Matt Ruff's The Mirage: spectacular alternate history of Arabian manifest destiny

I am a huge fan of Matt Ruff's novels, so when friends in the know started to spontaneously tell me about how fantastic the advance manuscript they'd just read for his next novel, The Mirage, was, I just assumed, yeah, it'd be more great Matt Ruff.

But this isn't just more Matt Ruff. This is Matt Ruff with the awesome turned up to 11. To 12. To 100.

The Mirage is an alternate history novel set in a world where Arabia, the United Arab States, are the world's historic superpower. It's Arabia that intervenes in WWII (outraged over Nazi incursions into Muslim North Africa), and after the war, Arabia partitions Germany and establishes a Jewish homeland, Israel, with Berlin as its capital ("Israelis" enjoy a special "right of return" entitling them to visas to visit Jerusalem, of course).

Arabia prospers, though it is not without its internal strife. A notorious crime-boss called Saddam Hussein earns a fortune through narcotics (AKA whiskey) smuggling, abetted by a tabloid newspaper publisher called Tariq Aziz; a hawkish senator called Osama bin Laden commands a secretive private intelligence service called Al Qaeda; and a clownish governor called Moammar Qaddafi is a sort of Sarah Palin figure, running a private fiefdom. On the other hand, Qadaffi is very good to Internet startups, like the group-edited encyclopedia called "The Library of Alexandria" (excerpts from this are sprinkled through the book, written in perfect Wikipediese).

But Arabia is a good place to live. A great place. Until a fateful day: November 9, 2001. That's the day that Christian extremists from the troubled theocracy America hijack four airliners and crash two of them into Baghdad's Twin Towers, triggering a War on Terror that results in widescale incursions on civil liberties, an invasion and interminable occupation of America, and a Gulf War in the Gulf of Texas as the independent republic is threatened by its looming American neighbor.

For Crusaders -- the Christian extremists who go on attacking Arabia -- 11/9 is a wake-up call. The insurgency spreads around the Christian world. As Crusaders are taken into custody by Arabian Homeland Security, they tell a strange story. They are all experiencing a shared dream. A dream of a different world. A topsy-turvy world. A world where a great power called America rules, where Arabia is a collection of squabbling dictatorships, where the atrocities of 11/9 happened on 9/11, and triggered a very different War on Terror. What's more, some of these Crusaders bear startlingly realistic artifacts from this strange world -- copies of an imaginary, long-defunct newspaper called The New York Times, military service records, Iraqi money bearing the likeness of the clownish mafioso Saddam Hussein.

It would be easy enough to laugh off as just another nutty conspiracy theory, except that the Crusaders are very sure of themselves. So sure, in fact, that they believe that this world, the real world, is actually a mirage ("The Mirage"), sent by the Christian God to punish them for their impiety. They must destroy this world to be returned to reality, the reality of America.

So goes this extraordinary novel, which transcends a gimmicky exercise in Arabifying America and vice-versa and becomes a top-rate war novel, a thoughtful and sly commentary on the war on terror, and a scathing critique of religious partisanship, all at once. This is no doubt partly due to Matt Ruff's extraordinary wife, researcher Lisa Gold, the best researcher I know (she was Neal Stephenson's researcher on The Baroque Cycle and other books). But it's also due to Ruff's sure and steady hand, able to steer a course through a narrow strait with mere parody on one side and tedious exercise on the other, finding the sweet spot right in the middle and coming through with a head of steam that's unstoppable.

This is one of those books that you read while walking down the street and long after your bedtime, a book you stop strangers to tell about.

The Mirage


    1. The review also makes it sound a lot like Abdourahman Waberi’s In the United States of Africa (2006), in particular with the use of alternate identifies for real-world figures. Check it out.

    2. Sounds a lot like it… The bit about “They are all experiencing a shared dream. A dream of a different world. A topsy-turvy world. A world where a great power called America rules, where Arabia is a collection of squabbling dictatorships…” basically crosses the line from “inspired by” to “blatantly copied and reskinned.”
      But I might be wrong. It’s better for the kids to read “The Man in the High Castle” redone for the post 9/11 gen than not to read it at all.

  1. I would love to read this, but I’m trying to pare back my dead-tree book purchases and the Kindle edition is $12.99.

    That’s THREE dollars less than the Prime-shipped hardcover. I want to support the author, but I’m broke, Daddy-O.

