Alif the Unseen: Cyberpunk, Middle Eastern Style

Cyberpunk has been my speculative fiction variety of choice since I picked up Neuromancer by W. Gibson all those years ago. Cyberpunk books are typically set in an urban environment, full of dark alleys and hyper-neon avatar playgrounds. There are usually plenty of brown faces among the casts of characters, it is “urban” after all, but they aren’t often center stage and real variety of ethnicity and worldview can be hard to find.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson promised my favorite cyberpunk features in a new setting, a nameless emirate in the Middle East, so I was immediately drawn in. This location is defined by sunshine and heat; there are no skyscrapers casting eternal shade. The characters are different too, with no slick fixers or monolithic corporations — just Alif (not his real name) a scrawny grey hat hacker, the only son of an Arab father and an Indian mother. Alif’s trying to get the girl of his dreams, Intisar.

I was a computer geek with girl issues. That sounds pretty ordinary to me.

Things go badly with Intisar, as they do when a poor mixed boy gets involved with an aristocratic girl. Alif enlists the aid of his neighbor, Dina, the daughter of Egyptian laborers who has been like a sister to him. Dina has made the controversial decision to wear the full face veil and body covering, or hijab, as a sign of religious piety. As Alif explains about Dina:

For an upper-class Old Quarter girl like Intisar to veil was one thing…a shabby Alexandrian, expected to become the bare-faced, underpaid ornament to someone’s office or nursery…for her to declare herself sanctified, not by money but by God, looked like putting on airs.

Together Alif and Dina find out that Intisar has broken Alif’s heart because she is engaged to a man so terrifyingly powerful that the other hackers call him The Hand of God. The Hand is the head of cyber surveillance for the government’s intelligence agency, and now he has two reasons to want Alif, one personal and one political. Alif flees his home with Dina, who is now also wanted as his assumed accomplice.
That’s when things get weird.
To outrun The Hand, Alif and Dina have to slip out of the world of reality and into the realm of some of the Quran’s more mystical passages, where jinn and angels are real and working for and against righteous people.
Vetala, a mystical bloodsucker from the Middle East and India. The original vampires.

Alif and Dina are joined on the run by the only white character in the book, an American woman they call only The Convert. This character gives Wilson plenty of room to comment on Americans and presumed anti-American sentiment from the other characters. While Alif is the main character of the book, Dina and The Convert give him a real run for the title. Each of these women grow and change as much as he does, just as any protagonist should. Dina gets most of the insightful lines in the novel; she highlights the hypocrisy of the other characters, Alif in particular, who want to live in a world full of God and godliness, but who do not want a world full of his magic.

Dina, in particular grows stronger in her conviction to wear the full hijab and to stand by the religious strictures it implies and demands. I learned a lot from her character. She gave a fictional face to the controversies around and judgements made about Muslim women. It inspired me to learn more.
Marid, your typical Jinn in a bottle


The primary weakness of the book was the motivations of the characters. Alif has drive, first to get Intisar, then to get revenge on her for her betrayal, but once those things backfire…I’m not really sure how he gets from revenge to where he ends up. Maybe the character isn’t sure either. The Hand’s motivations aren’t clearly revealed either. He’s mostly malicious, out for power and control. That’s pretty thin stuff in a world that is so multi-layered. There are points where I wasn’t sure why any of the characters were doing what they were doing, but that they all knew it was deathly important that they do it.

How was the book overall? Wilson has a way with description that is truly magical. Every scene was detailed and provided enough information for a non-Middle Eastern person like me to be constantly discovering something — how date palms are grown in the middle of the city or how wooden lattice window coverings keep out glare but let in light. The characters, both human and jinn, were creative while feeling steeped in tradition. There is a revolution at the heart of this book, and the grounding in tradition throws that revolution into beautiful contrast. This is an amazing, enchanting world that Wilson reveals just under the veil of our reality. There’s a strong metaphor to be made here between Dina’s hijab and the veil between the worlds, but I won’t force it, because as Dina says:

Metaphors are dangerous. Calling something by a false name changes it, and metaphor is just a fancy way of calling something by a false name.

If you’re already a fan of G. Willow Wilson’s comic book work with Ms. Marvel, then you should definitely read this book. If you’re not on the Ms. Marvel bandwagon, read this book anyway. It’ll take you on an interesting, challenging adventure.

Alif the Unseen is the first book review in my Summer Reading List series, in which I’m catching up on some older books that have been on my “to read” list. Kind of like a Throwback Thursday for books. Read along or suggest your own list through any of our social media channels: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr or Google+.


  • L.E.H. Light


    Editor, Writer, Critic, Baker. Outspoken Mother. Lifelong fan of sci fi/fantasy books in all their variety. Knows a lot about very few things. She/Her/They.

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