks to broker a peace between the two traditions, spinning a tale that weaves constantly between the motherboard and the otherworld and in doing so creates a new genre out of whole cloth.
Alif The Unseen takes as its base an imaginary yet entirely believable Middle-Eastern enclave known simply as The City, capital of an unnamed oil Sultanate. The City is strictly demarcated into economic zones, the huddled masses kept safely away from royalty and those grown fat on black gold. The titular Alif belongs in the former, spending his days huddled in his cramped room with his computers as his only friends. A talented hacker, Alif earns himself some spending money by offering online protection and anonymity to his clients around the world, a motley crew of porn barons, gamblers and activists. Chief among his concerns his evading the grasp of ‘The Hand’, another techno-wizard recently employed by the city’s rulers to crack down on online dissidents and their enablers. Alif’s comrades-in-arms engage the hand in cyberwarfare on a daily basis, an ever-escalating arms race for digital superiority.
Beyond the glare of the screen Alif was until recently besotted by the daughter of one of the city’s privileged elite, eagerly pursuing her despite their economic disparities. Eventually reality takes its toll and she breaks off their furtive relationship, spurring Alif to create a program which will detect her online presence via no more than the manner of her typing. Its noble purpose is an early warning system, to erase his tracks from her sight and spare her the heartache of any online reminders. Alif does not suspect that it’s about to turn his world upside down.
What follows next is a wonderful act of genre-mashing as Alif receives a gift from his former love – a book known as the Alf Yeom, an ancient, magical tome allegedly penned by the djinn themselves. Before he knows what is happening, Alif and his childhood friend Dina are being pursued through the city, aided and abetted by djinn and humans alike. The Hand turns his warning program into a weapon against the city’s digital rebels and pours all his resources into acquiring the Alf Yeom for himself.
Alif The Unseen manages to splice the two worlds together seamlessly with Wilson drawing on an extensive knowledge of Arabic lore as well as modern technology to infuse her tale with a surprising level of authenticity. The influences at play are numerous and eclectic, drawing on the writings of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, Islamic legends and even movies. The character of Alif seems remarkably like a more streetwise at Neo at times,while the bazaar scenes in the invisible world of the djinn sent my mind straight to the secret market of Del Toro’s Hellboy movies.
Despite drawing on such numerous sources, Alif The Unseen successfully forges and retains its own identity throughout – the book is unmistakably Wilson’s own and its unique flavour is one of the key attractions. Unlike Alif, whose skepticism initially prevents him from accepting the reality of his new circumstances, the reader is instantly drawn in. You don’t question for a second that an archaic, mystical text can somehow hold the key to insanely powerful computing. It simply does, and Wilson ensures that you’re entirely at ease with this fact. The supernatural powers of the djinn contrast well with the cyberpowers of Alif and his adversary, while the unrest in the background recalls the recent events of the ‘Arab Spring’, giving the book a very real grounding in the contemporary world.
It’s difficult to envisage any sci-fi/fantasy reader who wouldn’t find something to enjoy here. If technology isn’t your thing then focus on the djinn, and vice versa. In the meantime there’s an old-fashioned thriller story happening behind the scenes with just enough splashes of comedy and romantic interest to relieve the tension. For those with a passing interest in the history and culture of the Gulf states there is even more enjoyment to be had, though it is by no means a prerequisite to enjoying the book. Above all it’s worth picking up just to see how two such disparate threads can be combined such that their union seems the most natural thing in the world.