Alif the Unseen — G. Willow Wilson
Alif the Unseen almost works, but it persistently mischaracterizes technology in a distracting, false-sounding way that its eponymous hacker protagonist wouldn’t. On the first page of Alif’s narration, we find this about his phone: “Another hack had set this one up for him, bypassing the encryption installed by whatever telecom giant monopolized its patent.” But encryption algorithms are math, and math can’t be patented. Furthermore, a patent is by definition a limited monopoly right. As a result, the last part of the sentence seems incoherent. And what is being encrypted? The phone’s operating system? Its user data?
A few pages later, Alif is “watching as a readout began to scroll up the screen, tracking the IP address and usage statistics of whoever was attempting to break through his encryption software.” But reading “usage statistics” makes no sense here: Alif isn’t, say, providing blogging software or an e-commerce platform (a few pages later, he installs a keystroke logger and other software on the computer of his love interest, and says that he does so “to track her usage statistics.” This makes more sense). Someone wouldn’t “break through his encryption software;” he or she would attempt to penetrate Alif’s firewall. The same would-be intruder leaves after “executing Pony Express, a trojan Alif had hidden in what looked like an encryption glitch.” I don’t know what “an encryption glitch” means here, and I don’t think the author does either.
Alif notes that, in the Arab Spring, “the digital stratosphere became a war zone. The bloggers who used free software platforms were most vulnerable.” If anything, open-source software should be less vulnerable, because well-known open-source software systems won’t have obvious backdoors (because they’d be found) and they have the advantage of many eyes on their source code. There’s an equally jarring moment when Alif says that he’s written a piece of software in “C++. But the type system is soft of—new. I’ve made a lot of modifications.” But he probably is referring to whether it’s dynamically or statically typed—that is, checking whether a program’s internal variables and other values are computable and safe when the program is run or when it’s compiled. It isn’t clear why Alif would change C++’s type system. At another moment, Alif worries that a malevolent, governmental entity is watching him: “The Hand would see Alif using his e-mail and cloud computing accounts, but until he could crack his algorithm, Alif would appear to be working from Portugal, Hawaii, Tibet.” The phrase “crack his algorithm” is meaningless here. “Cloud computing” is the kind of term marketers use; programmers or hackers would probably say “servers.”
These kinds of persistent, distracting errors detract from the story and the novel’s realism. It might seem strange to discuss realism in a book that features Djinn, vampires, and other supernatural elements, but any writer still has a duty to get the language of the “real” or mundane world right. Wilson doesn’t, and that makes the whole novel feel fake when it shouldn’t. In The Name of the Rose, religious language and medieval thought infuse every line, even when contemporary philosophical ideas are being expressed through the language of the time. Eco knows the period like Wilson doesn’t know the language of hackers, programmers, and computer science. I’m not an expert, but I’ve read enough in the field to understand what she misses.
Still, there’s a sense of hidden knowledge that runs throughout Alif the Unseen, and a melding of old ideas with new technology. That’s an appealing idea, and so is the idea of an Arab Golden Compass. It’s got some religious elements that could come from The Name of the Rose. Much of the writing is skillful if not particularly memorable. Funny moments appear: Vikram the Vampire, on hearing one of Alif’s schemes, says, “I don’t want foreigners involved in my business. Jinn are one thing but I draw the line at Americans.” Such moments are just not common enough to merit reading this book over something better, like The Golden Compass or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s recent novels, all of which do language better.