BOOK REVIEW: The Mirage

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TITLE: The Mirage

AUTHOR: Matt Ruff

PUBLISHER: Harper Perennial

DATE: 2012 

The Mirage is the first book I’m covering here that I’m ambiguous about. Or perhaps that’s not entirely fair—it’s certainly one of my favorite alternate history books. But while my praises for the previous two entries in this column were fairly definite, The Mirage is a book that I’ve always felt didn’t quite live up to it’s potential. It’s a very good book that maybe wanted to be a great book. Or maybe it’s better to say it’s a very good book with some serious holes in the thematic tapestry, if that’s not getting too pretentious. I’m going to try and pick through it today, and pull out the elements that work and those that don’t, and try to articulate my complex feelings about The Mirage.

(BTW: SPOILERS FOR EVERYTHING)

BACKGROUND:

On November 11th, 2001, Christian fundamentalist terrorists hijack four airliners. Two are rammed into the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Center in Baghdad, one into the Arab Ministry of Defense in Riyadh. The fourth crashes in the Rub’ al Khali. In response, the government of the United Arab States declares a ‘War on Terror’ and invades America. Nearly a decade later, in 2009, the fighting is still ongoing, and Arab Homeland Security Agent Mustafa al Baghdadi is working nonstop to protect his homeland from Christian “crusaders”. But prisoners interrogations have begun to reveal a strange new belief among these fanatics; a claim that the entire world is just a “mirage”, and that in the true reality, America rules the world and the Middle East is a war-torn backwater. Absurd claims, but the terrorists are producing artifacts that purport to be from this “real world”, and AHS soon becomes aware that both the famed right-wing senator Osama bin Laden and the notorious gangster Saddam Hussein are also very interested in this “mirage”…

WHY I LOVE IT:

  1. So, I will confess, I wanted to read this book as soon as I learned what the premise was. I’ve always loved alternate history, and this was such an amazing conceit I couldn’t help but get excited. It’s such a simple idea, flipping the War on Terror on it’s head, but I don’t think anyone else has done it. One review said it was less an alternate history book and more of a Star Trek style ‘Mirror Universe’, and there’s some truth to that. The book is more focused on flipping our world than creating believable Points of Divergence, but I think it works.
  2. The central conceit is great but Matt Ruff really backs it up with excellent world-building. The book is very vague on events prior to the late 19th century, but we learn that in this world, the United Arab States (consisting of the Middle East and North Africa) is the dominant superpower, with Persia and Kurdistan as close allies. Western Europe and America are poor, war-torn, and dominated by various strands of Christian Fundamentalists. The UAS’s only democratic ally in the “Christian West” is Israel, established at the end of World War II in northern Germany. Great Britain appears to the analogue of Iran (ruled by the Archbishop of Canterbury since the 1979 Revolution) and the Evangelical Republic of Texas seems to be that world’s Saudi Arabia (brutally dictatorial and repressive but aligned with the superpower) Mirage doesn’t spend that much time laying out the geopolitical situation, but Ruff has a gift for painting very vivid pictures on the world in a very few sentences. Another example is the internal political situation in the UAS. All we know is that there are two main parties, the conservative Party of God, heavily backed by the powerful Saud family, and the liberal Arab Unity Party, founded in the 1960s by. Gamal Abdel Nasser. That’s all we learn but if you know anything but history it’s all you need to learn. The cosmopolitanism of the UAS is also really interesting. Though predominately Muslim, there are Oriental Orthodox Christian and  Mizrahi Jewish communities living peacefully throughout the Arab States. This feels almost utopian today, but of course it was the state of affairs in Arabia for centuries. That the Muslim characters think of Islam and Judaism as natural allies against Christian fundamentalist is delightful, and of course another historical Easter egg. Finally, I have to mention the cultural world building, which is one of the sillier but also one of the best parts. The book spends a lot of time talking about Arabian culture, in a fairly tongue-in-cheek way. The UAS enjoys many police procedurals such as Law & Order: Halal and CSI: Damascus, not to mention the famed Baghdad Police Story, which featured the wonderful tagline “Shafiq: He’s Sunni. Hassan: He’s Shia. They fight crime”. There is also mention of the delightfully named terrorism thriller 24/7 Jihad. I honestly want a real TV show named that. This is all rather silly of course, but it does more than anything else to establish the “Americanness” of this world’s Arabia. 
  3. The Mirage features one of my all-time exposition delivery devices. Between chapters it includes pages from “Library of Alexandria”, the UAS’s equivalent of Wikipedia, covering various important countries, people, and incidents in the world. It’s honestly a fantastic idea. I always love it when books include “in-world documents”.
  4. I will admit to being charmed by the book’s cast of villains, as I think it serves as a very good illustration of Ruff’s politics. Namely, we have: Senator Osama bin Laden (PoG-Arabia), a warmongering theocrat. Saddam Hussein, an Iraqi businessman who dominates Baghadad’s organized crime. Director Dick Cheney, head of the Republic of Texas’s Christian Intelligence Agency, charged with insuring internal security and religious conformity. Nicknamed “The Quail Hunter”. And last and least, Donald Rumsfeld, leader of a “patriotic” militia group active in the Alexandria, Virginia, suburbs.
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Sneak Peek!

