What a breathtaking novel. Enormous in every possible way, and yet somehow totally personal and relatable. I devoured “Alif the Unseen,” and I wish I were still reading it.
On its surface, “Alif the Unseen” is the story of a young man, a hacker in a present day un-named police state in the Persian Gulf. He has girl troubles and so he codes a pretty little program to hide his digital presence from his ex-girlfriend, and in doing so taps into the world of jinn and becomes tied up in a race to find and interpret an ancient text (the Alf Yeom) that could unlock the trick of quantum computing.
And this trick is what’s most incredible about the novel. Somehow the language of the Alf Yeom and its implications about computing make perfect sense within this world. As a sheik who travels with Alif for much of book relays it back to him: “Let me rephrase what I think you have said in language from my own field of study: they say that each word in the Quran has seven thousand layers of meaning, each of which, though some might seem contrary or simply unfathomable to us, exist equally at all times without cosmological contradiction. Is this similar to what you mean?” The layers of meaning in the Alf Yeom, mirrored by the theory about layers of computational capacity in quantum computing… it continues throughout “Alif the Unseen”: layers of geography (the world of the jinn existing unseen in the same space as the world of humans), layers of language (English, Arabic, ancient Arabic, the many languages of the jinn, song, music, computer code), and so on are demonstrably all just versions of the same thing. And beautifully, magically, the metaphor doesn’t eat itself.
I think after all that, I should point out that this is also a story with a huge amount of action. All of that philosophical jibber jabber happens amidst (on another layer, if you’ll allow me) a really fun story about a young hero answering the call to action, saving the world, and getting the (right) girl. I totally cared about it, cheered for it, leaned into it.
How absolutely stunning.