Alternate history science fiction novel, masquerading as
literary fiction, written by Matt Ruff and published in 2012.
Cast your mind back with me to that fateful day that changed the
world forever: 11/9/2001, when fundamentalist
Christian terrorists from the backwater American states highjacked some
jetliners and crashed them into the Tigris and
Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad. Remember that? The United Arab
States launched a War on Terror and invaded America in an attempt to
bring democracy to its shores.
That's the high concept that Ruff's novel is based around -- a
mirror universe where, instead of good and evil being reversed,
East and West, Christianity and Islam have been switched around.
Here, the Muslim world is wealthy and powerful, the world leader in
almost all areas. America and Europe are mostly uneducated
poor, fractured into many smaller nations, and dominated by
fundamentalist Christians, including a faction of extremists who have
given the Western nations reputations as terrorists and crazies.
I know what you’re thinking. I thought
the same thing when I read the
description the first time. But the interesting thing here is that it’s
just the religions and hemispheres that get switched in
prominence -- good doesn’t replace evil or vice versa. The
villains we’ve come to know
remain villains in this other world, too. Saddam Hussein and his sons
are turned into crime bosses; Osama bin Laden is a corrupt,
insane, and genocidal senator; even as far back as World War II,
Hitler remains the
mad dictator, just with his aggression directed toward Africa and the
Middle East rather than to Europe and America.
Our lead characters in this story are a group of Arab Homeland
Security agents — Mustafa al Baghdadi, Amal bint Shamal, and Samir
— who stumble onto the discovery that many terrorists -- and many
civilians as well -- believe in something they call the Mirage --
world as everyone else knows it is a lie, a reversal of the way things
are supposed to be, with America on top and the Muslim world on the
bottom. It sounds like some mad theory cooked up by a bunch of cranks --
but sometimes they have evidence with them — newspapers,
videos, and more that seem to be from this mirror universe. And many
people -- both American and European terrorists as well as powerful UAS
conspirators -- are dedicated to destroying the Mirage and getting the
world back to the way it was. Can the Homeland Security agents stop
them? Should they stop them at all?
It's a fantastic piece of high
concept, isn’t it? Takes a little bit to get the idea of it across, but
once it does, you just wanna track it down to see how it all goes down. I
loved our main characters and the wonderful tics and twists in
their personalities. Each of our protagonists has something special that
sets them apart and makes them somehow an outcast from the society
they work to protect. Mustafa once took two wives, in a misguided
attempt to be a more traditional Muslim man -- and Muslim culture now
looks down on taking multiple wives, so everyone thinks Mustafa is a bit
of a weirdo. Amal is a woman, and her mother is an important
politician, and while the UAS is a relatively progressive society, at
least among Muslim nations, she's still considered a freak for working
at a traditionally male profession like law enforcement. And Samir is a
closeted gay man in a highly homophobic society.
I loved the concept of separating chapters in the book with passages from The Library of
Alexandria, the alternate-dimension version of Wikipedia, to tell a lot
of the backstory of the world’s prominent people, history, and culture.
And the culture is definitely different -- what we’re looking at isn’t
just “America with an Arabian flavor.” The UAS is a vastly more
conservative place than the USA is -- alcohol is mostly illegal, it’s
still highly controversial that there are female politicians, and a
search on The Library of Alexandria for “gay rights movement” pulls up
nothing at all. The UAS is a place that’s a lot more liberal-minded than
real-world nations like Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, but it’s
still being run on the very conservative principles of Islam, which
means it looks like a vastly different place than we’re used to as more
If the book has a failing, it’s that it probably overdoes the
alternate-universe cameos by famous (and infamous) people. Our heroes
meet up with bin Laden, Saddam, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and many, many
more. We even discover that in the altered history of this world, LBJ
was somehow the president clear up to the end of the 20th century. While
you do get a thrill of discovery when you meet many of these
alternate-universe versions of these folks, after a while, it starts to
become a bit too familiar. This is a trick that should be used
sparingly, but it’s really used far, far too often. Excusable, I think,
when we’re talking about the UAS version of "Invasion of the Body
Snatchers" starring Omar Sharif, but a bit tedious when we meet up with a
few too many mirror-universe celebrities.
Still, for all that, it’s a hugely interesting and entertaining book.
Challenging in a lot of ways, probably infuriating for some folks, but
still definitely worth reading.