  1. The Mirage plays with religion in really interesting ways. There are some implications that this world has been shaped by religious power much more than our own, specifically in that Russia was a theocracy known as the Orthodox Union for much of the 20th century. And Ruff does a good job integrating this into the text. Obviously, most of the main characters are Muslim, and I think he does a very good job of portraying Islam as just part of the warp and weft of their daily lives, no different than Christianity would be. Or, to put it differently, Islam is the default in The Mirage, the religion so dominant everyone else has to live their lives in relation to it, and reading it you see how that could be true. Has not the Islamic world been the center of culture and science for hundreds and hundreds of years? There are also so very amusing jokes about Arab Homeland Security agents trying to keep track of all the hundreds and hundreds of American Evangelical sects. It’s not even that the Arab characters don’t understand Christianity; their boss is a Syrian Christian. And Catholicism, that’s normal, even Lutheranism can be learned about in school. But this utter confusion of Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Adventists, Mormons! No one could keep it straight. It others Christianity in a way that’s very interesting, and it does so quite subtly.
  2. Fair warning, this section has the big SPOILER. So, The Mirage has a major supernatural element in it. Specifically, it is eventually revealed that their world really is a “mirage”, constructed by a djinn upon the wish of an American solider stationed in Iraq. (Our Iraq). I honestly love this. First, because it’s a great twist in general and helps to explain the weird “mirror-ness” of this world that I mentioned earlier. But mostly because I love the fact that an American soldier, occupying Iraq, found a djinn in a bottle and wished to live in a world run by Islam. Why did he do this? We don’t know. We never find out, but it’s such a tantalizing idea, hinting of bitterness and betrayal and a sense of weariness with the whole world.
  3. So, I’m pretty sure that The Mirage was inspired by Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Not in the plot, obviously (High Castle is about a world where the Axis wins WWII), but in the gradual breakdown of reality. In High Castle, one of the characters has learned to communicate with other timelines. Another character walks through a hole in Japanese-occupied San Francisco into our own. But while this portrayed mystically in High Castle, Mirage treats it as a recognizable and quantifiable phenomenon. Throughout the book, characters keep having these sensations like reality is collapsing around them. They have dreams of another life, or another world. They get these spasms of wrongness, like the world doesn’t quite feel right. And there are artifacts circulating in the underworld that seem to indicate a very different history. In-world, this is known as ‘Gulf Syndrome’, as it first became common after the events of the Mexican Gulf War (heh), and it is eventually fully understood, with characters discovering that certain drugs can aid the process. I have….mixed feelings about this to be honest. I like the concept a lot, I think it lends parts of the book a wonderfully dreamlike atmosphere, and it’s a great way of subtly building suspense, but the level to which it becomes systematized and medicalized I think undermines it.

WHAT I DON’T LIKE:

  1. For all my love of the world building, I think there exists a certain failure of visual storytelling. Which is to say, despite what we are told about the United Arab States and America, the way they are portrayed is fairly normal. In the introduction, we are shown a panorama of  Baghdad, and it is a modern city filled with skyscrapers and bullet trains. But the city’s slums are controlled by armed Shia militias and the police and government are controlled by organized crime. We are told that other states (specifically Libya) have effectively dictatorial governments put in power of rigged elections. We are specifically told that homosexuality is still strictly illegal and completely socially unacceptable, even in 2009, and the Party of God is vehemently hostile to women legislators. One could argue of course that even a democratic Islamic world would be more socially conservative, but it’s jarring noting how of the book is focused on precisely mirroring the USA. There is a band called Green Desert that has a hit song called ‘Arabian Idiot’ for Christssake! This isn’t to say that America is perfect, or that the UAS needed to be, but much of the time it feels like a third-world country. And during the chapter they spend in the suburbs of Washington D.C, Alexandria is portrayed…..perfectly normally. There are white picket fences and nice mansions and highways. Of course there’s also Arabian tanks patrolling the streets, but in many ways it feels much too normal. The visual storytelling fails to live up to the premise.
  2. As I mentioned earlier, I really like the “origin story” of the “mirage world”, the introduction of the djinn, and the existence of Gulf Syndrome. But I can’t help but wonder if all of that doesn’t undermine the thematic core of the book. So much of the book is dedicated to showing how real-seeming a Muslim Superpower could be, and yet the conclusion revolves around that reality breaking down as people see through the illusions and catch glimpses of reality. At the end (SPOILER), the world literally collapses and is formed anew. It tends to strengthen the idea that our world is the only possible existence and that nothing else could occur.
  3. I love the world building but it’s too damn vague. It’s not really fair to count this as a flaw because Matt Ruff has said this was deliberate, but it drives me bonkers. We don’t know anything about what’s going on in China, South America, Canada, America west of the Rockies, or most of Africa. And there’s a lot of stuff we only get hints of. For example, Europe and America is the Third World. The UAS is a superpower, and Persia, Turkey, and Kurdistan are allies. There’s some indications that Indonesia and India are also part of this ‘First World’ but this is never clarified. Arabia invades America but the only place that fighting is ever mentioned as having occurred is Washington D.C and Fairfax County. It’s a testament to how good the world building is that I want more of it!

WILL YOU LIKE IT:

If you’re a fan of alternative history, I really recommend it. Especially if you’ve read and enjoyed The Man in the High Castle, I think you should check it out. Even with all the issues I have with it, it’s still one of my favorite books, and I think it posses a lot of great questions even if it doesn’t always answer them. It’s also a remarkably fun read, which I may have obscured with all this talk of themes and world building strategies and whatnot. But it really does hold up as a thriller as well, albeit one with a skewed perspective. I’m not sure The Mirage transcends its genre, but it definitely exemplifies it.

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The United Arab States

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