Matt Ruff’s The Mirage (2012) brilliantly realizes its high concept premise, but ultimately it feels like less than the sum of its parts. This one takes place in a geopolitical mirror universe. Here, the War on Terror begins on 11/9, when Christian terrorists fly jetliners into Baghdad skyscrapers, and the “United Arab States” retaliates by invading a fragmented North America in search of the extremists responsible. The novel’s heroes are agents of Arabian Homeland Security: Mustafa, Amal, and Samir. This trio of friends is assigned by the president of the UAS to investigate a mystery: artifacts are turning up from an alternate universe, one in which the UAS is not the world superpower and North America is not comprised of troubled, warring smaller nations. Their investigation of this “myth” leads them across the states of the Middle East, then over the ocean to North America, and back again.
The Mirage starts like a house on fire, and it’s a triumph of clever and entertaining world-building. Ruff’s reverso-world is rich and inventive, a fascinating reimagining of the world order, with the United Arab States painted as an Islam-influenced version of the USA, tormented by backwater religious extremists from across the Atlantic. The UAS’s version of Wikipedia, the “Library of Alexandria,” serves as a nifty device for fleshing out the world. And Ruff’s protagonists are likeable and well realized, heroes caught in the switches of complicated political maneuverings.
But what does it add up to? With its high concept, post-9/11 premise, the novel is inherently political, and its consistent, unwavering message is a bit obvious. Both sides are awful, the book suggests; both sides are complicit in the tragic world conflicts of the 21st century. If fortunes were reversed, the bin Ladens and Husseins of the world would be powerful politicians and organized crime bosses, cloaking their evils in the exploitation of a flawed legal system. Meanwhile, the Dick Cheneys and Donald Rumsfelds of the world, removed of their socioeconomic privilege, would be warlords and international criminals, pursuing their power by different means.
It’s a potent concept, and Ruff pursues it with his characteristic audacity, but in the end I’m not sure it entirely sustains the pages. There’s an implicit promise, once the groundwork is laid, that broader insights will be revealed as the alternate universe mystery is solved. To me, those broader insights never arrive, though, and the solution to the mystery isn’t satisfying. Once the initial rush of world-discovery wears off, the novel lives or dies on the strength of its narrative alone, and while my investment in the world and characters kept me reading, ultimately the payoff was minimal. It’s definitely an interesting work, worthwhile for its vivid world-building and stirring opening, but it winds down disappointingly.