Wednesday, September 18, 2013


The time has come for me to dust off my poor, neglected blog. We'll see about getting some updates rolling.

One of my projects was inspired by my wife. She is working on setting up her list for “101 in 1001” - a challenge to herself to try to do 101 things within 1001 days. One of her brilliant ideas – so brilliant that I stole it for myself – is that she posted a challenge on social media for her friends to each suggest one book, that she would then read. It is a horizons-broadening challenge.

I took it up for myself, and gave myself an additional challenge – of the 18 books that I got on my list, that I would write a book report for each. This is the first in that series.

Our first contender is The Mirage, by Matt Ruff.

The set-up for the book is alternate history – What if the Middle East were a global superpower, and on November 9, 2001, a group of Christian terrorists from the Evangelical Republic of Texas hijacked airliners and crashed them into the Twin Towers in Baghdad, the world's financial and cultural center?

Sadly, as interesting as the concept sounds, the book fails in execution. It is as though the author threw out the one-sentence or one-paragraph description and was met with a “Well, that's clever.” And so, the book stands there, practically waving its arms and screaming at the top of its lungs, “LOOK AT ME! LOOK HOW CLEVER I AM!”

 No, you're really not.

The problem that our author faces is his choice of genre. There are pretty much three reasons you'd want to read an alternate history novel – the worldbuilding, the allegory, or the whiz-bang action. Sadly, The Mirage fails on each count.

One of the book's framing devices is the user-edited Wikipedia analogue, the Library of Alexandria. These bits are clumsy exposition that don't read like Wikipedia articles, but do expose the ugly truth that really allowed me to make sense of the book. The author only has a Wikipedia-level understanding of what he is writing about. While that might work for some, it made the book quite glaringly under-cooked for me. (this is no substitute for actual research)

Now, I don't claim to be an expert in the Middle East or in Islam, but I do know a few things about Christianity, about the United States, about history in general, and about government and governance. Enough that I found myself shaking my head at times.

To begin: While the United Arab States, consisting of 13 nations – some of whom do not consider themselves to be Arab – has become a global superpower at the turn of the 20th century, the United States finds itself the Christian States of America, and shares the North American continent with the Evangelical Republic of Texas, the Gilead Pentecostal Heartland (a reference to a much better novel), the Kingdoms of Louisiana and Missouri, and other states. Now, most alternate history novels propose one point of divergence – and this one tries to do the same, with the UAS becoming a superpower on the basis of resistance to Ottoman resurgence and oil power – this novel would have to diverge prior to 1803 and the Louisana Purchase. In any event, we have an America chopped into little religious states, just like the Middle East!

Except that's not an accurate reflection of the Middle East. But we'll skip that digression.

The UAS wins WWII, creates Israel in Germany, and has a 'Cold Crusade' with the Russian Orthodox Union, and apparently, maybe, gets into a bit of a tangle in Afghanistan in the 1980's, though you wouldn't know it from the book. As near as can be told, the UAS has no military history between WWII and the Global War on Terror., with one small exception. Meanwhile, the Christian States of America manage to have a Vietnam War analogue (on the Great Plains, while trying to do a war of conquest rather than intervening in someone else's war, and getting bogged down because bad writer) and a Gulf (Coast) War, wherein the UAS does a Desert Storm and wins a victory in a matter of days.

Things that are lacking, history-wise – no Iran-Contra. No Iran-Iraq War. No oil crisis. No hostage crisis. No Blackwater in the UAS invasion of America. The worldbuilding here is just a thinly-veiled pastiche of what the author sees in 'us and them,' flipped around.

If you're not going to go in an original direction with your alternate history, you should at least be relatively comprehensive about the history you are dealing with.

The history we are dealing with, of course, completely ignores what Britain and France had rolling in the Middle East. I suppose that these empires went the way of the Louisiana Purchase.

After all, it's not like Winston Churchill shaped the modern world by switching the Royal Navy to oil over coal or anything.

But, I suppose, we have to let it all pass. After all, we're explicitly told within the first quarter of the book that this world is a mirage, and that our world is the real world. And, yes, it's freaking magic, so it does not have to make total sense.

