Speculative fiction has been undergoing significant changes lately, as significant and revolutionary in the genre as the New Wave or Cyberpunk. The genre has not remained stagnant since the 80s, but has matured and grown in subtle ways that have been difficult to track as they took place.
I refer to those two movements in SF because Alif the Unseen is very much a combination of them both.
Like the New Wave authors, Wilson's writing demonstrates a mastery of and love for language, human character, and other formerly "literary-only" concerns. Like Cyberpunk, Alif is about the changes wrought by technology and how the little people can use it more successfully against the establishment than huge monoliths, because it's so difficult to overcome the massive inertia of a large organization like a corporation, religion, or government. The people in the story are the "unseen" as much as are the jinn and other unseen beings, as is their habitat, their activities, and so forth. The people in Alif's world are as unseen and insignificant to the establishments around him as are the jinn... but when a police state or other authoritarian force reaches for total control and mistreats the unseen, the unseen can now fight back in non-violent ways using the digital infrastructure that now links our world. The book is multi-layered, which in meta-literary and metaphorical senses is brilliant in both concept (paralleling the book with the Alf Layla, Koran, and computer coding) and execution. I can see why it was marketed toward the literary crowd.
Like the Cyberpunks, Wilson sympathizes with underdogs and outcasts, criminals and others operating outside the law. The protagonist (Alif) is a programmer and website host for dissidents no matter what they espouse. Wilson's world is gritty, real, and thoroughly modern - despite being set in a poor, Middle-Eastern city. Alif's greatest ally is someone referred to as "Vikram the Vampire," an underworld character who has proven to be violent. When we soon learn he's a jinn, an ancient species documented in the Koran, the alien-ness in the book really takes off. There's even a moment when we witness the birth of an AI, though it doesn't survive long. If Cyberpunk is indeed "high tech and low life" as many describe it, combining science and technology with rebellion against the system, Alif very much fits into the genre while serving to point the direction for where it might go next. Like the Cyberpunk authors, Wilson paints a world in shades of gray rather than black-and-white, blurs the border between natural and unseen forces of old as well as the cybernetic powers of today, between the organic and machine, the real and virtual or dreamlike or otherwise unseen. Even if she didn't set out to write a post-Cyberpunk cyberpunk novel, that's exactly what she did... and I suspect this was her goal, as the marketing material cites Stephenson.
Finally, this novel demonstrates what we've been seeing more of over the last several years: Mainstream authors working with SFnal themes and modalities, or SF authors like Doctorow working in the here-and-now-plus-a-day. Works like this (I especially point to Mieville and Chabon) are growing the new movement in SF, helping mature the genre in a way that neither rejects its forebears nor the mainstream. SF has simply become the relevant literature of our time. Not just "the only realistic literature" per Clarke, but now the only relevant literature for people living in an ever-changing world. Most any story set in today or tomorrow that does not take into account the massive and ever-increasing rate of change in our daily lives feels instantly dated, like historic fiction. Sure, much SF that's set far into the future or on other worlds still feels like our familiar SF, and I hope we never lose that core of the genre. However, the literature that affects a wider diversity of people, more deeply, is that to which we can most closely relate, and that's more difficult the farther in time or space or alien-ness we venture.
Alif the Unseen is a work set in our world (though far from Western society, daily news images have made that part of the world familiar), in our time, among people who are far less alien to us than they were before the internet. Without the protagonist's programming and Web skills, the story would fall. I feel all this places it firmly in the SF camp. Most important, perhaps, is that this is as relevant a story for our changing times as we'll encounter: Based on publication date, Wilson must have been writing this in her Cairo home during the Arab Spring, the most-significant change to sweep across that part of the world since the Crusades and ensuing colonialism. Hackers, the internet, and individuals using the Web to share information, achieve freedom, and bring down the corrupt establishment have changed everything, and with the Arab Spring we're seeing Cyberpunk realized.
Now a few words about cultural appropriation, as I'm sure some people will be concerned in regards to this work.
G. Willow Wilson is American-born, writing about Middle Eastern and Islamic topics. Alif is a book that provides the deepest insights into those cultures that I've read to date, and I think I understand why: It all comes down to fear of the Other. All animals have this fear, humans particularly - and it's particularly egregious in sentient beings, especially those who read purportedly enlightened work like SF. Even so, for a long time, female SF authors had to write under pseudonyms to be taken seriously, and even female protagonists were a hard sell. Same for black, gay, and non-Western-culture authors and characters: Mainstream audiences have always been a little leery of the Other, uncertain, unable to connect to their stories. This is why various minorities or people not from the dominant culture are so under-represented. We usually only hear their ideas, but substantially different ideas without a narrative are difficult to understand or accept.
When Western (or non-black, or non-female, or non-whatever) authors write stories set in the culture of the Other, they usually get it wrong. They "Orientalize" or otherwise imbue the work with wonder and strangeness... because it's all about entering the culture from outside. Interesting, but not representing the culture or characters where the work is set. However, every once in a while, someone who started off in our culture (whatever that may be for the POV of the audience) immerses him- or herself sufficiently into the Other culture to be able to serve as a bridge between the two.
This is what Wilson did: Though she grew up in the US, she converted to Islam in college and moved to Egypt. She doesn't get it wrong, because she works hard to understand the culture she writes about, with occasional nods to acknowledge her ultimate Otherness to those cultures. However, her stories tell the tales that are important to Middle-Easterners, especially Egyptians, not just what an outsider would find interesting or exotic.
All through Alif we see these stories, and through this book I've gotten a handle on those cultures, and why our two cultures face such challenges in trying to understand one another. Wilson serves as our bridge, opening our Western minds to this particular Other, which hopefully opens the path to more indigenous authors writing on these topics in their own ways. But at least now Western editors might start considering such works, because the audience will start considering them, because here we have a novel written from the Other POV but using sensibilities we can grasp.
Every single paragraph in this novel contains some note of brilliance. The story parallels the insights we see, as the main character grows in understanding as well - even the writing itself blossoming as the story progresses, so the entire work is not just what it appears to be but a metaphor as well, and sometimes several layers deep. In many ways it is the magical book it describes, and it displays masterful writing not just line-by-line but in scene construction and overall story and imagery and character development and setting and intellectual stimulation and so forth.
This is my favorite novel of the year so far, and possibly for several years. If you love reading, you'll love this book.