Monday, 15 November 2010

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House

A version of this appears in yesterday's Guardian20, though I don't think it's on the site yet. I don't think there was ever any way I was not going to like an Ian McDonald book set in Istanbul, but this was just gorgeous - rich and dense and stimulating.


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The 2009 movie District 9 opens with an observation about the arrival of an alien spaceship. "To everyone's surprise, the ship didn't come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago, but instead it costed to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg." There is an awareness here that the terrain of science fiction (when it has been on Earth at all) has been rather limited.

That is, to some extent, changing. Both the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke awards for 2010 were awarded to novels with plots that played out in non-traditional settings. China Miéville's The City and the City took place between two fictional Eastern European countries, while Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind Up Girl was set in a future Thailand.

Since 2004, British science fiction writer Ian McDonald has been exploring alternative settings for speculative fiction. His works in that time have included River of Gods, an award-winning novel set in future India; Cyberabad Days, a collection of shorter fiction set in the same world; and Brasyl, set in Sao Paulo and the Amazonian jungle, and in the future and the past. His latest novel, The Dervish House, takes for its setting near-future Istanbul.

It is 2027 and Turkey has been a part of Europe for five years. On a Monday morning the head of a suicide bomber explodes in a tram. McDonald begins his new book with a number of separate threads, all seemingly connected only by the explosion and the fact that the protagonists all live and work around Adam Dede square, "small enough for two tea shops but big enough for rivalries". The square is also home to an old tekke, or Dervish House, and it is around this building that the stories revolve.

There is Cam, the boy detective who must wear special earpieces to shut out sound, and who experiences the world through his shape-changing robots. Georgios Ferentinou is a Greek economist and the brains behind the "Terror Market". Necdet is a young man with a troubled past. He lives in the Dervish House with his brother, and after witnessing the explosion begins to see djinn everywhere. Leyla Gültaşli, a young woman who is trying to escape the pressures of family, finds herself forced to accept a job with a cousin after the tram explosion prevents her from getting to a job interview. Adnan Sarioğlu is a businessman and his wife Ayşe Erkoç an art dealer. Ayşe accepts a commission to find a "Mellified Man", a saint whose body has been turned into pure honey.

As the novel progresses these stories connect in other ways as well. The ways in which people's lives and pasts intersect and come together to form parts of the larger narrative are an appropriate method of telling this story. This is because McDonald's major preoccupation here seems to be those fundamental concerns of storytellers, scientists and sociologists everywhere: how things fit together, how they become parts of a bigger whole, and what constitutes individual identity. So we have Cam’s robots, joining together, breaking apart, joining again to form new shapes; the cells that make up a human body turning into computers; a silver Koran that is cut in two, each half supposedly yearning toward the other because the Koran is one thing; the entire history of the city in its individual stones.

Istanbul is the perfect location for this novel. It seems terribly cliché to point out that the city sits at the point where Europe meets Asia, straddling the East-West divide. McDonald's Istanbul works as a natural connector of things. East and West, Islam and Christianity, various empires and names layered one on top of the other. The city's history ("twenty-seven centuries") is skillfully woven into the story, moving from historical Byzantium and Constantinople to more recent events. Ataturk, relationships with Kurds and Greeks and attempts to be a part of Europe all inform the plot.

And then there's McDonald's prose that somehow manages to bring together art, economics, and the sounds of the city and make them all surprisingly lyrical
The Baku Hub opens before him. It’s a beautiful, intricate flower of traders and contracts, derivatives and spots, futures and options and swaps and the dirty menagerie of new financial instruments; micro-futures, blinds, super-straddles, fiscalmancy evolved in quant computers so dark and complex no human understands how it makes money; all folded like the petals of a tulip around Baku’s fruiting heart of pipes and terminal and storage tanks. Istanbul is a barker’s tent, a street hustle by comparison. Baku is where the gas goes down.

The Dervish House is dense, both in its language and its content, and is occasionally somewhat intimidating in the level of engagement it demands from the reader. But it is precisely because of this that it is a book that does engage the reader fully. As a work of science fiction it is vast in its scope and bursting with ideas. As a work of fiction it is as exquisitely crafted as one of the miniatures it occasionally uses as a metaphor. McDonald is a gift, and it's high time readers outside science-fiction discovered this fact.

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Other people have reviewed this and seen that it is good: see Strange Horizons, Punkadiddle, @Number 71

2 comments:

Pranav said...

Very nice review. I can't believe I hadn't heard of this book. I blame the lack of English bookstores in Istanbul - there are exactly two.

Aishwarya said...

Thanks :) I'd love to hear what someone actually living in Istanbul thought of the book - all I have to go on is a few days' visit three years ago.