Okay, so, we're not really doing alternate history. So, let's hold up a mirror to ourselves, right? It's an allegory about the War on Terror, right?


While we have an unnamed Governor of Persia as a thinly-veiled Arnold, complete with appearance in True Lies, that's about the limit of the author's creativity. Osama Bin Laden is a senator running a secretive commando group for fighting Christian terrorists called Al Qaeda. Saddam Hussein is a criminal mastermind associated with the Baath Labor Union. We have David Koresh and Timothy McVeigh working – together! - for the Texas CIA under the direction of Dick Cheney.

You'll note that I have yet to address our protagonists. They're rather lifeless – federal agents working for the UAS government. One lost his wife in the 11/9 attacks. One's a female officer who, of course, must be motivated to save her son. And one's closeted in a world with no gay rights movement. None has much of a life to them, and they are really just devices to move the exploration of the half-built world. But they are investigating the titular mirage that covers the world, and artifacts that have come from our real world. They go from Baghdad to the Green Zone in Washington D.C. To uncover the conspiracy! The conspiracy that manages to combine magic and 9/11 trutherism.

“Ah, but surely the author is really writing about government or religion?”

No. Just... no.

One of the Library of Alexandria bits has the UAS Supreme Court deciding the Miranda case and requiring Miranda warnings to arrested suspects. The court does so, citing the Quran as legal basis. And the warning begins with “By the grace of God, the All-Merciful and Compassionate, you have the right to remain silent...”

This is not a secular government. This is a religious government, using religion as the basis for its laws. This is not compatible with democracy, and not compatible with a modern, secular society. But what the author is showing us is the Middle East as a secular, democratic, highly advanced society, right down to references to lolgoat pictures on the internet.

Here's the thing – when you have the government interpreting scripture, that means that the government is favoring and privileging one interpretation over others. That does not do well for people who follow other interpretations – Sunni vs. Shia, or Baptist vs. Catholic. That would also be a great theme in a novel – but it does not even occur to the author, here.

Instead, we get a little zing about pre-millenial dispensationalists, which indicates that the author heard about that, but doesn't seem to understand why that's important. Protip: post-millenial dispensationalists are the ones more likely to try to actively shape the world to fit their beliefs.

The point of pre-millenial dispensationalism is that it is passive-aggressive, and requires so little of the user. “Yeah, well, just you wait! I'm gonna get raptured away to play X-Box with Jesus while the Antichrist totally gets wiped out by the armies of Heaven, and you're gonna get yours, you filthy heathen!' This is not terribly compatible with terrorism, unless the author had them terrorizing the Dome of the Rock and Palestine to create a biblical Israel with a rebuilt Temple of Solomon. This is not the case.

I also was not impressed with it as a cops and robbers/spy fiction standpoint, but I have to admit bias against the book. And this is a simple, factual, technical detail, relatively early on.

A gangster sees an Al Qaeda commando, and raises his Orthodox-made AK-47, with paired banana-clips duct-taped together. He doesn't get a shot off, because the duct tape jams the weapon.

Here, look at this idiot.

Yes, you can do that. The idea is you eject, flip, and reinsert the clip. Note that the duct tape is nowhere near the firing mechanism.

You still don't want to do that, and you can still jam your weapon doing that. Because the top of the second clip tends to get banged up and bent when you're ducking and dodging around. So, you eject, flip, reinsert, and jam. That's where the problem is. Yes, the weapon jams... on the second clip. Not before you get a shot off.

In any event, we somehow have a global superpower ruled by interpretations of a 1500 year old book somehow creating a modern, secular society. We have a defunct other superpower, the Russian Orthodox Union, that leaves no evidence of its passing. (Even a conservative legislator talking about a long-dead boogieman would have scored a significant number of points with me.) The book fails on the level of political fiction, on religious fiction, as an action/procedural novel, as a character study. The prose is decent enough, but nothing spectacular.

So, yes. I read the book, I made my report. I wasn't impressed, but that's okay. I would have probably never read it otherwise. And I've read much, much worse in the past couple months.

Two stars, don't recommend, won't reread.