A world in which 9/11 is 11/9 –– and that’s not to only reversal Matt Ruff brings to The Mirage, which features terrorist attacks and a struggle between the Arabic and Western worlds, i.e., the same recipe as events in our world, but with a few important changes. Ruff’s alternate history is getting noticed (“entertaining and provocative, exactly what the best popular fiction should be,” says the starred review in Publishers Weekly), but in today’s Big Idea, he explains that there’s more going on than just asking, “what if?”
What would the War on Terror look like if the U.S. and the Middle East traded places?
That was the question that started me off. I’d been searching for a narrative hook that would allow me to explore some of the political and moral issues around America’s response to the 9/11 attacks. I wanted something that would be thought-provoking without being preachy—something that, first and foremost, would work as a story. Eventually I hit on the idea of turning the world upside down.
The Mirage is set in an alternate reality in which the Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa are united in a democratic superpower—the UAS—while America is broken up into small, mostly third-world dictatorships and theocracies. September 11 happens in reverse—on November 9—with Christian fundamentalists flying hijacked planes into buildings in Baghdad and Riyadh. The Arabs respond by invading and occupying Washington, D.C., in an ill-fated attempt to bring democracy to the Americans.
Not everything is a simple reversal. One of the earliest worldbuilding decisions I made was that people’s basic characters wouldn’t change at all. So Saddam Hussein, a villain in our reality, is still a villain in The Mirage—but a different kind of villain. Since Iraq is a democratic state, he can’t be a dictator, and instead becomes a gangster: a labor racketeer and bootlegger (the Arabian War on Drugs being primarily a war on alcohol). Osama bin Laden is a corrupt politician, a war hero who makes patriotic noises in public while secretly conspiring against his own country. Al Qaeda is a government anti-terror squad that’s gone rogue. And Muammar al Gaddafi is, well, Muammar al Gaddafi.
As for my protagonists, they represent the vast majority of Arab Muslims who are neither terrorists nor criminals, but ordinary citizens just trying to make it through the day: Mustafa al Baghdadi, a senior Homeland Security agent who serves as the novel’s moral center; his best friend, Samir; and a new recruit, a woman named Amal bint Shamal, whose mother was mayor of Baghdad during the 11/9 attacks. My goal with these characters was to try to humanize the people who’ve borne the brunt of the real War on Terror, and also to create the sort of believably flawed heroes you can identify with and root for even though they don’t always make the right choices.
It would have been easy to turn The Mirage into a straight-up Message novel. But that’s not really my style, and I thought it would be much more interesting to follow the SFnal strategy of exploring this looking-glass world I’d created, while trusting readers to draw their own conclusions about what it means. To that end, I threw in one more twist, the one that gives the novel its name. Early in the story, Mustafa interrogates a captured suicide bomber who claims that the United Arab States is a mirage, imposed by God as a punishment on the Americans for their lack of faith. In the real world, he says, America is the superpower. Mustafa’s initial skepticism gives way in the face of physical evidence from that other world, and he and his colleagues set off on an investigation that takes them from Sadr City to the Green Zone in Washington to the insurgent stronghold of Virginia before looping back to Baghdad for a final showdown between Homeland Security, Al Qaeda, and the Republican Guard.
I should mention one more thing for the alternate history buffs out there. It would certainly be possible to construct a realistic scenario in which Arabia became the cradle of modern democracy. The Mirage takes a more funhouse approach to alt-history—but it’s a funhouse with rules. If your head explodes at the thought of Ibn Saud as a Founding Father, you’re going to have to trust that I know what I’m doing. There is an explanation for all this, and by the end of the novel, you’ll know what it is.
I hope you enjoy the ride.