Every once in a while a fiction writer just happens to anticipate real-world events, giving his or her imagined narrative special poignancy.
That’s the case with former Boulder resident G. Willow Wilson’s debut novel “Alif the Unseen” (her fascinating memoir of converting to Islam was published in 2010). The novel was delivered in February 2011, on the razor-edged cusp of the so-called Arab Spring, giving it an “eerie prescience,” according to one editor at Grove Press.
But if this were just one more politically tinged tome, it would probably suffer the fate of an unfortunate genie, stuck in a bottle with little chance of future escape. Its time would be as fleeting as the initial promise of the uprisings in the Middle East.
Thankfully, “Alif the Unseen” is much more than a political novel. There are politics, but if anything, they form a kind of canvas on which Wilson has painted her much more enduring tale.
Like Neil Gaiman, she has deftly blended the magical and modern in a story that argues for the importance of story — and the kind of belief that lies beyond the shallows of superstition. It’s a satisfying modern tale inhabited by those desert daemons or spirits known as djinn.
The half-Indian Alif is in fact the nom de computer of a young man living in an unnamed Persian Gulf nation governed by wealthy, no doubt oil-soaked autocrats. But he is a kind of 21st century freedom fighter, hosting what he thinks of as the “digital peasantry,” whether they are peddling ferocious Islam, socialism or raucous sexual imagery (as popular in the Islamic world, apparently, as anywhere else).
He’s also a human window into a world that is as alien as Mars or Venus to many Americans. He and his friends curse up a storm and he thinks constantly about girls. In other words, he’s nothing like the seething, bearded terrorists so often imagined by middle Americans when they think “Middle East.” Alif’s got a poster of Robert Smith on his wall, for Allah’s sake! And how many Americans knew that Lebanese pop stars got away with thinly veiled — sorry — metaphors such as “the intense longing of the peach for the banana.” The novel is laced with such wry humor.
But when Alif almost miraculously creates a “botnet” that can identify the girl he loves, no matter what device she’s using — via keystroke style, vocabulary and other means — he suddenly finds himself the subject of dangerous scrutiny by a government that would love to have such a tool in its hands, to fight agitators. And it just so happens that the girl he loves, Intisar — they had been intimate, courtesy of a mail-order “marriage certificate,” but she rejected him because of his mother’s non-Arab blood — is betrothed to a nobleman who goes by the online moniker the Hand of God. He’s at the forefront of the official effort to take down any and all Internet rebels.
And so Alif must go on the run with his neighbor, an extremely likable young woman named Dina, who just happens to be a deeply devout Muslim who has “taken the veil.”
But they are not quite alone. They’ve received a mysterious gift: an ancient text called “The Thousand and One Days,” which may or may not have been created by djinn and may contain an entirely new computer technology… based on metaphor. They also have the help of the enigmatic Vikram the Vampire… who may or may not be anything more than a shady character.
Wilson’s debut is a rollicking adventure along the lines of the “new young adult” craze. Think Gaiman, Colorado’s own Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother” — with an edgier vocabulary: plenty of F-bombs and even a C-bomb. At heart, it is a descendant of Tolkien, a story of “little people” rising up to fight a kind of Dark Lord, with a rewarding multi-cultural bent.
But as much as the novel argues for the importance of story, Wilson has given us much more than that. She’s got a lot of things on her mind. Particularly moving is the idea that we are losing our way spiritually, even as the world seems to be receding into religiosity; Wilson’s view of Islam seems deeply influenced by Sufism.
Says one djinn, “Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out.”
Wilson is young enough to fully embrace technology as if there is no downside. Of course, those older than Alif might have a different take — in our world… ahem… and theirs — and the djinn themselves are a welcome throwback to what some may see as a simpler time.
“Alif the Unseen” is a prodigious plunge into fantastical worlds — of both the djinn and modern Arab youth — that shouldn’t scare off “non fantasy” readers. Simply put, it’s a lot of fun, and offers plenty to think about.
‘Alif the Unseen’ by G. Willow Wilson. Grove, 320 pp. $25.