Author Matt Ruff
Things You Might Like
- Deft handling of Islam
- Deft handling of alternate history
- The ways your favorite politicians have been recast
- Your token badass Israeli special forces guy
- Saddam Hussein, in general
Things You Might Not Like
- Seeing your beloved country be turned into cannibals and idiots
- The ‘DEM’ness of the ending
Matt Ruff’s The Mirage is a great work of alternate history fiction, shedding a new light on a monumental event.
5 out of 5 Baghdad Batteries
9/11’s a touchy subject. You add the often-bewildering world of Islam into the mix, and God knows what kind of reaction you’ll get from a discussion with any given American.
Matt Ruff’s The Mirage takes the bold step of turning 9/11 into the plot of an alternate-history novel set in Baghdad.
In the novel, the world’s timeline has been altered: Instead of the predominately Christian West being the seat of superpowers, the Middle East – or, more accurately, the Arab/Islamic world, stretching from Morocco to Iran – is the cultural and economic center of the world.
In place of the United States (US), the United Arab States (UAS), centered in Riyadh, is the big swinger. Coming out of a cold war with the Russians up north (who, instead of being the Soviets, were led by an Orthodox government, suggesting that the Bolshevik Revolution failed), life was analogous to 1990s America.
Until, of course, terrorists with American passports flew jetliners into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers. Much like America in our timeline, the UAS was launched into a war with America (in Ruff’s novel, a third-world country whose border stops at the Appalachian Mountains), the UAS’s perennial enemy.
Soon after the war starts, the UAS’s intelligence community begins interrogating captured ‘crusaders’ and understanding their reasons for perpetrating their attacks: They are operating under the belief that the world in which they live is an illusion. It is a punishment from God for the West’s decadence, and the only way to return to the way things should be is to destroy the Arab world.
Whew. Recaps really take it out of me.
Right. So, first off, The Mirage is an excellently done alternate history novel. You want my opinion? It’s up there with Plot Against America – at least in terms of believability of the alternate timeline.
See, not to bore you with details, but there may be two major factors that kept the Middle East from being dominant from the, oh, 13th century onwards:
- The Mongols almost annually attacked Baghdad. That may not seem like a big deal to us now, but during that time, Baghdad was the center of intellectual progress of most of the world. Astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, all of that was being progressed in Baghdad. Then the Mongols attacked and put a stop to all of that, leading several Muslim thinkers to the conclusion that Allah was not happy with them. This then led to…
- The eighteenth century and the birth of Wahhabi Islam. To be incredibly brief: This was the birth of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism, and took hold in Saudi Arabia through a careful political and economic alliance between al-Wahhab and the Saud family. That, then, led to many of the troubles we have in the region today.
So, conceivably, if the Middle East had not seen those two events take root in such important ways, then the political history of the world would look very different from what we see today. And Matt Ruff turned that into a great novel.
Ruff’s handling of Islam is fair, and, when you’re dealing with such a volatile subject, that’s just about the best you can expect. He shows that you can have progressive (relatively speaking) ideologies take root in Islamic nations (see Turkey, ca. 1990s, for example), while acknowledging the more dangerous and militant side of the religion.
In addition to that, the way he treats the West aside from America is a very intriguing thing. Europe is a total mess. In the aftermath of World War II, the UAS (playing the role of the US, remember) gave the Jewish people a home in Germany.
That’s right. In The Mirage, most of Germany became Israel.
Of course, that doesn’t mean anything. Israel’s still under the constant threat of terrorism. It just happens to be Lutherans and Protestants who are trying to destroy Israel rather than what we have currently.
The United Kingdom is a dinky little island nation that, in the 1970s, was hit by a revolution that turned the nation into the seat of a fundamentalist Anglican government. They’re treated as a laughable threat by the UAS characters we meet, and rightly so.
And then the US, in this timeline, has been split into several countries: America, Mississippi (The Deep South, Southeast, and Midwest along the Mississippi River), The Republic of Texas, and then assorted territories made up of cannibals and tribal regions.
So, as you can tell, it’s a detailed world that Ruff created. For history nerds like me, it’s tantamount to pornography, all this speculation of what might have been.
Along with the political ramifications of this universe being so strikingly different, you would expect that world leaders have been recast; and you’d be right. Dick Cheney (known as The Quail Hunter), is the head of the Texas Christian Intelligence Agency; Osama bin Laden is an Arabian Senator and head of the Mossad-like agency al-Qaeda; Saddam Hussein is a gangster who fancies himself as Nebuchadnezzar; and then the list goes on to include the Bushes, Lyndon B Johnson, Timothy McVeigh, and David Kuresh.
It’s a very well-written book, with a compelling plot whose attraction is that it’s so familiar, but so alien. The only real complaint I can come up with involves the ending, so I won’t talk about that here.
I would, however, like to end this with a discussion question: As a Jew, my view of the book was oddly detached. While I’m definitely American, I wasn’t as interested in how the US had evolved in the Ruff universe so much as what Israel was up to. If you happen to be an American Protestant, what do you make of Ruff’s treatment of Evangelicals, fundamentalists, or any other branch of Christianity? Or, on that note, America?
Buy, Rent, or Pirate? Buy this book from Amazon now! (NOTE: Bullet Reviews does not condone piracy. If you pirate media, you’ll probably be the reason we all get thrown into a worldwide mirage. Jerk.
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