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.