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.