I’ve written before about Matt Ruff here; his Bad Monkeys is a genre-bending mind screw that tries to make a couple of points about the nature of good and evil while he’s at it, and I’m also a big fan of Sewer, Gas, & Electric, a somewhat goofy SF romp by way of a critique of Atlas Shrugs. He’s a unique voice and although he’s certainly not prolific, each of his works so far has been at least interesting and memorable. That said, I think he’s not for everyone. For a while I was recommending Sewer, Gas, & Electric to anyone that I could catch and who would listen to me, but it had a pretty wide miss/hit ratio. It’s unapologetically weird and bizarre, and Ruff isn’t above making a point through some borderline offensive material. Some people liked it, other people whose opinions I respect thought it was just too silly.
Ruff takes that trend to a whole new level here. I don’t even know where he can find pants with balls like that, frankly. I liked this, actually more or less the whole way through, but it’s certainly not for everybody.
So here’s the general idea. The world here isn’t the world that we know; most of the Middle Eastern and North African states formed the United Arab States long ago, while what we know as the United States ended up as a patchwork of feuding fundamentalist tribes and kingdoms. It was the UAS that fought alongside the Russian Orthodox Empire to defeat Hitler, although the subsequent creation of the nation of Israel in parts of defeated Germany has led to decades of strife between Christians and Jews. There was also a first Gulf War in the Gulf of Mexico after LBJ, dictator of America (comprised of some seventeen unspecified states) invaded the kingdom of Louisiana and threatened the oilfields of the Evangelical Republic of Texas. So when Christian terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in Baghdad on November 9, 2001, the UAS end up invading America even though the crusaders were carrying Texas passports.
Parody? Sort of. It would be low-hanging fruit to just make these parallels and call it a day, and Ruff is more sophisticated than that. A lot of this world is populated by fictional versions of real people; Saddam Hussein is a crime boss, Muammar Gaddafi helped create the Internet, James Baker still works for George H.W. Bush, still the President (of Texas) – even Natalie Portman is a famous actress (but didn’t find it necessary to take a stage name). You have to think, in a world this different from ours, these people couldn’t possibly exist and have any of the same personality traits that they do in real life. Also, a lot of the cultural touchstones of the UAS are Western conceptions of the Middle East, rather than what you’d expect would really develop; there’s a lot of Arabian Nights stuff going on here. And so it becomes quickly apparent that there is something funny going on.
Some of the Christian terrorists have memorabilia of a world very different from theirs – a world where it was the United States that was the most powerful nation and ended up invading Iraq. And more and more people are having dreaming fits of an entirely different world where they have different lives. By the time the magic shows up, you’re pretty much ready.
Ruff is the son of a minister, and running through his work is a deep distrust of fundamentalism of all kinds. There are certain types of people in the world who are not satisfied by living “right” themselves; these people insist that everyone else must also live “right”. But as George Orwell pointed out in 1984, if you’re trying to make sure that someone else is bending to your will and not just doing what they want, the only way to be sure is if they’re suffering. So this type of fundamentalist we’re talking about, they look askance at happiness (it could be unauthorized!) and smile at human misery, as long as it’s compelling whatever life choices the fundamentalist thinks are correct and proper.
I mention this because Osama bin Laden is a major character in this book. I’d hesitate to describe him as the villain, although he is villainous. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it’s the mindset of bin Laden that’s the villain in this book, since it’s something that he carries around with him no matter what world he’s in. As in our world, he’s the prodigal scion of a rich Saudi family, but unlike in our world he returned home and became a powerful Senator of the strongest nation on earth. You’d think he’d be happy that the UAS is powerful, that its people are by and large contented and rich, that Islam is a de facto requirement for any advancement in the society that matters. But no. Too much backsliding, too much materialism, too much tolerance of infidels and blasphemy. He’d be perfectly happy to increase the misery in the world so long as it leads people to do what he believes God wants.
There are lots of other people speaking for God in this novel, but the person who’s actually got the magic powers disclaims knowledge of what exactly God is up to or why.
In any event, it would have been really easy to take one of two opposing tracks in a novel like this. You could show this world and have it be a total paradise, thereby showing how ignorant and terrible the Western world is, and how everyone would be better off without Western influence. Or you could have this world be a total shithole, showing how backwards and barbaric the Islamic world is, and say, see, there’s no way these people could ever govern themselves, they should thank God every day for the civilizing influence of the West. Ruff avoids both, for the most part, although he does take some kind of cheap shots at various real-life American political figures. He also tends to throw in characters for what I believe is simply shock value at times. Nonetheless, the UAS is good in some ways and bad in other ways, and in both circumstances entirely human.
The main protagonist, Mustafa al-Baghdadi, is an officer in the UAS’ War on Drugs (primarily imported whiskey), and surprisingly three-dimensional and complex, and he’s effectively used to throw some of our own moral lapses and successes into sharp relief. This starts as something of a police procedural, wherein Mustafa is trying to figure out who's behind various plots and why Saddam Hussein wants a mysterious artifact. He's got two officers along with him who have their own moral dilemmas and are, in many ways, as well-developed as he is. One of the most moving parts of the novel for me came when Mustafa has to deal with the apparent betrayal of one of his officers, an old friend.
In many ways the crux of the novel comes when Mustafa is told – by someone who should probably know – that he’s a sinner, but not the only sinner and surely not the worst. But of course guys like him are the ones who struggle with ethical dilemmas while the actual worst sinners either think they’re on the side of the angels or simply don’t care, and do what they want. So is it possible for good to prevail in a world like this, or like ours? Mustafa doesn’t know, and neither does Ruff, and neither do I for that matter, and in this novel as in real life you just have to keep going and do the best you can.