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Literature / Alif the Unseen

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Alif the Unseen is a 2012 novel by G. Willow Wilson about a young man who lives in a Qurac-style state, complete with extensive Internet censorship. Alif (his online handle) makes a living as a 'grey hat', providing ways around the repressive state security system. He also is in love with an aristocratic Arab woman, and this leads him into an adventure complete with mysterious books, jinn and a computer code that could remake the world.


This work has examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The programs based upon The Alf Yeom have an unexpected effects.
  • Another Dimension - The land of the Jinn.
  • The Alcatraz - The only way out of Hell Hole Prison is through a burning dangerous desert.
  • Author Avatar - The Convert has many similarities to the author, a female convert to Islam who becomes pregnant during the story, which was written while the author was pregnant.
  • Betty and Veronica- Dina and Intisar, respectively.
  • Bland-Name Product - World of Battle Craft.
  • Break Them by Talking: The Hand does this to Alif.
  • Catgirl
  • Cool Old Guy: Sheikh Bilal
  • Defector from Decadence - New Quarter 01 who is a prince, but hacks to fight the regime.
  • The Dreaded: Vikram the Vampire among street thugs, The Hand among hackers.
  • Dueling Hackers: Alif is struggling to keep the Hand of God, the state censorship network, out of his system and those of his customers. This struggle eventually spills out into Real Life with the requisite murder attempts.
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  • Embarrassing First Name - Alif refuses to be called by his first name for much of the book, since he says it's too common. His name is Mohammed.
  • Famed in Story: Alif, at least among hackers. Also The Hand.
  • First Girl Wins
  • Forced into Evil - Intisar is somewhere between this and Face–Heel Turn.
  • Genie in a Bottle - Of Mecca Cola.
  • Girl Next Door: Not only does Dina fit all the attributes of this trope (even if she has spunk as well), she is literally the girl next door to protagonist Alif.
  • Good Shepherd: Sheikh Bilal
  • Hollywood Hacking: Alif seems to be able to hack and program intuitively, without really knowing how his own code works. This allows him to suddenly revolutionize computing after a single burst of inspiration, writing programs that understand metaphors and layers of meaning instead of binary ones and zeroes. Justified in that the inspiration comes from the ''Alf Yeom'', not earthly/human sources.
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  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Vikram the Vampire
  • No Name Given: The convert.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: The Hand gives Alif one of these while the latter is being held in a Hellhole Prison; although he and Alif are on opposite sides, he argues that both of them are motivated by the rush of what they do far more than any ideology.
  • Our Demons Are Different: Demons are rogue jinn which often take the form of froglike creatures or dragons with knives for teeth
  • Our Genies Are Different: The Jinn are nonhumans who can change forms at will. They have Wi Fi. There is one 'marid' who states that she was imprisoned by that thief Aladdin. She is imprisoned by The Hand in a bottle of Mecca Cola. New Quarter nearly asks her for wishes but Dina makes him let her go.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized - After the grid is taken down by Alif's code, revolutionaries gather in the street, and a prince is hung. Alif believes it's New Quarter and chews them out, but it's really the body of the Hand. The crowds are composed of everyone from Islamists to Communists, all groups Alif helped with his hacking.
  • Self-Deprecation: G. Willow Wilson is a female American convert to Islam, as is a major supporting character in the novel. She is almost always called "the convert," and is frequently criticized or ridiculed by other characters as well as the narrator.
  • Shades of Conflict - Alif helps people hide from State Sec with his hacks whether they are jihadists or just porn lovers, the jinn have a code of honor, but mostly are out for themselves (although they save the day for our heroes several times) and the Hand has people locked in prison for hacking in which prisoners are starved, tortured and, in some instances, raped. Both Alif and the Hand end up breaking half the computer systems in the city, with various consequences from the internet going down to riots, looting and hangings.
  • Shout-Out:
  • State Sec - Employs the Hand who censors the internet to prop up the emir's corrupt regmine.
  • Tome of Eldritch Lore - The Alf Yeom can be this. It apparently shifts due to whoever reads it.
  • Uptown Girl: Alif, a poor man, is in love with an aristocratic woman from the other part of town. They met online, but in real life, their love is mutual. In the end Dina gets Alif.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The Hand after the royal family disowns him in a (failed) attempt to appease the uprising.