Church and Surveillance State
Alif the Unseen Is an Islamic Conversion Story Disguised as Fiction
Local author G. Willow Wilson's debut novel isn't going to be mistaken for memoir: This is a great fantasy-tinged thriller, along the lines of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother smashing together with a Neil Gaiman novel. Alif the Unseen stars a young hacker in an unnamed Middle Eastern country engaged in a battle with seemingly omnipotent government surveillance forces nicknamed The Hand of God, but it smuggles something surprising in under its techno-thriller trappings. Wilson's 2010 memoir about converting to Islam as a white American, The Butterfly Mosque, dealt with the whys and the wherefores of her conversion. Alif, in many ways, feels like an emotional account of that same time.
This is not to say it's a roman à clef: The title character, a comfortable young man of Arab-Indian descent, makes a series of dumb mistakes in the name of love—a spyware program he has written has basically come to life and is being used against him. He's pursued by his own government into some strange, mysterious places. Vampires (and jinn, and shades) get involved.
Even as the plot unfolds, characters find the time to stop and discuss lofty matters. Someone dismisses Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet as an example of Eastern literature because it's "about bored, tired people having sex," which marks it as Western literature. Characters argue about Islamic transgressions in video games and other fictions: "It's not like they're out there selling bacon and booze... Surely God wouldn't mind people pretending life is better, even if it involves fictional pork." As Alif and his compatriots push at the edges of what it means to be a character in a story, they embrace the unbelievable magic around them and employ that magic in their own way to make the world a better place. If that's not the definition of a conversion story, I don't know what is.