Looking for the Mahdi, N Lee Wood

Looking for the Mahdi, N Lee Wood (1996)
Review by Ian Sales

Of the ingredients that are mixed together to make a science fiction novel, the world or universe of the story is pretty much the roux. The world of Looking for the Mahdi, as suggested by the title, is the tiny Gulf Arab state of Khuruchabja. However, since this is a sf novel, Khuruchabja is a poor Gulf Arab State… Kahlili bint Munadi Suleiman, Arab-American, is a veteran war correspondent of the Khuruchabjan War, when Allied forces “liberated” the country from its oppressive regime [SF Mistressworks note: for a 1996 sf novel, this is surprisingly prophetic]. Masquerading as a man, “Kay Bee Suleiman” reported on the atrocities from the thick of the fighting, earning herself several journalistic rewards and a comfortable desk-bound position. Ten years later, the US government approaches Suleiman and asks her to secretly deliver a fabricant (ie, replicant) to Khuruchabja’s current ruler to act as his bodyguard. Which is where it all starts to go horribly wrong.

This is a novel set in the Arab world, so “of course” there will be plot within plots, internecine rivalries and thinly-disguised terrorism. Looking for the Mahdi is a near-future thriller, its plot a staple of that genre, as Suleiman delves deeper into the Khuruchabjan situation, newshound’s instincts to the fore. There are no good guys – including the Americans, who are lambasted with the sort of righteous indignation only an expatriate US author can imagine (Wood lives in France).

But, given the book’s setting, Looking for the Mahdi stands or falls on its depiction of the invented country of Khuruchabja. Perhaps it’s just me, but I initially found it hard to accept the country for what Wood would have us believe. Admittedly, I’m a pickier reader than most in this regard since I’ve spent more years in the Middle East than I have in the country of my birth. However, it was only little things. Khuruchabja (which, as a name, sounds more Urdu than Arabic to me; Arabic does not have a “ch” phoneme) came across more as a Northern Area Arab country, rather than a Gulf state – in the Gulf, men wear dishdasha, aqul and guthra; not a kaffiyeh; the abeya is black, not henna’d. I often stumbled over the Latinised Arabic Wood used. Many Arabic words have entered Gulf expatriate English, with already accepted spellings – wadi and jebel, for instance. Wood’s Latinisation struck me as an attempt to remain more faithful to Arabic, but actually made it seem less like Arabic.

But these are only minor criticisms in what is actually an excellent book. Suleiman and the fabricant, Halton, are well-rounded characters – perhaps Suleiman is a little too much the clichéd wise-cracking newshound, but a genuine personality shines through from beneath. Halton is clearly not human, but close enough to sympathise with. And the Arabs are handled well. The plot romps along – a little sadistic in places, true – and the resolution is as much a product of the book’s world and technology as it is of the story itself.

However, any author setting a book in the Middle East – in a real or invented country – can’t resist the temptation to lecture on the politics of the region. That Wood’s view is more balanced than that of much of the American media is admirable. Wood’s take on the Gulf War is definitely not CNN’s and bears a closer resemblance to the truth – although from the UAE it was more Monty Python than Monty’s Desert Rats. All this is woven into the extant global situation of the time of the book.

It’s only in the closing stages of Looking for the Mahdi that Wood begins to become unglued. The final chapters are the most overtly fantastical of what is near-future hard sf – but it’s political fantasy: a lasting peaceful solution for the Middle East. It’s a happy ending… and after the Khuruchabjan history lessons Wood slots into the narrative, it’s only fair the country gets one.

This is a well-crafted near-future novel, set in a part of the world not often used in science fiction, well-written, and recommended. Incidentally, the strapline (on the US trade paperback edition), “Science created him. Government controls him. One woman can set him free…” does the book no favours.

This review originally appeared in Vector 192, March/April 1997.