The best line in Matt Ruff’s The Mirage comes near the end, and it feels kind of shoehorned in. “Arabia in a state of nature, untouched by the dreams of the West,” one character muses. “Now that would be an alternate reality…” It’s an acknowledgement that, even though the world portrayed in the novel is the result of an arbitrary set of guidelines imposed on its inhabitants by an outside force, much the same can be said for the real Middle East.
It’s a particularly self-aware approach to alternate history. I wasn’t sure I’d like it at first, or through most of the book, but I think it paid off in the end. The story knows that it’s set in a fantasy world that was created by an intelligence with a sense of irony, rather than any kind of historical what-if. But even so, it spent a lot of time exploring what a modern Arab superstate might look like, and that tension between realism and irony led to most of my problems with the book.
Given how many ways a book with this subject matter could have gone horribly wrong, it’s actually remarkable that its main weaknesses are a few groan-inducing coincidences and some hand-waving around the members of the Bush administration. And that was completely avoidable, since the story is strongest anyway when it focuses on the lives of its fictional Iraqi protagonists, and I’d have liked to have been given more time with them.
Instead, the story tries to juggle the protagonists’ personal stories with the grand mystery of how this alternate world came to be, two stories that don’t quite feel related throughout most of the book. I think it would have made for a stronger narrative if it had settled on just one of them, but I’m not sure I would have found either one of those books quite as interesting.
The story’s biggest weakness might be America. The way the continent was divided among religious sects is an obvious parallel to the modern Middle East, but that ignores the influence of Europe-imposed borders on the modern Mideast states and feels inauthentic to the way Christians present, and perceive, the differences between their faiths. There’s a good chance that America could have fragmented into a collection of regional powers — that was kind of a recurring theme in the nineteenth century — but their construction in the book felt artificial. It also seemed to ignore the Evangelical movement entirely.
Sometimes, it feels like the story relies on the obvious artificiality of its fantasy world as a way to deflect criticism about its social commentary: Anything objectionable in the world can be excused because the world isn’t even real within the context of the story. But I think using that escape lessens the power of the story, which spends a lot of time exploring a world that ultimately doesn’t have any depth.
Which is too bad, since the story also has some powerful moments when challenges it the manifest destiny idea that the world order we’re living with is the only way that history could have shaken out. I think the book’s main problem is that it has more to say than it really can in the number of pages it has, and as problems go, that’s not a bad one to have.