Sunday, July 6, 2014

Arab Springs Eternal: G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen

Author G. Willow Wilson (Photo by Amber French)

"They're marching together," said Alif, half to himself. "All the disaffected scum at once. I probably know a lot of them."
"We did this, akh. Computer geeks did this. We told these ruffians they could all have a voice, but they had to share the same virtual platform. And now that the virtual platform is gone--"
"They have to share the real world."
"In real life."

– G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

The classification of speculative fiction is self-consciously broad – including within it straight fantasy novels of the classic sort, hard and soft science fiction, alternate history, magical realism, and probably modes of storytelling still unimagined. And yet there is probably no book better suited for the label than G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen (Grove Press, 2012). Winner of the World Fantasy Award and the Woman's Prize for Fiction, both in 2013, the novel tells the story of Alif – a skilled young hacker of mixed Arab-Indian descent who is more at home online than on the streets of the unnamed Middle Eastern city of his birth. Our hero – his self-given name taken from the first letter in the Arabic alphabet, which is nothing but "a straight line—a wall," he tells us – is young, naive in the way only someone who lives primarily that unseen realm of cloud servers and 1s and 0s can be, a citizen of everywhere and nowhere... but mainly nowhere. Alif's relatively safe world in front of his keyboard explodes into the streets and beyond when the love of his life – a beguiling woman of means and status who he could never, except in the anonymous world of chat rooms and aliases, be with – puts an ancient book in his hands. Dark forces from all realms – some very human, and some very much not – want the book and Alif goes on the run, compelled to peer into the city's shadowy mystical history and even shadowier political realities.

Set against the background of the Arab Spring, Alif the Unseen weaves Muslim theology, contemporary political realities, and the unmoored life of a computer coder into a compelling modern fable that transcends its geographic and religious content. Wilson – an American-born convert to Islam – successfully mobilizes her own singular background with a simple talent for storytelling to create a novel that effortlessly crosses cultural and spiritual boundaries. A delightful and often horrifying mixture of legend, religion, history, and politics – including a genuinely affecting love story – Alif the Unseen is the kind of book you will be recommending to friends even before you finish reading it.

This is Wilson's debut novel (although not her first book – in 2010, she published The Butterfly Mosque, a memoir of her conversion to Islam and her time living in Egypt), and it is masterful in a way that often only first novels can be. (Last year saw another remarkable example of this, with Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni, which, now that I think of it, would make a perfect companion piece to Wilson's novel.) Lurking behind every astounding first novel is often years of diligent and creative work, and here it is no different – though Wilson plies her trade mainly in the world of comic books. After her first graphic novel, Cairo (Vertigo, 2007) earned her some acclaim, her ambitious first continuing comic series, Air (also from Vertigo), was nominated for the Eisner Award in 2009. But it is perhaps for this year's much anticipated reboot of Marvel's Ms. Marvel character that Wilson has gotten the most press. Debuting in February, and now in its third issue, Wilson's Ms. Marvel – whose teenage Pakistani-American superhero is the first Muslim character to headline her own series for Marvel – returns Wilson to her home territory of New Jersey, and has already touched on many of the same themes of her novel, including feelings of social alienation and the challenges of living with faith and tradition in a modern world.

