Alan's Reviews > The Mirage

The Mirage by Matt Ruff
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Aug 22, 12

Recommended to Alan by: The Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling, WV; subject matter and previous work
Recommended for: Blessèd peacemakers
Read in August, 2012, read count: 1

I've been reading a fair amount of heavy, serious literature lately—authors like Philip Roth, Lawrence Durrell and Alasdair Gray—so I thought I'd go back to something lighter for a change, like this novel... about 9/11/2001 and the ensuing War on Terror.

Or, rather, about 11/9/2001, the fateful day when a small group of fanatical Christian terrorists flew hijacked planes into Baghdad's twin Tigris and Euphrates skyscrapers, shaking the foundations of the sprawling Islamic republic known as the United Arab States, and sparking the invasion of North America by UAS liberators in 2003...

It's a high-concept role reversal, you see, a book whose elevator pitch could be on the level of Freaky Friday, but here turned into a fully-realized alternative universe. In this topsy-turvy world, for example, Israel is a central European state with its capital in Berlin, and Wikipedia has been replaced with the "Library of Alexandria," an online service curated by Muammar Gaddafi's technically-inclined nephew (although the Library's science-fictional roots go back much further than Jimmy Wales' brainchild, to John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider and Stand on Zanzibar, if not even earlier).

These role reversals are not always entirely plausible. There's no way that the same taxonomy of URLs—like libraryofalexandria.org—would have been developed by an Arabic-speaking culture. But they do generate plenty of wry chuckles:
"Even in cases of extraordinary rendition, where prisoners were shipped overseas to be questioned in a human-rights vacuum like Texas[...]" (p.65)
Heh. It's funny, see, because in our universe Texas is... oh, wait.

Also—far too many public figures from our own history show up in roles similar to (or with only ironic differences from) our own. This is a common issue with alternate histories, of course, difficult to resist when an author wants to comment on our own universe. For the most part it did not detract significantly from my enjoyment of the story, and Ruff does eventually explain—within the context of the story—just why it is that there are so many parallels between the world of the Mirage and our own... but I balked (even in the midst of greater implausibilities) at seeing LBJ and JFK and even Leonard Nimoy show up in the roles they play here.

If that were all The Mirage turned out to be... well, it wouldn't have been much.


But you can trust Matt Ruff not to be that shallow. Every book of his is unique; not for him the grinding out of endless series. When Ruff does invent, rather than merely reflect, the result is sly and effective... the significance of "T.A.B." being one example. The opening scenes, in which the immediately likeable Arab Homeland Security agent Mustafa al Baghdadi has to take down a Methodist "homicide bomber" while bantering with his partner Amal bint Shamal, daughter of Baghdad's first female mayor, are as tautly written as any thriller. And, later, I felt chills when I read "Nous sommes tous Américains" (p.82) over al Baghdadi's shoulder.

There are a few spear-carriers, redshirts and cutouts assembled from news stories, to be sure, but Ruff's major characters are well-rounded individuals, whose warmth and wit carry the story forward as the situation in the UAS gets weirder. The Mirage turns out to be a serious work of speculative literature after all (not that I necessarily forgive you, Powell's, for retroactively reassigning all of Ruff's works from the skiffy ghetto to general literature upon the publication of this one sf novel).

"And if I swallow anything evil,
Put your finger down my throat..."
"Behind Blue Eyes," by The Who

In the end, the villains of The Mirage look much like our own crop of wicked princes. Ruff shows sympathy even for his devils, although he does not apologize for them—a phrase repeated more than once is that "A wicked prince in one world is a wicked prince in all[...]", and al Baghdadi's simple declaration to one of them is a moral directed as easily to our own universe's seemingly endless host of hijackers, homicide bombers and holy warriors:

Their lives are not yours to take.
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