by Matt Ruff
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When an author elects to play the game of "historical what if" as Matt Ruff does in The Mirage, it isn't enough to simply change one thing, the author must look at the history behind the situation and figure out how to make the events realistic. In The Mirage's case, where Ruff opens with the conceit that a group of Christian terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers in Baghdad on November 9, 2001, that change occurs several decades earlier than that pivotal action. The background doesn't entirely work as a united Arab society takes center stage against a fragmented North America, but Ruff's tale of investigators who begin to understand that their world might not be the only world, is interesting enough to hold the reader's attention.
Mustafa al Baghdadi and his partner Samir Nadim are joined by Amal bint Shamal in an investigation into a Christian terrorist cell which has made its way into Baghdad in the heart of the United Arab States. When examining one of their hotel rooms, Amal discovers a strange newspaper hidden behind a mirror, one which seems to indicate that the 2001 attacks took place two months earlier in a New York that was more metropolitan than the one in their own world. When a group tied to Senator bin Ladin tries to wave the investigators off the trail, they are given a presidential warrant to continue their search, which brings them into contact with mobster Saddam Hussein, who is collecting these strange artifacts and trying to figure out what sort of puzzle they create which seems to depict him as even more powerful than he is.
In many ways, The Mirage suffers from problem that many alternate histories suffer from in that the author puts in little winks to the audience, frequently due to his use of historical figures, ranging in this case from the more obvious choices of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Ladin, and Mohammed Atta to perhaps less obvious choices when Mustafa's investigation takes his team to the Christian States of America. At their best, these winks provide a shorthand for Ruff to get his characters and their situations across. At their worst, they have a tendency to drop the reader from the novel and reflect on how clever the author is trying to be.
Despite the parallels between Ruff's world and our own, his UAS is an interesting piece of world building as the Arab nations come together to form a cohesive unit which, while not utopian, offers an interesting view of a pan-Arabian society. Ruff is clearly aware of the Shia-Sunni tensions and incorporates them into his not-quite western world. He handles his historical characters well, extrapolating their roles in society based on their actual personalities and roles, rather than assigning familiar names to random characteristics.
Part police procedural, part thriller, and all alternate history, The Mirage look at the conflicts between the Middle East and the Western World and raises the question of whether they are fundamental. Ruff's answer is not the most optimistic, however he does offer signs of hope for understanding between the cultures, perhaps most indicated by his presentation of Muslim-Jewish cooperation.
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