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G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

As rapid response vehicles novels aren’t much chop. Their length alone means that no matter how fast a writer produces words events that are current when a book is begun have a depressing tendency to be old hat a year or eighteen months later when it finally hits the shelves.

It’s a problem G. Willow Wilson’s quixotic fusion of hacker culture and Arab folklore, Alif the Unseen, leapfrogs over wholesale. Written in 2010 and delivered to her publishers early last year it uncannily anticipates not just the hope and heartbreak and tumult of the Arab Spring that unfolded soon afterward, it explicitly foreshadows the role technology would play in spreading and sustaining dissent.

Set in an unnamed Arab state, the novel centres on a young man known – at least until the book’s final pages – only by his online handle, “Alif”, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. A hacker, or grey hat, Alif is not committed to any particular cause, instead helping maintain online presences for groups from across the political and religious spectrum that would otherwise be closed down by State Security (or “State”, as Alif and his friends know it).

It’s a precarious existence, but when Alif accidentally unleashes a program designed to identify anyone connected to the net by the quality of their fingerstrokes he hands State the ultimate weapon, placing not just his clients but he and his friends in great peril.

Until this point one might be forgiven for thinking the novel is really little more than a nicely crafted YA thriller with Arabic flourishes. But it’s at about this point Wilson knocks things improbably off course. For, forced to flee, Alif and his friend Dina seek help from a shadowy figure known as Vikram the Vampire, only to discover their new protector is not human but a jinn, complete with backward bending limbs, yellow eyes and darkling magic powers. And, as if that were not enough, that a book they have been carrying is not merely another version of the Arabian Nights, but a lost translation of the Alf Yeom, or The Thousand and One Days, a Djinn book of tales that medieval scholars believed held mystical powers and which, it now seems, is capable of providing the foundation for “a new coding methodology, a sort of supercomputer built out of metaphors,” capable not just of helping Alif and Dina elude State, but of bringing down State’s security apparatus once and for all.

There’s nothing new about this sort of magical retrofitting of reality, of course, even if the Arabic twist makes it seem fresher than it often does. Yet Wilson is trying to do more than True Blood in Tripoli. For as becomes increasingly clear as the book proceeds, Alif the Unseen is as much Narnia as Neuromancer, the world of the Djinns and the Alf Yeom and its metaphor-based supercomputer a counter not just to the mechanical algorithms of conventional computers, but to the repressive rationality of the Enlightenment and, more particularly, the strand of narrowness and literalness that runs through many Muslim cultures. As one of the jinn in a hidden alley observes at one point, “superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out.”

This explicitly religious subtext is interesting, not least because despite its desire to re-enchant the world most fantasy is basically secular: there might be gods but there isn’t a lot of God. Yet it also lends the debate about the power of stories that runs through the novel a curious and slightly unsettling charge. For even when one remembers that Alif the Unseen is precisely the kind of impious book Dina is describing, it is difficult not to feel Dina is addressing the reader (and indeed the noted atheist, Phillip Pullman) as much as she is Alif when she berates him for his lack of faith by saying, “You lent me The Golden Compass! It’s full of jinni trickery, and you were angry at me when I told you that made it dangerous! Why do you get mad when religion tells you that the things you want to be true are true?”

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 August 2012.

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