The Big Idea: Matt Ruff

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.


The Mirage: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

24 Comments on “The Big Idea: Matt Ruff”

  1. Ooh! I like me a well written alt-history. And there’s a twist! (sorry Harry; love your ideas but your writing reminds me of driving down a washboard road in an old truck.)

    Will definitely be picking this up soon.

  2. As I said on boingboing I am psyched to read this. Good thing I have a weeks vacation cOming up because I suspect I shall devour this in that time.

  3. Given that my favorite stuff on the new Battlestar Galactica was the occupation storyline and commentary I’m very interested to read this.

  4. This should go on my soon-to-read list, as I am a big fan of Ruff’s “Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy.” Anyone looking for a concise summation, and critique, of Objectivism, would be advised to read this novel, particularly as the most ardent supporter of Objectivism in the novel happens to be the disembodied head of Ayn Rand in a hurricane lamp.

  5. Sounds like an interesting read, but I have to be picky…

    11 September 2001 doesn’t reverse to 11/9 when in a Muslim country (though it does if you use the European form) – the date was Jumaada al-Thaany 23, 1422 in their calendar.

  6. Is there an alternate world version of Operation Ajax?

    It would be flipped to something like the intelligence agency of the arab states buy a coup of a small democratic part of the americas and install a dictator. he rules for 25 years, then there is a revolution to overthrow the dictatr and a extremist theocracy takes power. nothing of middle east current events can really be looked at honestly without looking through the lens of that important history.

  7. Been reading Matt Ruff since Sewer, Gas & Electric and I can’t wait for this one.

  8. I’ve loved Matt Ruff’s books since Fool On The Hill, so of course this is going to be in my purchasing queue.

  9. Well, shit. That’s two Big Ideas and two purchases. Looks like the 5% of my tax refund I set aside for entertaining myself is gonna be used up pretty quick.

  10. Personally this gives me shades of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama – and given how good that was, I can’t resist picking this up; after all, alt-history, alternate reality, and reconceptualisations of groups of humanity sounds fantastic fun!

  11. Oh man. I have read “Fool on the Hill,” “Sewer Gas Electric,” and “Bad Monkeys,” and loved them all. I’m buying this in hardcover, and so should you. I’ll probably make a special trip to City Lights in Los Feliz just to get it.

  12. If you have not read Set This House In Order your life is greatly dimished thereby. (I liked Bad Monkeys too, but it doesn’t have that same “ten novels I would save if my house caught on fire” quality.)

  13. I pre-ordered this when it was teased on io9, and finished it the first day, practically in one sitting. I loved the world-building, I loved the characters, I laughed myself silly all through the “Library of Alexandria Online” (Wikipedia) articles that introduce many of the chapters. The more history you know, the more fun this book is; if you don’t know a lot of Islamic history and geography, read it with a window open to Wikipedia to get the most benefit out of it. The ending felt a little cheap to me, though; I was hoping for something less easy to parody with a TV Tropes throw-away line. Still, I’m glad I read it.

    The most-relevant world-building bits, for people who want to know how plausible it is:

    [Deleted because, dude, Brad — let people read the book, you know?]

  14. Huh. I didn’t think that the world-building was all that spoilerific; probably not much over 100 words’ worth that wasn’t on the back cover or in the author’s post, above. I’m not complaining, mind you; your blog, your comment policy. I just want to say that if I’d thought it was a serious spoiler, i wouldn’t have posted it. And I know that for me, at least, alt-histories with crappy world-building are a major turnoff. To me, talking about the backstory of an alt-history novel is like talking about the economics and technology of a cyberpunk story – if that’s all there is, if that’s even the main thing about the book, the book’s probably not worth reading. And /The Mirage/ is definitely worth reading.

    To me, the part that would have been spoilerific, what would have spoiled the real joy of this book, would have been if I’d gone into any of the character details — not just the frequent laughs and nods from seeing how famous people from our world turned out in that world, but the three fictitious main characters themselves, who are amazing. Mentioning which TV Tropes cliche I wish he hadn’t ended on, which I had to stop myself from doing, that would have been a major spoiler, too. I really tried hard not to spoil any of the actual good parts.

  15. Brad, sometimes telling people that there IS a spoiler ruins the spoiler. How about just letting us read the thing, please?

  16. I’ve enjoyed reading Matt Ruff’s since I first picked up a copy Fool on the Hill on a whim. I’ve given away several copies to friends over the last 20 years. Set This House in Order was a very different book, but enthralling and enjoyable. i can’t wait to read Mirage.

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