A boy with a computer program that can identify people on the Internet by their keystroke patterns. A girl with a book written by djinn entitled “The Thousand and One Days.” And outside their doors, it’s the beginning of the Spring Revolution all over the Middle East. Wilson finds the common thread between technology and mytholoy and wraps it all in a modern fantasy adventure that’s gripping and fun to read.
In Arab mythology the djinn are called the “invisible ones.” But Wilson quickly draws a parallel between the magical folk of myth and young people who spend most of their time socializing online. When the hero, Alif, is hunted down by State Security and forced to go offline, he wails to his two friends, Dina and Abdullah:
“And now I’m a ghost in the machine. By next week all the hacks and geeks and hats I call my friends will have forgotten who I am. That is the nature of this business. That is the Internet.”
“You still have real friends,” said Dina. The two men made identical derisive noises.
“Internet friends are real friends,” said Abdullah. “Now that you pious brothers and sisters have taken over half the planet, the Internet is the only place left to have a worthwhile conversation.”
But Wilson’s book doesn’t dismiss Islam in simple terms. One of the main characters is the Imam of the local mosque. And he has a very realistic view of what’s wrong with society:
“Oil,” the sheikh shook his head. “The great cursed wealth from beneath the ground that the Prophet foresaw would destroy us. And statehood--what a terrible idea that was, eh? This part of the world was never meant to function that way. Too many languages, too many tribes, too motivated by ideas those high-heeled cartographers from Paris couldn’t understand. Don’t understand. Will never understand. Well, God save them--they’re not the ones who have to live in this mess. They said a modern state needs a single leader, a secular leader, and the emir was the closest thing we had. So to the emir went all the power. And anyone who thinks that isn’t a good idea is hounded down and tossed in jail, as you have so recently discovered. All so that some pantywaist royal nephew can have a seat at the UN and carry a flag in the Olympics and be thoroughly ignored.”
The best parts of the novel involve the intervention of the unseen world into this reality, both the world of the djinn and the online world. Wilson makes strong connections between the zeros and ones that symbolize data and functions on a computer with the metaphors of mythology, literature, and the Koran which symbolize deeper themes, and have multiple meanings simultaneously. When her hero attempts to program a computer to understand metaphors, the narrative turns in a wild and unforeseen direction.
Even the characters themselves embody multiple meanings. Her hero, Alif, has two names: his online handle (Alif)--the first letter of the alphabet, shaped like a single vertical slash--and his given name, which remains unseen throughout most of the novel. He’s half-Arab and half-Indian, and is forced to master multiple languages: Arabic, Hindi, English, C++, and eventually the language of the djinn.
The unnamed city itself is a conglomeration, but not a melting pot, each area separate, but ultimately involved with the other: “The City, Abdullah had once quipped, is divided into three parts: old money, new money, and no money. It had never supported a middle class and had no ambition to do so--one was either a nonresident of Somewhere-istan, sending the bulk of one’s salary home to desperate relatives, or one was a scion of the oil boom.” Or one is like Alif, a child of two worlds, living with his Indian mother, but surviving on the “driblets” of money sent by his wealthy, absent father--a child of Nowhere-istan, unless you count the unseen world of the Internet.
This is a fantastic work of fiction (in multiple ways), and takes us inside the hearts and minds of the young protagonists who fueled the Spring Revolution. And it gives us a beautiful peek inside the unseen world (at least in the West) of Arab mythology and cultural concerns.