So I finally read Alif the Unseen. Wow — what a genre-bender. So many questions about belief, ideology, loyalty, technology, humanity, and identity are explored across multiple metaphysical planes and in achingly familiar real-world contexts. To back up to a plot summary, which I’ll ape from Goodreads:
“In an unnamed Middle Eastern security state, a young Arab-Indian hacker shields his clients—dissidents, outlaws, Islamists, and other watched groups—from surveillance and tries to stay out of trouble. He goes by Alif—the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, and a convenient handle to hide behind. The aristocratic woman Alif loves has jilted him for a prince chosen by her parents, and his computer has just been breached by the State’s electronic security force, putting his clients and his own neck on the line. Then it turns out his lover’s new fiancé is the head of State security, and his henchmen come after Alif, driving him underground. When Alif discovers The Thousand and One Days, the secret book of the jinn, which both he and the Hand suspect may unleash a new level of information technology, the stakes are raised and Alif must struggle for life or death, aided by forces seen and unseen.”
I’m honestly at something of an impasse as to whether I feel that the ambitious blend of mythology, technobabble, politics, and interpersonal sociology was ultimately successful, or if Alif the Unseen bit off more than it can chew. I’ll say this: I enjoyed the book. I found the plotline compelling, the characters interesting and suitably complex, and the world-building satisfying. But with so much going on, there were definitely moments where I just wasn’t 100% what was going on. For instance, there is a particular extended sequence where Alif is coding, and he’s trying to blend a traditional programming language with “information” from The Thousand and One Days. The prose in this passage is stunning; it’s imagery-rich and renders Alif’s coding process more as a landscape he visualizes in his mind rather than focusing on the intricacies of the code itself. In one way, this really works; in another, it kind of glosses over how he is able to technically achieve this next-level coding accomplishment and boils it down to “he thought of it like magic and so it happened.”
And a lot of the book feels this way. One main theme of the book is how it makes no sense that people willingly (and fervently) believe some more fantastical elements of religion but mysticism, like the existence of the jinn, is supernatural nonsense. Similarly, most people consume technology, increasingly sophisticated, without any real idea of how it works. For those people, it may as well be magic. So is the author’s choice of how to describe these scenarios a meta-comment on our technological knowledge and acceptance of the unknown? As Alif codes actual magical technology, does that require a more logical explanation where there may be none?
My personal preference is, yes. While the beauty of magic is that it’s slippery and defies explanation, that’s not so for technology, in our world. As it is, the “unseen” magical element is utilized to fix various ills of reality, but reality itself isn’t grounded or defined well enough to contribute to the integration of the two in an equal partnership. Reality “learns” from magic to put it in simple terms, but the reverse is not so. As I said before, I did like Alif the Unseen a lot, but some elements didn’t come together as seamlessly for me as others. All the same, I’d still recommend this to urban fantasy or cyberpunk fans. It’s a very enjoyable entry in the genre.