  2. What Noctilucent said.  I for-all-practical-purposes-never buy hardback novels, but for this I’ll make an exception.

  3. “Hmm … sounds a bit like Phil Dick’s classic “The Man in the High Castle”.”

    exactly what i was thinking

    1. Except that a good alternative history fiction (like Man in the High Castle) is plausible at some level. At least as far as the outline goes this one isn’t, even if you accept that in a world where they are marginalized there would be Christian equivalents to Al Qaeda.  There is just no way this United Arabia would support a Jewish state (even one in Germany). You can’t just swap names around to get a good alt history; you have to ask how people would plausibly act.

      1. The KKK is strongly Christian themed, and they carried out domestic terror attacks during the civil rights era. There’s a right-wing Christian movement in the United States right now, and you can see them radicalizing further as they feel more threatened — which they do, despite the fact that the United States is almost 80% Christian. I acknowledge there are people who Christianity inspires to be good, but I think you’re being naive about what else Christianity might inspire. There could absolutely be a Christian Al Qaeda. To a small degree, there already has been.

      2. I really have to disagree with you there. The arabic peoples were doing multiculturalism well while we were still living in huts. 

        Moorish Spain was a haven for Jewish peoples hounded out of Europe by religions and financial (as well as good ‘ol racist) pogroms. The Mughal princes prior to Aurangzeb provided a safe environment for non-muslims with Akhbar even removing the tax (Jisia) for non muslims.

        I think you may be getting confused be fairly recent political events which have set one against t’other and that was mainly due to a pretty poor imperial fudge by the British between the 1920’s and the 40’s in which we exercised the rights of our mandate in the region without due respect given to the people of the region for politically expedient reasons back home.

        So yes, I would suggest that not only is the premise plausible but from an historical perspective it’s almost more plausible than anything else.

        Truth stranger than fiction, who’d a thunk it?

        1. Kind of depends on the definition of “recent”. Yes, people like to talk up Moorish Spain as some sort of Utopia, but Jews living in Egypt and other places in the Middle East didn’t have a very nice time even before the existence of Israel — that’s kind of why they wanted their own state in the first place.

          1. Jews were treated poorly in parts of Arabia, to be sure.  Their treatment in Morocco was particularly bad.  But they were treated well in Spain until the Moors were cast out and the Inquisition began.  And those Jews moved in huge numbers, BY INVITATION, to the Ottoman Empire, where the Sultans were glad to have them.  While it wasn’t all wines and roses there either, the Jews enjoyed much better treatment until they gradually fell out of power by the 18th Century.

            The point being in that it is entirely plausible that Jews could be treated well and given a homeland, post-WWII.  Turkey, for example, was a major escape route for many German Jews fleeing the country (estimates at 100,000 or more).  This isn’t to say there weren’t massacres, pogroms or persecutions…just that there were also instances of fair and better than fair treatment.

          2. Kind of depends on the definition of “recent”.

            Like the 1930s to 1940s?  You really feel that Christian Europe was making Jews more welcome than the Arabs were?  Do I need to Godwin that for you?

          3. wizardru, 1000 years (and more) are a long, long time, even in Morrocco.

            Yes, there were some hard times (say, bad dynasties) but there were more better times : (rich) Jews were often named ambassadors, for instance.

            Also, from the times of the the autonom quasi Republic (‘governorat’) of the Sale’s pirates (basically Moors expelled from Spain who became privateers and took revenge at sea attacking spanish galions — carrying the south american gold –, and taking theirs orders — ‘Lettres de course’ — from Holland, London, etc.), we have some documents of french Christians infuriated (and feeling humiliated) because for paying ransoms to free prisonners, they had to negociate with jewish people of Sale.

            More recently, everybody agrees that the then future king Muhamad the 5th have protected his jewish subjects from the very ‘vichyssoises’ french authorities (wich opened fire on american soldiers in ’42…)

            But, well, in this matter, there is before 1948, and after. (Anyway, the kingdom of Morrocco have very good relations with the israeli state since the 70’s — but very discreetly)

      3. I’m entirely with AudioTherapist on this.

        Remember: modern Arab antisemitism in our world is largely a post-WWII phenomenon, imported from Europe and compounded by clumsy and stupid handling of the area by various global powers, especially the UK and US. (Followed up by Israel’s own stupidity in recent decades, but the seeds were already there.)

