All speculative fiction comments on human experience in the everyday world. Alternate histories comment on that experience in a specific way: they provoke a heightened awareness of history as we know it. Matt Ruff's The Mirage is an alternate history that comments both on the history human beings have made, and on the writing of alternate histories.
Part of this meta-commentary takes the form of excerpts from a website called "The Library of Alexandria: A User-Edited Reference Source." Through the "Library," we learn about the world of The Mirage. We learn about Baghdad, known as "The City of the Future" and "The City of Peace." We learn about Osama bin Laden, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in the United Arab States. And we learn that on November 9, 2001, Christian fundamentalists hijacked four planes and crashed two of them into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, and a third into the Arab Defense Ministry building in Riyadh.
Now, in post-11/9 Baghdad, three intelligence agents with Arab Homeland Security are helping to fight the war on terror. There's Mustafa, whose wife has been presumed dead since the 11/9 attacks; Amal, the sharpshooter daughter of Baghdad's mayor; and Samir, a old school friend of Mustafa's with a reputation for womanizing. After interrogating a would-be suicide bomber, they search his apartment and discover a bizarre object: a newspaper, apparently real, called The New York Times, dated September 12, 2001, and describing their own traumatic history, only with the key players reversed.
The Mirage, then, is an alternate history with our own history embedded inside it as alternate history. The question for the characters, as for the reader, is: what's the relationship between the two? Which history is the mirage? As Mustafa, Amal, and Samir get closer to the truth, the danger surrounding them grows. Some people don't want the secret of the mirage unveiled—among them the crime king Saddam Hussein and the corrupt senator, Osama bin Laden. Despite the dangers, the three agents embark on a search for the truth that takes them as far afield as northern America, a wilderness of warring theocracies like the Christian States of America, the Pentecostal Gilead Heartland, and the Evangelical Republic of Texas.
Along the way, the past lives of Mustafa, Amal, and Samir rise up to interfere with their plans, for each of them has a secret—an alternate history. Mustafa's wife, Fadwa, missing since 11/9, was not his only wife: he married for a second time at her urging, since she was unable to conceive. The second marriage is a public fact, but Mustafa's anguish over Fadwa's depression is private. When she was still with him, that anguish drove him to imagine life without her, a life in which he had never attended the wedding where their romance began:
What if his car had broken down, or he simply hadn't gone? What if, what if. Of course it might not have made any difference. It could be that he was fated to marry Fadwa no matter what. But it was possible to imagine a world in which that wasn't so. What if, what if. (p. 124)
Amal's secret is that she has a son, the product of a temporary marriage. She remembers finding out that she was pregnant, and wishing she could turn back time: "I want the last five months back, I want the future I had before I did this stupid, stupid thing. I wish, I wish" (p. 150). These repeated thoughts—"what if, what if"; "I wish, I wish"—express a desire for alternatives, but there aren't any. History is here, and the characters are stuck with it. This truth is particularly stark for Samir, who cultivates a reputation for chasing women to cover up the fact that he is gay. "You searched for: 'Gay rights movement,'" the Library of Alexandria informs us. "There is no article with this title" (p. 158).
As if to underscore how impossible it is to escape history, the characters from our own world who show up in The Mirage are given familiar roles. As Ruff explains in an interview with Islam and Science Fiction: "One of the rules I devised for the mirage world is that people’s basic characters wouldn’t change, only their job descriptions. So Saddam Hussein is still a wicked man, but he can't be a dictator, he becomes a gangster." There are signs everywhere that history in The Mirage is our history repeated: for example, a hit TV series called 24/7 Jihad, "each season of which chronicles a single day in the life of anti-terrorist Jafar Bashir" (p. 27), and a punk band called Green Desert who sing the anti-war anthem "Arabian Idiot." These references, concentrated in the Library of Alexandria entries, are clever and often funny, and they add an extra level of puzzle-solving pleasure to the book. They also make it impossible to avoid the truth about The Mirage. This isn't really an alternate history. It's a mirror.
There are advantages to this approach. It allows Ruff to express the message that we are more alike than we are different, a message that still bears repeating. It means that he can take characters usually relegated to the sidelines of TV shows and give them all the lead roles (not incidentally, The Mirage was originally conceived as a television series). He can spend time on those characters and give them personal stories. He's done his homework, too, and made an effort to show varieties of Muslim practice. His main characters are basically good people, but flawed and struggling, just like us. As a matter of fact, they are us. And the song "Arabian Idiot" and the show 24/7 Jihad are there to make sure we don't forget it.
And that, depending on how you approach the book, is the main drawback of The Mirage. It begins with the promise of a world turned upside down, a world that will not be the world we know, an alternate—but in fact it gives us the world we already have. Again, this is only a problem if you came to the book looking for an alternate—but, let's face it, that's what most people are going to do. The premise of the book, with its reversed geopolitics, invites that approach. To do Ruff justice, he waves a lot of flags to let us know that's not the point. Each Library of Alexandria entry proclaims: "Look! This is actually the U.S.A., not the U.A.S.!" And that's why The Mirage is important as post-9/11 literature. It's an attempt to take American aggression, a source of pain for many Americans, and turn it back on itself using the tropes of the celebratory stories (particularly movies and TV shows) spawned by that very aggression. There's torture, betrayal, political corruption, gunfire, rescue, sacrifice—and Arab heroes who are no more Arab than Green Desert is an Iraqi punk band. But they could be, the novel insists. Couldn't they? That's a question The Mirage can't answer, because it's not about Arabs. It's about Americans: American lives, American fears, and the longing, on the part of many Americans, to go back in time and do something different—a longing reduced, in The Mirage, to a helpless murmur. What if, what if. I wish, I wish.
Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specializes in twentieth century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. Her poetry has appeared in Stone Telling, and her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2012. She blogs about books and other wonders at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.