In some sense, all truly great fantasy books are immigrant stories. The reader becomes an immigrant discovering a new world in all the everyday magic of food and language and culture. Sometimes the narrator herself is an immigrant too, and we get to sympathize with Alice as she discovers Wonderland, or the Pevensies as they emerge from the wardrobe. But, more often, authors give us a handy native guide to help us make our literary lives in their strange worlds.
If all great fantasies are immigrant stories, then it follows that all mediocre fantasies are mere explorer tales. In an explorer tale, the author takes us tromping through a world they barely know themselves, often built on the sad ruins of somebody’s actual culture. We’re handed some inaccurate maps, we catch a few glimpses of the exotic natives, and then we sail home with small pox in our wake.
Handed Alif the Unseen, I was afraid I was holding explorer-fantasy of the worst species. I thought I was about to read a classically Western fantasy book wrapped in the exoticized, mythologized Orient. We’ve got an ugly literary fascination with the Islamic Middle East, embodied in the hidden-yet-sexualized image of the veiled woman, and the name G. Willow Wilson did not immediately inspire me with confidence. But Wilson is not an explorer; she is an immigrant. Alif the Unseen is therefore loving and immersive, filled with all the magic and border-crossing that makes fantasy great.
Alif is a young computer hacker living in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, plagued by the kind of moral lethargy and selfishness that is perhaps universal to teenage boys. He spends his time pining for his beautiful, educated lover, and being annoyed by the religiously-convicted neighbor-girl. Then, after his lover rejects him, he engages in a little vindictive programming. He writes a program that can identify an individual user regardless of their usernames and passwords, based only on the tiny peculiarities of their keystrokes and language. Predictably, the oppressive surveillance state takes an active interest. Alif is driven out of his comfortable room and into the strange alleys and unseen places of the City. Dina the neighbor-girl—a truly show-stealing character—follows him. Very quickly, it becomes clear that their pursuers are more than average action-movie goons, and that Dina and Alif will need allies of similarly uncanny power. The rest of the plot romps through the hidden world of the jinns, the wonderful convergence of digital and spiritual forms of information, and an astoundingly prescient vision of the Arab Spring.
It’s a brilliant book, which absolutely deserved its recent World Fantasy Award. It’s lively and adventurous and pure fun, but it also has layers of genuine religious inquiry and political-cultural commentary. The cast of characters is wild and original, and I loved them all: from Vikram the Vampire to NewQuarter the upper-class hacker, to the American convert who tags along for the ride. It would be worth reading just for the American convert’s irritable refusal to believe in Vikram:
“I am Vikram the Vampire,” said Vikram.
“Then you’re very well preserved for a two-thousand-year-old Sanskrit legend.”
But, of course, Alif the Unseen is more than a few sarcastic exchanges. It’s also a story that makes all we readers into literary immigrants (rather than voyeuristic tourists) to the Middle East. Even Alif himself isn’t a native Arab, but a biracial Indian living in one of the City’s poorer districts. But petulant and occasionally misogynistic Alif isn’t our most helpful guide—instead, it’s the female characters that are the most revelatory of Islamic culture. Partly, this is because Western images of Muslim femininity are especially muddled. Traditional feminism has been plagued by colonialist assumptions about agency and oppression (“But…they wear veils!” we whine). Dina and the convert let us slip past the opacity of the veil and reveal the fundamental humanity of Muslim women. They are heroic, smart, funny, convicted, and active. They’re whole people, not Westernized visions of Islamic patriarchy.
That’s the real magic of Alif the Unseen—its ability to take readers across borders and into the unseen zones of another culture. As immigrant-readers, we are taken into the private dens of political hackivists and coders, beneath the veils of devout Muslim women, and into the unfamiliar territory of effrit, ghouls, and genies. Read it, and read yourself across borders.
- This review was originally published at Fantasy Literature.
- Jen Northington, “Secular and Mystical Sci-Fi: G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen,” Tor.com.
- Pauls Toutonghi, “App for the Ancients,” NY Times.