The Mirage begins in a world related to ours but very different. The United Arab States (UAS) is the dominate superpower in the world, and North America is divided into several nations, including The Evangelical Republic of Texas, the Rocky Mountain Independent Territories, and the Christian States of America (CSA). Israel is in Central Europe. The Gulf War was fought in the Gulf of Mexico. And on November 9, 2001, Christian fundamentalists hijacked four commercial airliners and flew two of the them into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, Iraq, touching off a War on Terror which saw UAS troops invade North America, capturing the city of Denver (where the World Christian Alliance, the group claiming responsibility for 11/9, was believed to have a base) and eventually establishing a provisional government in Washington, D.C.
The novel follows Mustafa, Amal, and Samir, agents for UAS Homeland Security, as they combat terrorism in Baghdad. They keep running across references to and seeming artifacts from a "mirage world" where a North American country called The United States of America is the dominate superpower who was attacked by Muslim terrorists on 9/11/2001. At first they dismiss that world and its artifacts as Christian legend and hoax, but as time and their investigations progress, they begin to think the mirage world may be the real world.
The Mirage is set up as a thoughtful thriller, and the first half of the book, where Ruff does most of his world-building in his alternate world and all of his set-up for the mystery part of the story, is clever and compelling. But the novel falls off in the back half, when the cause of the mirage is revealed (it is in keeping with the logic of the world Ruff has built, but is somehow anti-climactic) and Mustafa, Amal, and Samir attempt to stop organized crime lord Saddam Hussein from reversing the mirage (he believes that he will be a powerful king in the "real world").
I was hoping that The Mirage would offer insight into 9/11 by making it and its context just strange enough to see clearly. And it does do a fairly effective job of making an American, Christian reader "other" to herself by aligning the narrative's sympathies with those who some Americans consciously or unconsciously make "other" themselves. But as the novel goes on, the alternate reality Ruff has built begins to feel a little cardboard, a little too clever--and in ways which are not serving the story. One begins to question the pat "flip" of our world to this alternate world, one begins to long for an in-depth exploration of how the world got to have this "mirage" configuration. Clever parallels become annoying, begin to beg for further insight. Why, for instance, should there be a Law and Order: Halal in this world? Would the progression of popular culture, the reaction to and anticipation of popular taste, interest, and opinion in a UAS really so closely mirror that of the USA we know so as to develop the same television program? In other words, why should a superpower centered in the Arab world look anything at all like a superpower centered in North America?
The answer has to do with getting this story on the page, not with any careful consideration of another culture. (If the worlds did not parallel one another, Ruff's two realities would not be close enough to one another for Mustafa and others to begin to believe in the other, "real" world. And to be fair, the explanation for the creation of the mirage does address (though indirectly) why a UAS would parallel a USA in any way.) But if one can accept the parameters under which The Mirage operates, the novel does offer a striking glimpse of the USA from outside. Perhaps the best way to approach The Mirage is to think of it as akin to an animal fable, where, instead of human foibles being made clear to human readers by giving those foibles to animals, American foibles are made clear to American readers by presenting them from a different point of view. Perhaps The Mirage works best if one thinks of it as a book which asks not "What's up with the Middle East?" but rather "What's up with America?"
A fascinating book, if an unsatisfying one. It's biggest success may be in existing, in daring (and I do mean "daring") to suggest to the American public, even if only in fiction, that the Arab world may be the injured party in our world and that what we had best look at is ourselves. And I thank Matt Ruff for writing it, even if, as a story, it doesn't really work.
This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.