        Before the last few decades, most Arab countries had large, thoroughly integrated Jewish populations, with a much better history of equal treatment than there was in Europe. In a world where WWII was Germany vs Arabia, a strong Jewish/Muslim commonality is entirely plausible.

      4. Think so? Muslims were much more amiable to jews throughout history than christians were.  The jews didn’t “kill their god,” remember? Christian pogroms of jews were 100s of times more numerous than muslim ones. Today’s situation where christian world is allied with jews against muslims is a total historical aberration.

  4. This sounds interesting — though as an historian, I’ll admit I’m always a bit torn about alternate history type books.  This sounds pretty well done, though.


    I’ve read Bad Monkeys and it was okay.  But I love Ruff & Gold’s blog posts so much that between those and this review I’m getting it ASAP!

  6. For alternate history novels where “stuff” is slipping through the walls that separate our reality and that of the book may I suggest Christopher Priest’s “The  Separation”.  I thought it good enough to spend my own money to publish it here in the US.  Sorry, dead tree only only in the US, but well worth it.

  7. This book sounds like it would be a great one to read with Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt

  8. Cory your review gave me chills.  Can not wait to get this. 

    You really should think about getting a gig as a writer, your quite good with the written word.

  9. “the troubled theocracy America…attacks the middle east”
    I thought this was an alternative history…

  10. Man, we Germans must really have a manifest destiny. In nearly every alternate history novel there are still Nazis, even  when it makes no frigging sense.

    1. Nazis are a universal constant, obviously. Though they’re not always German, at least. I remember one novel in which they were French. (That’s gotta count for something, right?)

  11.  First five paragraphs, I was like, “hmm…interesting….funny satire”  – vaguely interested, but sure I had the shape of it and that it was the kind of gimmick that would grow old a few chapters in…and then there was paragraph six, and that’s when I went, “okay, forget that, this book sounds fantastic.”

  12. I downloaded the ebook immediately on reading this review, and I’ve just lost two hours to it when I was supposed to be doing something else. Totally lives up to Cory’s praise so far.

  13. In this alternate universe, why wouldn’t the Jews already living the Middle East just stay there? Or is it a constant that Jews have to be treated like crap, even in an alternate universe? 

    1. As far as I can tell (just finished the book), they did. The independent nation of Israel was set up (where East Germany was in our timeline) to save European Jews from the Holocaust. Islam is a legally privileged religion in the UAS, but both major parties, Unity and Hizbollah Arabia, preach tolerance for all “people of the book.”

      It’s unfair to say “there are Nazis in every timeline.” In “the mirage” some of the Lutheran terrorists are also national socialists, politically, but it’s their Lutheranism that makes them terrorists. (In “the mirage,” there was never any Bolshevik revolution in the Russian Orthodox Union for the Nazis to campaign against, so they never got any traction.)

      But Jews and even Christians are treated as full citizens in the UAS. It’s the Shiites that are the despised minority, and that owes more to their Persian ethnicity, and the fact that Iran stayed out of the UAS, and is a constant source of criminal smuggling and illegal immigration into the more prosperous UAS. (Think of Turkey as the Canada of the UAS and Iran as its Mexico, if you will: more ignorant, lower-class, and right-wing extremists in the UAS spend a lot of time fulminating about those awful Persian immigrants, in terms that imply that they think of all Shiites as Persians, even when confronted with examples to the contrary.) And some religious people blame the 11/9 disaster on the fact that Baghdad’s mayor, at the time, was accused of being a militant secularist, a dangerous charge in that society.

      I pre-ordered it, started as soon as I woke up the day it came out, and read it every minute I could spare until I put it down. I loved it — but the ending felt a little cheap, to me, and I wish he’d shown more of what it’s like to be an American living under occupation.

  14. I am a western expat who lives in the Middle East.  I was so interested in this write up about the novel, that I clicked right over to Amazon to buy it.

    The Kindle edition is more expensive than the hardcover.  Lost sale.

  15. and president michael jackson just loves little arab boys.

    i think the whole premise is nonsense and rubbish, but i now people would rather indulge in fantasy than cope with reality.

    former president reveals he was secretly a muslim and always has been.

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