The Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war have reverberated through science fiction and fantasy for over a decade, giving us plenty of stories of terrorism, wars of occupation and clashes of cultures. But Matt Ruff's The Mirage, which comes out next week, might just be the ideal prism with which to refract your memories of that brutal decade and see them anew. Plus it's an addictive, fascinating read, which keeps you guessing.
In a nutshell, Ruff has found an exciting new spin on the War on Terror and the Iraq War by creating a world where everything is turned upside down. The United Arab States is the world's only superpower, and Christian terrorists have flown two planes into the Tigris and Euphrates towers in Baghdad, sparking an invasion of America. But that's just the beginning of the craziness. Spoilers ahead...
Top image: Dan Pupek on Flickr.
Actually, I don't want to give away too much about the details of The Mirage — this is one of those books it's better to discover on your own. But in a nutshell, it's an upside-down world, where an Arab superpower invades a fragmented, powerless America, and Christians resort to terrorism to fight back against the occupiers. In this world, Osama bin Laden is an important senator, and Saddam Hussein is a gangster. And then, a Homeland Security officer named Mustafa al Baghdad discovers something weird — a copy of a newspaper called the New York Times that appears to come from another world.
At first, the concept sounds a bit like Man in the High Castle — but instead of an alternate history, it's really a sort of mirror history, in which almost everything is reversed. (There's even an alternate Wikipedia, run by a man named Wajid Jamil instead of Jimmy Wales.) And through seeing everything backwards, but filtered through a lens of Islam, you start to get a new vantage point about the real-life events that Ruff is writing about.
The best alternate history really does illuminate something about the real history that it's tinkering with. Whether it's Michael Chabon's alternate Jewish state in Yiddish Policemen's Union or Jacqueline Carey's weird Slutty Christianity in the Kushiel books, a great alternate history is like a distorting mirror that shows you truths that were previously hidden. And The Mirage is definitely no exception.
Part of what's fascinating about The Mirage is that it's by no means a simple reversal — you can't simply turn Baghdad into New York or Riyad into Washington DC., nor does Ruff try to. Rather, he creates a plausible world in which Baghdad is a huge metropolis, including things like Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party as well as Shiite extremists who have their own private army. He creates a believably Arab world, but one in which elements of the "real" United States are visible. Meanwhile, when we visit the Green Zone in Washington DC, where the Arabs are occupying and attempting to bring democracy to the Americans, it's both a fascinating version of the real DC and a reflection of the real occupation in Iraq.
And because Ruff gives us a cast of almost entirely Muslim characters, we get to see the story of a vengeful superpower told from a Muslim standpoint. Ruff seems to have done his homework — although I'd be interested to hear from actual Muslims how well he's actually done — at capturing the subtleties of Islamic theology, and transposing real-life schisms between Shiites and Sunnis into his made-up world. He shows a real respect for Islam, and his characters' struggles with their faith is a huge part of what makes the book so engaging.
About those characters — his main trio of heroes are great characters in their own right, who offer us a window into the workings of UAS society through their personal struggles. Mustafa al Baghdad is a good guy, a former cop, who tries to do the right thing and be a good Muslim but struggles with guilt over his broken marriages. His best friend Samir is less devout and harbors a huge secret. And then there's Amal, a rare female officer who has to deal with sexism and weirdness, plus a famous mother and some secrets from her own past.
Of course, with a book like The Mirage, a huge part of the fun is looking for Easter eggs — all the famous people from real life, who turn up in slightly different ways. And all the weird bits of pop culture. Like when Samir is watching the 1950s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which stars Omar Sharif in this reality, and then we learn:
The film had been remade in color in the late 1970s, with the Israeli actor Leonard Nimoy playing the part of the doomed imam. The remake had attracted controversy for its more explicit sexuality — which made the "worldliness" of the original Body Snatchers' pod people seem quaint — and also for its more pessimistic ending. In the new Body Snatchers, the attempt to stop the invaders failed. The closing shot showed the imam's son marching in a crowd, emitting the characteristic shriek of a pod convert. The implication, that aliens could actually conquer Islam — that God would allow that — struck a number of real-life imams and sheikhs as blasphemous. There were calls to ban the film and demonstrations outside some theaters that showed it.
The book is full of weird touches like that, where bits of Western culture are reimagined through an Islamic lens, and bits of real history are refashioned in a weird new way, and it's a big part of what makes the book such a page-turner.
Ruff has really become an assured storyteller, too, turning Mustafa's investigation of this weird alternate world in which the U.S. invaded Iraq into a real detective story. Compared to the last Ruff book I read, Gas, Sewer & Electric, The Mirage feels like the work of a much more seasoned writer, who develops his characters and story with care and builds the world and the events in it piece by piece.
The Mirage is a book you're probably going to be hearing a lot about — I've been seeing some of the tastemakers on Twitter buzzing about it for months — and it's a book that it's easy to obsess over. Best to pick this one up before everyone else is already having intense conversations about all its little quirks, and all the stuff it reveals about our real-life struggles with terrorism and foreign occupations.