If you amalgamated the methodical, punctilious, world-building skills of Ian McDonald (The Dervish House) with the reality-distortion powers of Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle) and then folded in the satirical, take-no- prisoners savagery of Norman Spinrad (The Iron Dream), you might very well be able to produce a book approximating Matt Ruff's The Mirage God willing, as Ruff's characters are continually cautioning. Ruff's Big Idea masterstroke so simple yet infinitely deep is to imagine a world where every polarity of the post-9/11 scene has been flipped 180 degrees. (Actually, of course, for maximum plausibility, the fictional timeline is shown to have diverged from ours much earlier, at the end of the Ottoman Empire.)
America, a jealous, backward, fragmented, fundamentalist- ridden failed nation, is responsible for the terrorist-driven, airplane-mediated destruction of the World Trade Towers of Baghdad, cosmopolitan metropolis of the United Arab States, that enlightened, progressive, technology-rich superpower in a continuum just one funhouse mirror removed from ours. The event occurs not on 9/11/2001 but on 11/9/2001, that off-kilter date serving as just the merest hint of the radical transvaluation Ruff has in store. And the novel is set more or less ten years after, in the long, grinding aftermath of that event.
Ruff leads with a charming, utterly engrossing cast: Mustafa, Samir, and Amal, with Mustafa the privileged point of view three UAS Homeland Security agents who will invariably provoke thoughts of the Mod Squad. But any intentional campiness functions as just a slightly quirky flavor to their tight- knit ensemble, as they undertake perilous campaigns against Christian terrorists. And coming to dominate their assignments are rumors of "the mirage," the alien fundamentalist belief that their world of Islamic hegemony is a fictitious one, somehow deriving from another, prior, more "real" continuum. And when actual artifacts from the crazy alternate history our world, of course begin to bleed over, events really begin to get weird, in the manner of China Miéville's The City & the City.
Aside from satisfying the traditional requirements of any good story dramatic character arcs, suspenseful plotting, fusion of theme and action which he does admirably, Ruff's titanic accomplishments with this book lie along two parallel yet complementary axes.
First is the sheer magnificent magnitude of his world building. This universe of Islamic supremacy is the most tangible such creation since Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt. (And it's a testament to the paucity of ambition among current SF writers that such a juicy topic has basically gone begging, despite its immediacy and topicality, save for these two novels.) Ruff has not let one niche of his imaginary culture or politics go unexplored. He's even imagined the kind of lolcats this world would boast! Courtesy of Ruff's hard work, the reader inhabits this world as fully as possible. And the information is delivered with sophisticated, effortless grace. The excerpts before each chapter from the "Library of Alexandria" web pages (the new world's Wikipedia) help a lot in this cause. Moreover, Ruff creates a completely sympathetic portrait of the world, warts and glamour both, not some propagandist's one- dimensional caricature in either direction. It's a humanist, naturalistic depiction. Yes, the world of the UAS discriminates against homosexuality still, to the point where Samir's gayness is used as blackmail material. But there's no mindless jihad against other cultures, and in fact the enlightened Muslims work hand-in-hand with the Israelis, whose post-WWII refugee nation was founded in the ruins of Germany! ("The Israelis were bombing Vienna" is the opening line to one chapter.)
Mention of this Zionist dislocation brings us to the second aspect of the book, the estrangement lurking beneath the acute mimesis. Ruff is out to blow your mind with the way things might have gone, given a few divergent forks in the historical road. And much of this estrangement is conveyed in the alternate careers of famous people, rendered completely believable. Saddam Hussein is a notorious gangster. Osama bin Laden is a right-wing senator. Gaddafi is the Jerry "Governor Moonbeam" Brown of the nation. Without over-reliance on the shorthand, ready-made personalities of the famous a common misstep in shoddy alternate histories Ruff still employs these recognizable personages (mostly offstage, except for Saddam) as perfect foils for his tale. And I haven't even spoiled many of the most surprising appearances.
Finally, Ruff doesn't fudge the ontological weirdness of his world. When you learn what triggered the birth of this parallel timeline, you will be astonished at his audacity.
These two strong pillars the richly sub-created timeline and its salient anamorphic reflections of our own era together make for a book that will captivate upon an initial surface reading and trouble your certainties long after.
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.
Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo