The Mirage by Matt Ruff
This is really not the typical book I’d be reviewing here. Primarily, it’s a pretty high class novel, and as you know, we ‘uns down heah lahk to spit on th’ floor frum tahm to tahm, and even read them funnybooks what they got down at the drugstore.
Anyway, believe it or not, this novel has a few very important elements we’d recognize as comic readers. It’s essentially a story about a parallel universe, and it closely matches up with the concept of the mirror universe, where good and evil are switched around, like on “Star Trek” or DC’s Earth-3. But in “The Mirage,” it’s not good and evil that are switched — it’s East and West, and Christianity and Islam.
Here, the Muslim world is wealthy and powerful, the world leader in almost all areas. America and Europe are mostly uneducated backwaters, poor, fractured into many smaller nations, and dominated by fundamentalist Christians, including a faction of extremists who crashed jetliners into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad back on 11/9/2001, kicking off a war in which the United Arab States launched a War on Terror by invading America in an attempt to bring democracy to its shores.
I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same thing when I read the description the first time. But the interesting thing here is that it’s just the religions and hemispheres that get switched in prominence — good doesn’t replace evil or vice versa. The villains we’ve come to know remain villains in this other world, too. Saddam Hussein and his sons are turned into crime bosses; Osama bin Laden is a corrupt, insane, and genocidal senator; even as far back as World War II, Hitler remains the mad dictator, just with his aggression directed toward Africa and the Middle East rather than to Europe and America.
Our lead characters in this story are a group of Arab Homeland Security agents — Mustafa al Baghdadi, Amal bint Shamal, and Samir Nadim — who stumble onto the discovery that many terrorists — and many civilians as well — believe in something they call the Mirage — that the world as everyone else knows it is a lie, a reversal of the way things are supposed to be, with America on top and the Muslim world on the bottom. It sounds like some mad theory cooked up by a bunch of cranks — but sometimes they have evidence with them — newspapers, clippings, videos, and more that seem to be from this mirror universe. And many people — both American and European terrorists as well as powerful UAS conspirators — are dedicated to destroying the Mirage and getting the world back to the way it was. Can the Homeland Security agents stop them? Should they stop them at all?
Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a fantastic piece of high concept, isn’t it? Takes a little bit to get the idea of it across, but once it does, you just wanna track it down to see how it all goes down. I loved our main characters, I loved the wonderful tics and twists in their personalities, and how they got mired in all these bizarre adventures while trying to track down the mystery of the Mirage.
I loved the concept of including passages from The Library of Alexandria, the alternate-dimension version of Wikipedia, to tell a lot of the backstory of the world’s prominent people, history, and culture. And the culture is definitely different — what we’re looking at isn’t just “America with an Arabian flavor.” The UAS is a vastly more conservative place than the USA is — alcohol is mostly illegal, it’s still highly controversial that there are female politicians, and a search on The Library of Alexandria for “gay rights movement” pulls up nothing at all. The UAS is a place that’s a lot more liberal-minded than real-world nations like Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, but it’s still being run on the very conservative principles of Islam, which means it looks like a vastly different place than we’re used to as more secular Westerners.
If the book has a failing, it’s that it probably overdoes the alternate-universe cameos by famous (and infamous) people. Our heroes meet up with bin Laden, Saddam, George Bush, Dick Cheney, and many, many more. We even discover that in the altered history of this world, LBJ was somehow the president clear up to the end of the 20th century. While you do get a thrill of discovery when you meet many of these alternate-universe versions of these folks, after a while, it starts to become a bit too familiar. This is a trick that should be used sparingly, but it’s really used far, far too often. Excusable, I think, when we’re talking about the UAS version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” starring Omar Sharif, but a bit tedious when we meet up with a few too many mirror-universe celebrities.
Still, for all that, it’s a hugely interesting and entertaining book. Challenging in a lot of ways, probably infuriating for some folks, but still definitely worth reading. Go pick it up.