Friday, May 11, 2012
The Mirage by Matt Ruff
I probably never would have been interested in Matt Ruff's alternate history The Mirage if it hadn't been for a mention on Cory Doctorow's Boing Boing. It sounded interesting, so I had a look and bought a copy when I saw it.
Ruff has used an interesting, and I suppose somewhat controversial premise for the book. It largely centres around the September 11 attacks in 2001, but with one very significant twist. The attacks take place on the 9 of November and it is Christian fundamentalists from a fractured America who fly planes into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, the Arab Defence Ministry in Riyadh, and a fourth was aimed at Mecca, but was brought down by passengers before the hijackers could hit their intended target.
In this world the United Arab States are a strong world power, with their capital in the bustling metropolis of Baghdad and the US is a fractured country under the heel of a long serving and corrupt dictator, who is probably suffering from senility, leaving the country to his equally corrupt and inept assistants.
Matt Ruff has very cleverly and skillfully described how the world could be so different, picking out the turning points, of which September 11, 2001, is most definitely one. The world building in this is excellent and it's a superlative piece of alternate history. The Mirage successfully combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, political satire and contemporary thriller within it's pages. One small quibble I have is that the author has largely ignored China and Russia within his world. I know the book is mostly about the aftermath of the attacks on the UAS, and the aftermath, as well as US Arab relations, but Russia and China are still world powers, so should get more coverage. Even Israel, which now appears to be based in East Germany, gets more of a mention. I also would have liked to see more of the super Mossad agent Sinbad than we actually got, too. He was a very cool character.
The story really follows three Homeland Security agents: Mustafa, Samir and Amal. It creates three very different, believable characters with excellent back stories and makes them into people that the reader gives a damn about. Mustafa has never gotten over losing one of his wives in the November 9 attacks (he had 2, but he's largely estranged from the second one). Samir hides a personal secret that if discovered could ruin the life he's built for himself on every level. Amal is the daughter of a prominent politician and she's always trying to prove herself to her mother and live up to the memory of her heroic father, who was murdered in the line of duty.
It looks like a pretty standard alternate history with some clever ideas until the trio take in a terror suspect, who under questioning, makes the claim that they are living in a false world. It's a mirage. In the world he comes from the US is the dominant world power and the Arab States are squabbling backwaters who are only important because of the oil on their soil. In his world it was Muslim terrorists who flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Centres in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
It would be easy to dismiss the claims as the ravings of a committed lunatic, but deeper investigation reveals validity to the story, and as they dig deeper Mustafa, Samir and Amal find themselves in a mystery that reaches into their world's seamy underbelly and extends to the top levels of government. In trying to find a way out of this mess the three will be taken way out of their comfort zones and be stretched to their very limits before uncovering the shocking truth.
It does help to enjoy The Mirage if you have interest in current affairs and politics both before and after the events of September 11, 2001. Many of the key players in this real life soap opera appear, quite often in different capacities to those from which we know and remember them. Saddam Hussein and his murderous offspring, Osama Bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld and even Muammar Gaddafi.
The Mirage is highly recommended and well worth taking the time to have a look at. If you enjoyed Robert Harris' Fatherland, then you would also really like reading The Mirage.