Alternate history, by its very nature, is one of the most easily-ploughable fields in genre fiction because literally all one must do is change a single historical event and then logically extrapolate the repercussions. Harry Turtledove has made a career out of doing this.
Sometimes, though, alternate history doesn’t require telling the reader what the crisis point was that got changed. Sometimes, the reader just needs to know things are different. And that’s where The Mirage by Matt Ruff begins.
The premise of The Mirage is what drew me to the book in the first place: in an alternate Earth where the Middle East has the power and America is a bunch of squabbling little nation-states, Christian terrorists hijacked four planes on November 9, 2001. Three of them hit their targets; the fourth crashed before it could strike. Now, nine years later, Homeland Security agent Mustafa al Baghdadi and his team — Samir, a closeted homosexual, and Amal, a woman facing both the perception of her sex as well as nepotism issues — are starting to hear that the world that they know may not be what it seems.
In the beginning, I didn’t much care for The Mirage. It felt far too much like the author had taken a bunch of true stories about America in the post-9/11 days and changed just enough to make them work in a world where the United Arab States (capital: Riyadh; biggest city: Baghdad) is the dominant superpower. And for about the first 20 percent, by my e-reader’s calculation, there wasn’t anything genre-specific about the book at all except for its alternate history status. I honestly didn’t know where the plot was going.
And then the mirage was mentioned. That’s when things got good. The plot shook out, there was a clear path, and the characters showed direction in their actions. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ultimate resolution of the mirage storyline, although there was a lot of really cool stuff that happened in America that unfortunately I can’t post here because it would be super-spoilery.
The book contained the requisite amount of wink-wink-nudge-nudge toward American historical figures — including a surprising appearance by LBJ — and includes both George HW Bush and George W Bush (and Laura), Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, John McCain, and even David Koresh. On the UAS side, we heard from Tariq Aziz, Moammar Al-Gaddafi, and several others. One character who — if I remember correctly — remained nameless, however was the president of the UAS. I was really curious who Ruff would have chosen to take on that role, but I honestly can’t recall the name being mentioned in the text.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the use of Wikipedia-style “Library of Alexandria” entries that told the story of the world in which the book takes place. It’s where readers find out the history of Saddam Hussein (a crime lord), Osama Bin Laden (a war hero and hawkish Senator), and even Nebuchadnezzar himself. The little details provided here were relevant and germane, and while they were certainly infodumps, they were set up as such and therefore didn’t bother me.
Also, I think the final chapter (after the big sandstorm) was excellent in a minimalist fashion, and it really made me wonder what the characters would encounter next.
Overall, I think that The Mirage was a tale that could have been told better. The author spent a lot of time convincing us that he’d done enough research to make the book work, and some of the book’s better points got lost in the shuffle. I enjoyed reading it, once I got into it, and I do think books like this one have their place, but I can’t say that even every alternate history fan is going to enjoy this novel. Still, the ideas are sound and the plot is there, so if you’re into this kind of story, give it a shot.
Note to Parents: This book contains graphic violence, terrorism, drug use, negative portrayals of multiple religions, and adult language. Mature teens should be able to handle it, although they may not understand some of the underlying reasons. Of course, you should use your own best judgment when it comes to your children.