Alif the Unseen is unique is so many ways, testimony perhaps to Wilson's particular background. Mixing fantasy and religion is not uncommon in fantasy literature – see C.S. Lewis' Narnia books and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series and all points in between – but few have conveyed the history and reality of that faith as seriously as Wilson does here. She doesn't simply mine the deep past for folklore and myth but effectively incorporates those stories into the lives of the people within whom those stories still live. The reduction of religion to legend and superstition, and of faith to simply stubborn belief in an invisible world, is the risk run by every story that takes its inspiration of the long and various human traditions of religious legend and the occult. Where Alif stands out in its ability to keep the spiritual core of religious faith – in this case, Muslim – separate from the magical realm of unseen beings Alif encounters. Alif and the novel's other characters' journeys to and from faith and practice are as genuine and substantial as anyone's would be, even without commerce with demons or beings like the djinn, effrit, or marid. (We find, for example, not only that that there is a mosque in the djinns' invisible neighbourhood, the so-called Empty Quarter, but ultimately as much diversity in the faith of those born of fire as there is among those of us born of mud. ) Religion and faith aren't merely props used to tell a fantastic story but are fundamental parts of that world and its inhabitants. In short, it is a world in which faith and religion mean something; more than just a mode of dress, or a politics, or an identity, religion here is revealed as something that brings weight and substance to one's life. ("Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions," an imam tells Alif at one point. "You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.") Whereas many fantasy stories, either consciously or unconsciously, reduce the truth of religion to the reality of unseen things – ultimately magic and faith become interchangeable – in Alif the Unseen religious life is as messy and intimate and profound and frustrating as it is in the real world. (Look no further than Wilson's ostensible proxy in the novel, a woman which the book and all of its characters refer to only as "the convert" – her real name far less important than her eminently visible status as "American" and outsider. The convert's sincerity is never in question but her status remains nonetheless unstable in the real world of the City, as in the fantastic realm of the Empty Quarter among the djinn, a reality of a Westerner's conversion to Islam that Wilson herself likely knows all too well.)

The book – like the unnamed city where it is set – is a meeting place of multiple, seemingly incongruent realities: mosques and cloud servers, scripture and Twitter, grim scenes of torture and video games, police states and popular culture. In Alif the Unseen, a millennia-old djinn will make an unselfconscious Star Wars reference ("These are not the banu adam you're looking for") as he neatly dispatches dark-suited state agents, and half-transparent ghostly beings of legend will have trouble defragging their PC's hard drives. But as cute and often laugh-out-loud funny as these elements are, they also add up to a powerful set of questions regarding the relation of our rather disruptive present with the deep past and the imminent future.
The City, which no doubt owes a lot of its urban scenery to Wilson's intimacy with Cairo, would seem most at home in contemporary Oman or perhaps the Arab Emirates: oil rich nations, with long histories and multi-ethnic populations, abutting larger deserts, and presided over by powerful, super-wealthy royal families who wield their power through armies of security agents, censorship and class suppression. At its core, Alif is a story of the intermingling of the ancient and the modern, religion and science, new world technology and old world oppression – and as recent history has taught us, those extremes will just as often work together as clash. With ISIS making the daily news feel more and more like comic book fiction, this book is less unbelievable than ever. One of the more remarkable accomplishments of the novel are those moments when political and social realities seem more implausible than the story's more fantastic elements: see, for example, the amazement our heroes express – and this reader felt – when the young prince, a hacktivist friend of Alif's who enters later in the novel, casually reveals at a key moment that he owns his own satellite. (Making the princeling, and his privileged existence, feel like more of a deus ex machina than the legitimately divine beings waiting in the wings later in the chapter.)

For all the exposition necessary to give us entry into so many complicated worlds (cultural, technological, mythical, and religious), the story moves briskly – yet another way in which is feels, at its most effective, like an accomplished graphic novel. Wilson's flare with detail – she is as fastidious with the language and life of computing and as she is about tradition and theology – reveals a world of cloud servers and keylogging programs as wondrous and powerful as any product of the spirit realm.

Alif the Unseen builds to an ending that to its enormous credit refuses to succumb to the frustrating and unsatisfying wish-fulfillment tales of most political fantasy, and it doesn't deign to offer magical solutions to very real, and very horrific, circumstances. The magic of Twitter, you will feel powerfully by the book's end, is quite enough, and the horror of what mobs suddenly unrestrained by any authority – state or otherwise – are capable of could not be more powerfully portrayed, in fiction or nonfiction. The ambiguities and questions left open at the end of Alif the Unseen are a pay-off for those of us who have been following the news for the last five years, and may very well serve to inspire the interest of those who haven't. It is in making this ambiguity heavy, full of consequences, and full of humanity, that this novel excels.

Alif the Unseen is currently available in both print and e-format

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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