When The Sun Is Overthrown And When The Stars Fall – The Mirage by Matt Ruff

The Mirage
Matt Ruff
432 Pages
Harper Collins
February 7, 2012 

I do not read alternate history fiction.  Most of the time it tends to be because I just don’t have a strong grasp on history, especially the Turtledove eras (which seem mostly compromised of The Civil War\Antebellum South, or WWII Europe).  But…

I was drawn to this book.  I read about it about a month ago on io9.com and was taken by the brief quotes and description.  Of course… Alternate history isn’t just making changes to history to tell another side of the story, and in this way The Mirage is no different.  Much of the story serves as satire and\or allegory and it is uproariously funny.

The best satirical moment comes when our hero, Mustafa al Baghdadi (a Homeland Security agent) is considering how his government is sending prisoners away to be tortured.  He reflects that he doesn’t like to see it happening, but doesn’t care about sending them to be bled for information to “a human-rights vacuum like Texas.”

So… the plot.  On 11/9/2001, the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Tower buildings in downtown Baghdad were attacked by Christian Fundamentalists flying airplanes.  Thousands are killed, sparking a war between the Arab world and America.  In this case, though, America is a group of states on the Eastern seaboard ruled by a man with delusions grandeur who wants to unite the country, coast-to-coast, under one banner.  Manifest destiny!

That’s the basics.  Fast-forward to 2009.  Mustafa is working with his partners (Amal and Samir) to track down other Christian terrorists when they come across a man who claims that everything is flipped upside down and backwards, that the Arabs aren’t supposed to be the superior group, that America is supposed to be number one.  This sets in motion the rest of the plot and takes our characters all over their Arab world and even into America.

The book is, as I said before, very funny.  The Texas line from above is one of them, but a lot of it is a bit more subtle.  For instance, recent American historical figures are there (members of the Bush administration are especially prevalent), as are many figures from the Arab world.  Saddam Hussein is still a massive asshat, as is Osama, and the American politicians are very closely similar to their real-life counterparts.  My favorite manifestation is a character named The Quail Hunter.  Guess who he is?!

Overall, the book is good.  I would say that a very strong beginning and a consistent and funny middle make the slightly speedy and disappointing ending all the worse.  When I think about it, though, I can’t think of why the ending was so disappointing.

Maybe because it seemed predictable?  Ruff hints pretty heavily where the story is  headed and when the supernatural shit starts to fly, it almost seems too easy.  Then again, with a land that has a much larger history of mythology and fantasy… I suppose it fits pretty well after all.

Despite my quibbles with the ending, the book is definitely worth reading.  The satire is great, the prose in enjoyable and swift-moving, and the are lots of little moments of brilliance, especially in the pop culture references.  It is endlessly enjoyable to pick out all the little “oh, that’s a difference” moments (including an incredibly funny part where one of the characters watches Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

So what’s next for Books and Bits?  Well… March is going to be Neil Gaiman month.  Or at least partly Neil Gaiman month.  I dunno if I have enough material to get 8 posts on Neil, but… I’m going to try.  Also, I hope to talk about the sublimely weird book The Flame Alphabet in the near future as well!  Happy reading!

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One thought on “When The Sun Is Overthrown And When The Stars Fall – The Mirage by Matt Ruff

  1. Thanks, James for this write-up! I always appreciate your insights and observations about books. This is a book I’m interested in because of your comments.

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