The Mirage

The Mirage - Matt RuffIt is odd the way ideas appear to percolate around the writing community, often without any actual communication between the writers involved. I talked recently about how Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 and Kathleen Ann Goonan’s This Shared Dream both address the problems of providing development aid to so-called Third World counties. I also mentioned Robinson’s innovative use of techniques pioneered by John Dos Passos. As it happens, a very similar method is deployed by Matt Ruff in his latest novel, The Mirage. The reason that Ruff needs this is that, like Lavie Tidhar in Osama, Matt has created an alternate history story involving Osama Bin Laden.

Confronted by coincidences like this, fans often jump to conclusions about stealing of ideas. This is often because they have no idea how long it takes for a book to get to market. Sometimes an idea’s time just comes, and more than one person picks up on it. Besides, it is often fascinating to see how different writers tackle the same idea.

Ruff needs the Dos Passos technique because his imagined world is much more divergent from ours than Tidhar’s. Lavie simply postulated a world in which the 9/11 attacks did not happen. The Mirage, in contrast, is set in a world that is a mirror image of ours. The United Arab States is a world super power, while North America is divided into small, feuding countries, many of which are theocracies. One of them, in a nod to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, is called Gilead.

So on November 9th 1422 (or 2001 if you use the Christian calendar) Christian fundamentalists hijack four commercial airliners. Two of them crash into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad. The President of the UAS declares War on Terror, specifically naming three small countries: America, the United Kingdom and North Korea, as an “Axis of Evil”. “America” here refers to the original 13 states. Two years later that country is invaded by a coalition of forces put together by the UAS on the pretext of needing to seek out and destroy weapons of mass destruction.

You can see what a lot of info-dumping is required. Readers will need to know about the UAS, about the various countries of North America, and so on. We need to be told, for example, that Bin Laden is a war hero who has since been elected to the UAS senate. Saddam Hussein is a big time thug whose criminal gangs run much of the Baghdad underworld. As the UAS has a big say in what happened after WWII, the State of Israel is nowhere near Palestine; it is in territory confiscated from conquered Germany. The UK’s Prime Minister, David Irving, is obsessed with driving the Israelis out of Christian territory.

How does Ruff convey all this (and far more)? He uses the Dos Passos technique. Chapters of the story are interspersed with extracts from The Library of Alexandria (“A user-edited reference source”). Yes, it is a Muslim Wikipedia, and it does the infodump job very well.

What about the story, though? Well, we are introduced to three Baghdad police officers: Mustafa, Samir and Amal. They work for Arab Homeland Security. Mustafa’s wife died in the 11/9 attacks, while Amal’s mother, who was Mayor of Baghdad at the time of the attacks, has risen to become the most powerful woman politician in the UAS. Our heroes are anti-corruption (and therefore anti-Saddam), and Amal at least is a proud feminist. Tracking down Christian terrorists is a major part of their job, and it is thus that they come into contact with an idea known as “The Mirage”. Some of those nutty Christians apparently believe that the world we know is nothing but an illusion. In the real world, they say, America is a world power, and it is the Muslims who are hunted and shunned. For some reason Saddam Hussein and Senator Bin Laden have taken a particular interest in this story. And in any case these rumors are inspiring terrorists, so they have to be investigated.

Ruff’s world building here is magnificent. There are all sorts of delightful little details. For example, one of the Mirage-related artifacts that our heroes discover is a supposed newspaper called The New York Times.

“It’s a ghost paper,” Mustafa said. “According to our research, there was a New York Times, but it was shut down by the American government in 1971 for revealing state secrets. The publishers were executed for treason.”

American readers may remember the Pentagon Papers scandal. According to Wikipedia, Kissinger did actually call for those responsible to be “put to the torch”.

I’m also highly amused by the way that Ruff has found roles for the major and minor players in the drama. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have their time on stage, while the agents of the Republic of Texas’s crack intelligence unit, the Christian Intelligence Agency, include a couple of dubious characters called Tim McVeigh and David Koresh. It is notable that a few characters, including Cheney, are never mentioned by name. I imagine that the HarperCollins legal people may have had a say in that decision. (Though I note, again with amusement, that HarperCollins is owned by News International, and they still published this book.)

It is not the quality of the world-building, however, that will be questioned about The Mirage. It will be the choices that Ruff has made. It is in many ways a no-win situation. He has to paint a recognizable picture of a Muslim superpower. But if he wants to portray Islam accurately that means including those parts of it that Western readers will find less attractive alongside those that we might find more admirable.

In search of an Islamic view of the book, I turned to Sofia Samatar’s review at the Islam and Science Fiction website. I was relieved to see her note of Ruff, “His careful portrayal of Muslims is laudable”. However, I find myself agreeing with her criticism of the book as being a tale of two groups of religious extremists fighting each other. I suspect that if Ruff has made the UAS a more secular country, and therefore more like the modern-day USA, non-Islamic reviewers would have denounced his portrayal of the Muslim world as “unrealistic”. However, by removing the secular world from the conflict Ruff has effectively let the West off the hook.

Liberal readers in the West will find much to applaud in The Mirage. It allows them to look down upon religious people in both the Christian and Muslim worlds. But it also allows them to avoid any culpability for the conflict. Some people may also feel that Ruff is arguing that Muslim countries are less capable of developing a secular democracy than Christian ones. I wouldn’t lay that charge against Ruff myself. As I explained above, I think he pretty much has to show the Muslim world as theocratic, but I can see the charge being made.

Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed the book. The idea has been very cleverly executed and, as I have noted, it will appeal greatly to people who enjoy alternate history world building. As a take on 9/11 I prefer Lavie Tidhar’s Osama, which is simpler and packers a better punch at the end. Ruff’s book, however, is very clever, and that’s the sort of thing that science fiction readers like.

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