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The Mirage by Matt Ruff

History is, of course, all about perspective. Our own personal perspective, sure, but also our collective ethnocentric perspective. Author Matt Ruff has managed to flip all that we think we know about the last decade of world history on its collective ass in his new novel, The Mirage.

First, here’s a little history: the United Arab States (UAS) was formed after 13 independent states around the Arab Peninsula broke away from the Ottoman Empire in the late-19th century. While Europe went to war in the early-20th century, the UAS quietly grew into an industrial giant with the discovery of local petroleum reserves. When North African Muslims were threatened by Germany in 1941, the UAS declared war on the Axis countries, liberating 5 African states to join the union in the process. In 1944, the UAS invaded France’s southern coast, leading the Allied forces to victory. (Adolf Hitler was beheaded at Nuremberg in 1946.) 

Over the ensuing decades, the UAS grew into a world superpower, expanding to 22 states & experiencing wealth and prosperity. On November 9, 2001, everything changed. Two airplanes hijacked by Christian fundamentalists from America crashed into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in downtown Baghdad, killing thousands of people. A third plane was crashed into the Arab Defense Ministry headquarters in Riyadh. After a white supremacist group from the Rocky Mountain Territories in North America laid claim to the attacks, the UAS invaded Denver, sparking a decade-long War on Terror.

As you can see, much of this world is familiar, with significant twists. America is a third world backwater, filled with loose alliances, broken states, and fundamentalist militias. Osama bin Laden is a hero from the Afghan war with Orthodox Russia and a senator from Arabia. Saddam Hussein is a thug and an organized crime boss from Baghdad. The state of Israel is in what was northern Germany & occupies the West Bank of the Rhine. Lyndon B. Johnson was president of the Christian States of America (CSA) from 1963-2003. Louisiana was liberated by UAS troops in the Mexican Gulf War. You get the idea. 

The real twist to this – yes, these are not the twists, in fact – is that in the present day, Arab Homeland Security has captured an American who claims that the whole world is just a mirage and that in the real world, everything is reversed. In the man’s apartment, agents find a copy of the long-defunct New York Times dated September 12, 2001 that appears to refute his claims. As it turns out, AHS has other objects of interest in their possession: an American flag with a field of white stars instead of the familiar golden cross, a map of the Middle East with Israel instead of Palestine & Iran instead of Persia, and a French newspaper with similar headlines to the Times one. But what does this all mean?

“This mirage you speak of, it’s God’s doing?”
Costello nodded. “‘The last shall be first, and the first last…’ God’s turned the world upside down.”
“And why would He do that?”
“To punish us.”
“The Americans?”
“Yes.”
“For what sin?”

“Pride,” Costello said.

Despite the phenomenally clever and original premise, The Mirage does have its faults. The cast of Arab Homeland Security agents and detective-types fall a little flat in the personality department and, while necessary for that all-important perspective, the familiar name dropping gets a little tedious. Dick Cheney, George Bush, Saddam, Osama, Kissinger, LBJ, even David Koresh. Law & Order: Halal, CSI: Damascus. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But stylistically it reads like a mass market thriller, which I think is the author’s intention – with the notable exception that the entire plot premise gives the reader pause. Even with all the hokey faux-cultural references, The Mirage makes you think – it challenges our preconceptions about the inner workings of our world in a way that fiction rarely does. Rather than just being an out-of-the-box Tom Clancy novel, we are challenged to reflect on our world – and America’s place in it – a little differently.
We live under the assumption that things are the way they are because that’s just how it is – but Ruff proves that with just a slight tweaking, our world could be a very different place. In the case of his created universe, the perspective is only shifted to a different hemisphere – the world is very much the same, just from a different vantage point, but with huge ramifications. And like I said, history is all about perspective.

(The Mirage goes on sale at your local indie in February 2012.)
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This entry was posted on January 9, 2012 by in Matt Ruff, Mirage, review.
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