Birth of the Metaphysical Thriller

Review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson


Everything old is new again. If you spot an exciting, fresh-seeming book called a “metaphysical thriller,” it’s easy to proclaim it as signaling the birth of a genre or sub-genre. But I’m afraid we’ll have to term this only a re-birth. I mean, think about it.

Much of the Bible could be described as a metaphysical thriller, with the entire world’s damnation or salvation as the ultimate high stakes. Prior to the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey similarly fit the bill. Afterward, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost did so too, quite ably. In modern times many of the books of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams add religious, spiritual or philosophic dimension to the rollicking ride of their plots.

Now, there’s “Alif – The Unseen,” by G. Willow Wilson, a work so compelling and original that it seems to invent a new category of thriller writing, although it Alif the Unseen only re-imagines one.

As the story opens, the eponymous Alif, a young hacker in a nameless emirate on the Persian Gulf, is breaking up with his high-class girlfriend. In order to block her messages, he constructs a new tool, a computer algorithm that’s capable of identifying any keyboard user – no matter how well shielded – by the pattern of their typing and their style of message entry.

The down side: this unique program is a golden grail for the world’s spy agencies. Alif soon finds that he’s drawn the murderous attention of the local government’s digital watchdog, a vicious and spiteful entity known only as “The Hand.”

Complications, as we like to say, ensue. Even Alif’s adept hacker-pals at their undercover HQ, the Radio Sheik (one of many deft jokes that leaven the story), are unable to do much but wring their hands. However, his young Egyptian friend, Dina can help – she’s a hijab-wearing teenager who grew up near Alif, who believes both in “the man he will become” and devoutly in Islam. Both these elements will grow crucial as the plot thickens. Other boosts come from an American woman known only as “the convert,” an aged mullah of the emirate’s principal mosque, and a wily, ancient djinn (genie) called Vikram the Vampire.

Once Vikram enters the tale, it departs the quotidian earth of normal human affairs and enters a scary realm where the physical and spiritual form a combustible mix. The tinder is a manuscript called the Alf Yeom or “The 1001 Days” (a shadow version of the classic, “The 1001 Nights”) that has been narrated by the djinn. A masterpiece of indirect logic and story-telling, the Alf Yeom seems to hold the key to a paradigm shift in computing, one that will move users from rapid-binary to quantum calculations. With this discovery comes immense power, and possibly the ability to unwind creation.

“Alif the Unseen” is a layered work. Besides achieving success as a metaphysical thriller, it is also: a coming-of age novel; a crime story (covering, without seeming to really stretch, crimes by both individuals and governments); a Mideast fantasy-parable; and a digital-sleuth yarn that picks up where cyberpunk classics like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer’ left off. Perhaps most impressively, it’s an East-meets-West story. It introducers a Western reader to the power of Islam’s basic beliefs, and the magic lore of Arab countries. Meanwhile, it also shows Eastern readers how aspects of their culture might appear to Westerners. The net result is a hemisphere-spanning piece of informative entertainment.

Generally I’m not a big fan of metaphysical or fantasy elements in mysteries or thrillers. A little of that goes a long way, and a bunch of it tends to go way too far. And I say that even though the next two novel manuscripts I’m ready to unload on an unsuspecting public include: 1) a philosophic thriller, and 2) a metaphysical thriller. What I truly object to is an unbalanced use of these elements, which I’ll explain like this. Once an author begins to conjure, he or she can only maintain tension by staying internally consistent (within the realm of the story) and externally consistent (within the elements of culture). Too much rule-breaking results in a world where everything is possible, and consequently nothing is important.

Author G. Willow Wilson, herself a convert to Islam, has side-stepped this chasm. I rarely quote from blurbs (I’d rather be quoted in them), but in this case, I can’t resist. On the cover, Steven Hall calls Wilson’s book, “A Golden Compass for the Arab Spring.” And I believe that’s exactly it is. This book can foster communication between wildly different geopolitical worlds. Way off the charts for the achievements of a thriller, and no mean accomplishment for a book of any stripe.