Sunday, May 20, 2012

'The Mirage' offers an alt. hist. take on Sept. 11 terrorism

The Mirage
By Matt Ruff

Cover photos (except where noted) from

     There's a subsection of science fiction known as alternate history or what-if stories, in which things happened differently than in our world: the Axis wins World War II, or the South wins the American Civil War, or Europe never colonizes the Americas, etc. One of the most famous is Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle," a novel set within a post-WWII partitioned America, where the Japanese and the Germans have divided the continent between them. To complicate matters, in Japanese-controlled California, everyone is reading a samizdat novel which postulates that America's forces and allies won World War II (but not exactly the way it happened in our world), and the German government wants this danger propagandist killed.
     Earlier this year "The Mirage" by Matt Ruff " was published, and it takes a similar skewed look not at WWII but at 9/11: In a world where the Arab states long ago formed a greater Arabian nation and became the dominant power on the planet, where the U.S. never won its independence from Britain and remained a backwater, there are coordinated attacks by hijacked planes on  Nov. 9 (11/9, not 9/11), with U.S. radicals blamed. Nevertheless, several characters experience slippages that reveal our version of the world, with occasional artifacts of that world found for sale on eBay. Is their world the mirage? Is our world? Are both?
     Some of the background on this alternate world is revealed in the form of Wikipedia-like entries from the imaginary Library of Alexandria Web site.
     Aside from the intriguing premise, the characters are well-developed. Several are from the police or military, charged with investigating Christian fundamentalist terrorists. Ruff could have depicted this alternate history as a dystopia, a nightmarish mirror image of our world -- and for many Americans it will be -- but most of the Muslim characters are sympathetic, and the world as a whole is about as nightmarish as our own. Some changes -- the state of Israel is established in a part of Germany as reparations for the Holocaust -- sound like not such a bad idea.
     The solution to why this world is the way it is, and who is responsible, could provoke a groan, but I chuckled and went along with it. I won't spoil it for you.

     Although Matt Ruff's bibliography is small -- this is only his fifth published novel -- he is one of the handful of authors for whom I check to see if anything new is forthcoming. I don't like everything he writes, but he's always interesting.

Cover image from


      His first novel, and my favorite, is "The Fool on the Hill," a fantasy set in and around the campus of Cornell University. It's one of those books with such a large and varied cast that it requires a list of characters at the beginning to help you keep track of them. They include Stephen Titus George, a writer; Aurora Borealis Smith, a nonconformist's daughter; Mr. Sunshine, an old Greek god, who creates and manipulates the plot; and the Bohemians, a group of chivalrous modern-day knights. The plot also involves a war between elves and rats, and a college for dogs. Ruff has more information, excerpts and even a FAQ page on his blog here.    

     I also liked his third, "Set This House in Order," a novel of multiple personality disorder. Read more about it here

     I'd rank "The Mirage" as my third favorite Ruff novel. "Bad Monkeys" (a thriller about a covert law enforcement group that assassinates evildoers) and "Sewer, Gas, Electric: The Public Works Trilogy" (a science fiction novel which includes a computer simulation of Ayn Rand) have their moments, but didn't really do anything for me (but Ruff said "Bad Monkeys" is his best seller, so what do I know?).


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