With "The Mirage", Matt Ruff has written the definitive 9-11 novel, a spellbinding, alternative history thriller that is the 21st Century version of Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle"; an often sly, truly memorable, fictional commentary on the 9-11-01 terrorist attacks and America's military response, especially its invasion of Iraq. This is no mere homage to Philip K. Dick's greatest science fiction novel, but instead, one that truly transcends it, with dialogue reminiscent of Elmore Leonard and David Foster Wallace, a plot worthy of Graham Greene and John Le Carre, and more than a passing nod to William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson; indeed it can be seen as a contemporary tale straight out of "One Thousand and One Nights" which perceptive readers will appreciate and understand by the close of Ruff's compelling saga. I have no doubt that Ruff's latest novel will be viewed as his most controversial. There will be those who find objectionable, his heroic portrayal of democratic Muslim and Christian Arabs, in stark contrast to his utterly reprehensible cast of fanatical Fundamentalist Protestant Christian Americans, and they will also claim that his plot is utterly preposterous (But one that is far more rooted in reality than Dick's dystopian vision of a United States conquered and divided into zones of Imperial Japanese and Nazi German occupation in "The Man in the High Castle".). Any novel that will have as characters, the likes of Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz and Osama bin Laden, will be the target of ample criticism, but Ruff's choices make absolute sense as this is truly a compelling work of alternative history, and one destined to be a classic in this genre.
Readers will find ample reminders of 9-11 and subsequent American history, within Ruff's compelling alternative history, starting with an almost poetic prologue that recounts a Baghdad dawn eerily reminiscent of New York City's on that fateful Tuesday morning (which, in Ruff's version is also a Tuesday), seeing the first rays of the sun striking the Tigris and Euphrates twin World Trade Center towers. And then there will be scenes set in the United States, not far from the Green Zone established by United Arab States armed forces in Washington, D. C., that will have unavoidable comparisons with America's recently concluded occupation of Iraq. And yet, despite the gross similarities, there will be differences, based on cultural and religious differences as well as the alternative history timeline, which Ruff cleverly exploits via his "entries" in "The Library of Alexandria", his alternative history clone of Wikipedia, which are often witty, quite clever, "footnotes" which merely add to - not detract from - his engrossing narrative.
Eight years after the 11-9-01 terrorist attacks on the United Arab States, Homeland Security agent Mustafa al Baghdadi interrogates a captured American suicide bomber who claims that their recent history is but a mirage of the truth; one in which the United States of America, a superpower, is attacked by fanatical Muslim terrorists, with the Muslim Arab world fragmented into barely civilized "backward third-world states", not the democratic superpower that is the United Arab States. Other terrorists have been telling the same stories, and Mustafa, along with his colleagues and friends Samir and Amal, soon embark on a perilous trek from the Arab world to the occupied Christian States of America in search of the truth, encountering not only other suspects, but even artifacts, that support the bomber's astonishing claims. Theirs is a trek to uncover the truth before the independent investigations of Baathist labor leader - and gangster - Saddam Hussein and Senate Intelligence Committee head Osama bin Laden succeed.
"The Mirage" is an exceptional work of fiction that warrants a mention in the 2012 "best of" lists, and one worthy of recognition as a potential Hugo and Nebula Award nominee by those within the science fiction literary community. Ruff's latest novel should confirm his status as one of the best American writers of my generation; a noteworthy literary career that includes notable works of fantasy ("Fool on the Hill"), post-cyberpunk fiction ("Sewer Gas Electric: The Public Works Trilogy"), and most recently, a heart-pounding psychological thriller homage to Philip K. Dick ("Bad Monkeys"). Much more so than either Rick Moody or Jonathan Lethem - his closest peers amongst "mainstream" fiction writers capable of writing excellent science fiction - Ruff has created a believable, realistic "world" as memorable in its own right as those envisioned by the likes of William Gibson and China Mieville in, respectively, their celebrated "Cyberspace" and "New Crobuzon" trilogies; it's a "world" that shouldn't be missed.
(Reposted from my Amazon USA review)
(EDITORIAL NOTE: With "The Mirage" Matt Ruff has demonstrated again why he may be the most talented literary alumnus of Frank McCourt's celebrated writing courses that McCourt taught for years at New York City's elite science and mathematics-oriented public high school, Stuyvesant High School.)