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(I'm interviewing Matt Ruff tonight at Elliott Bay Book Company. Please come! It's at 7 pm, and it's absolutely free.)

The premise of Matt Ruff's new novel probably could have gotten him arrested back in the panicked, paranoid days of 2002. The Mirage (Harper, $25.99) imagines a world where the dominant power is the United Arab States. After Christian fundamentalists topple the Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad on 11/9/2001, troops from the UAS flood into the fractured nations of North America to find weapons of mass destruction that may or may not exist. The invasion is highly controversial, and by 2009, the UAS is torn between citizens who support isolationism and more hawkish forces—including beloved Senator Osama bin Laden—who want to see Christianity utterly destroyed. At the same time, Muslims are becoming more lax in their worship and social mores (many people don't even stop their busy workdays to respond to the five calls to prayer that sound around the city), and angry fundamentalists complain that the UAS's necessary religious roots are withering away.

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Ruff, a local writer, embraces this twisty concept with an attention to detail that suggests many months, more likely years, of fervent research. He imagines the life of a federal agent named Mustafa al Baghdadi, who, in the patriotic days after 11/9, shifts his focus from arresting smugglers of illegal alcohol to the more serious field of Arab Homeland Security. Al Baghdadi uncovers a plot that stretches from the highest powers in the UAS all the way down to the scuzziest crime lord in Baghdad—a small-time loser with airs of grandeur named Saddam Hussein. Along the way, al Baghdadi discovers artifacts (mostly paper items, including the front page of a nonexistent newspaper called the New York Times announcing the destruction of a twinned pair of nonexistent skyscrapers in New York City) that suggest there is another world out there where the script has been flipped...

(Keep reading.)