"...I believe that with the advent of what you call the digital age you have breached a kind of barrier between symbol and symbolized. It doesn’t mean the Alf Yeom will make any more sense to you, but it may mean you have grasped something vital about the nature of information." [loc. 2343]
Set in an unnamed (and probably fictional) Emirate, Alif the Unseen combines elements of cyberpunk and folktale: the Arab Spring meets the Arabian Nights, if you want a pithy tag. There are echoes of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson here, but there's also a strong theological component. Wilson explores feminism, Islam, the East-West schism, censorship, and revolution -- and does so by telling a story about princes, djinni and mystics.
Imagine the tale. There's a poor boy in love with a rich girl. She rejects him; he acquires a cloak of invisibility, but endangers himself in the process. All looks grim until he is befriended by a djinn. Subsequently he is helped by a prince for whom he's performed a favour; he falls in love with a girl he has known since childhood; he travels to a mystic place where he finds himself fixing an efreet's laptop --
Stop. Reload. Alif is 23, half-Indian and half-Arab, a renowned hacker who provides security workarounds for anyone who can pay. He's in love with an upper-class Old Quarter girl, Intisar, but she tells him she never wants to see his name again. Heartbroken and embittered, Alif creates his masterwork: a program that will recognise Intisar's 'digital fingerprint' -- the unique combination of language, word choice and grammatical tics that identify her online activities -- and 'filter any Internet user who fit her specs, making them invisible to each other' [loc 509].
Unfortunately this does not go unnoticed, and Alif, together with his childhood friend Dina, has to flee the censors. The two of them fall into improbable company: a hitman who may not be human, an American woman who's converted to Islam, and Alif's old hacker buddy NewQuarter1, whose pedigree is rather better than those of Alif or Dina.
Alif the Unseen is full of likeable and well-rounded characters. None are without their flaws. Alif, despite being surrounded by strong women -- Dina, Intisar, the American, Azalel, Sakira -- is still surprised when Dina shows intelligence or initiative, ("She really was as smart as a man" - loc 1129) and bemoans his "agony at the quiet female rhythms that encompassed him, prompting him to flee back into his computers, the cloud, the digital world populated by men" (loc 3832). The American (whom I made a conscious effort not to read as authorial self-insertion despite the similarities between the character and Wilson herself) voices a sense of entitlement, whilst viewing her adoptive culture through a soft-focus, rose-tinted post-colonial haze.
The changing world in which Alif, Dina and the rest find themselves is very recognisable. Wilson examines the ways that technology can empower the poor, elide class structures and be used both to preserve and to attack social and political structures. Woven through the tale of a revolution, too, are threads concerning the nature of knowledge, the fuzzy edges of modern science, and non-Western spins on Western pop culture. ("[Pullman's] The Golden Compass! It’s full of djinni trickery!" [loc 1279])
I liked Alif the Unseen a great deal, despite the flaws of the characters -- which aren't flaws in the characterisation -- and a sense that the finale is over-simplified. It has the exuberance of some early cyberpunk novels, and a philosophical dimension that I found thought-provoking. (Mostly provocative of thoughts about djinni: I may need to reread Declare.)