Alif the Unseen takes us on a wild ride through life in a Middle Eastern city-state, cyber-duels between State Security and gray hat hackers, jinn, a magic book, Arabic mythology, political chaos, and the difference between infatuation and love.
Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson, Grove Press, ISBN 9780802120205, June 2012
By Lis Carey: Alif is a young man, a “gray hat” hacker, selling his skills to provide cybersecurity to anyone who needs that protection from the government. He lives in an unnamed city-state in the Middle East, referred to throughout simply as the City. He’s nonideological; he’ll sell his services to Islamists, communists, anyone.
Alif is not his real name, but it’s what he goes by, online, and among his friends. He hates his given name because it’s so common. He lives in a very modest neighborhood, in one half a duplex, with his mother. In the other half is another family that has lived there as long as they have, and among the members of that family is Dina, a young woman his age, his friend, who has defied her family by going veiled. He’s in love, though, with Intisar, a young woman of much better family.
Everything seems to be going well, until Intisar tells him that her father has betrothed her to an important man in the City’s government. She doesn’t want to see or hear from him again. And everything starts to go wrong, in unexpected ways.
Alif, master hacker, decides to make sure she can never see or hear from him again, by designing a program that can identify her from any amount of online activity, and block her access to any information about him. The program becomes alarmingly capable; he’s not sure how he created something this flexible and seemingly independent. And while he’s using it, someone breaks into his system.
He cuts them off, but it’s very skilled hacker, and protecting his own system and the systems of his clients from discovery means shutting the whole thing down, including the software protecting his clients. This hacker must be the dread Hand of God, the City’s new and unidentified head of State Security.
And the world starts to go mad.
Alif did send Dina to bring Intisar the sheet they used the one time they had sex, unwashed, of course. She sent back by way of Dina a book. A very old book. The Thousand and One Days. And the man she’s now betrothed to wants the book, while Intisar wants Alif to find out more about the book. No explanation why, for either.
It’s the intersection of Alif’s new program, which he’s named TinSari, that launches Alif and Dina, and an American convert on a wild ride through high tech, Arabic mythology, jinn society, and political upheaval. Vikram the Vampire; a jinn woman called Sakina; a marid (a jinn, and (at least in this story) specifically the jinn from Aladdin); one of Alif’s online hacker friends, NewQuarter01, whose real-world identity comes as a shock to him; Azalel, Vikram’s sister; Sheikh Bilal, imam of the Al Basheera mosque; the dread “Hand of God” head of State Security, are all part of the adventure, as allies, enemies, or not clearly one or the other.
Oh, and The Thousand and One Days also plays an active role.
It’s a story of Alif exploring his programming abilities, encountering strangeness that might be quantum programming inspired by that old book, in which every word has seven thousand layers of meaning. He discovers levels of ruthlessness in real-world politics he never imagined while selling cybersecurity to anyone wanting to hide from their government.
There’s also a layer of romance here, too. And heroic sacrifice, cyberpunk, magical beings, and places that move when you’re not looking. It’s absorbing, exciting, terrifying, and has a satisfying ending.
I received this book as a gift, and am reviewing it voluntarily.