Joe is a private detective who after a visit from the obligatory attractive but mysterious woman is tasked with finding the author of the pulp-fiction series "Osama bin Laden: Vigilante". In this alternative history which seems to have split some time after world war two, the horrific terror attacks like 9/11 and 7/7 have never happened. The leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist group is simply a fictional character in a book written by an elusive author known as "Mike Longshott".
The more Joe searches for Mike the more he realises something very strange is going on, just who is this Longshott author and why do people keep mentioning "refugees" wherever he goes.
Osama has to be one of the bravest novels I've ever had the fortune to read, it also happens to be one of my favourites too. Comparisons to Philip K Dick's seminal work The man in the high castle are inevitable, not only with similarities in the structure - both feature an alternative history that diverged around the second world war - but in style and voice too. It doesn't however feel plagurised, Osama feels more like it's paying some tribute to PKD's work - which in my opinion is one of the finest science fiction novels ever written. The author also provides nods to other 20th century authors including Samuel Delany and Robert Silverberg, he even provides a high amusing send-up of science fiction convention fans, clearly done as a tongue-in-cheek mark of respect.
The prose is completely engaging, with a subtle humour that merges a noir-tinged detective style and uses the genre tropes to great effect. As with PKD most of cast are very much everyday (if occasionally odd) people - including our Detective Joe; a private eye who keeps a whiskey bottle in his desk draw, smokes like a trooper and has a dogged, tenacious attitude. One of the great things about PKD's writing was the way he fed information to the reader. Many authors give the reader much more information about the plot than the characters themselves have access to however PKD very rarely did this and Tidhar uses this same approach, to incredible effect. Narrated by Joe we only learn what he learns and share the same "WTF" moments he does which allows us to become a closer part of the protagonists journey.
The author downplays any use of technology and the differences between each reality are for the most part quite subtle, at least to begin with. It is clear that there has been much less conflict in this world and as the book progresses the lack of any real modern technology we take for granted becomes more prevalent, there are no mobile phones and I don't recall a single mention of a personal computer anywhere. There are social differences too, smoking seems still firmly routed in the western culture and a lack of terrorist threat means less invasive, restrictive control of the population (apart from the clandestine appearance of men in black suits).
Managing to tie in the modern terrorist issue with this story within a story works brilliantly, a stroke of genius that is delivered by Lavie Tidhar in a consummate, exquisite manner that I feel is every bit as good as Man in a High Castle. Chapters are inter-spaced with semi-fictional terrorist events which as far as I can see are based on real world information and these help to re-affirm how important this novel really is. Written in a factual, almost analytical style provides an effective juxtaposition to the main story.
This layered reality allows the reader to examine those terrorists acts themselves and our reactions to them, both individually and as a collective.
Osama is a modern classic, a defining moment in science fiction that if there is any justice in the world deserves to be in everyone's collection, science fiction fan or not.
Written on Monday 5th November 2012 by Antony.
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