Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Review: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

In recent years Ian McDonald has explored near-future science fiction through the people of emerging economies such as India with River of Gods (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) and Brazil with Brasyl (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, my review), both of which received huge critical acclaim and multiple nominations and wins for some of the biggest-name genre awards. In his latest novel, McDonald takes on Turkey with The Dervish House (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound).

Because I haven’t found a way to say it better, from the description on the back:

The Dervish House is seven days, six characters, three interconnected story strands, one central common core – the eponymous dervish house, a character in itself…
In the year 2027, another anonymous suicide bomber on a tram in the middle of an early heat wave sets the stage for The Dervish House. The backdrop is a Turkey that is new to the European Union in a world heating up with climate change where Turkey has emerged as a key broker of energy (gas). This is the clash of Europe and Asia, Religiosity and Secularism, history and future, the haves and have-nots.

I’ll not go as far as to call the dervish house a character in itself, for if it is, it’s an incomplete character. But in The Dervish House, aspects of the geography, socioeconomic, religious and political groups do come alive – perhaps not as full characters, but as not-quite separate personalities within Istanbul – a city suffering and celebrating its multiple personalities.

The Dervish House is at its best when telling the simple stories of its people. Whether it is an old Greek economist, brilliant, yet fallen, who dwells on the past and dabbles in the present, a beautiful gallery owner caught up in the search for a legendary mellified man, an ambitious trader orchestrating an ambitious and illegal get-rich scheme, an isolated disabled boy seeking adventure, a visionary young Islamist, or a country girl struggling to succeed, these are the stories that work – at least when the rest of book isn’t getting in the way.

The plot structure is both a great wonder and terrible weakness for The Dervish House. The reader is fully immersed into the world of the characters – their small, insular worlds. By following the stories of six characters the reader sees more, but not the complete picture – in short, you don’t know what the book is about. At halfway through the book, you still don’t know what it’s about. Sure, you have enough to suspect what it may be about, but you don’t have that single, unifying plot to grasp on to. That lack of a central force holding the book together puts distance between the reader and the story. Yes, some of the individual characters are quite fascinating, but with the time spent divided by six, not enough devotion is built up. The book becomes easy to set aside, hard to describe, and at times, a bit boring and uninteresting.

Unlike with Brasyl, when the plot does reveal itself and the threads converge, it’s an altogether satisfying unification. The end makes sense, it feels good, and presents a very optimistic melding of the conflicts tearing at Turkey from within.

The science fiction focus of The Dervish House is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology has permeated society, though the full implication of it has not. Its uses are seemingly endless and people are just beginning to grasp what this means as they begin to catch up to these possibilities. The singularity hasn’t happened, and isn’t immediately eminent; however the foundations for it are being laid.

I suppose it’s debatable if McDonald is using emerging nations as a way to explore near-future science fiction or if he’s using near-future science fiction to explore emerging nations. I also suppose it doesn’t matter since both are achieved; however, it is clear that these are books aimed at a Western audience as they showcase the people of countries who are likely to play a very big role in the future of the world – a much bigger role than the people of the USA in particular are willing to admit. It’s an exotic and fun way to experience near-future science fiction – I can’t comment on how close McDonald comes to getting it right, though it feels as if he gets at the least rather close.

McDonald’s tried and true strategy of exploring the people of emerging economies in combination with the implications of technology on society in a near-future setting succeeds once again. While I found The Dervish House to be a bit uneven at times, an unevenness that once again holds back what could be a truly great novel, I still expect to see it on the short list for multiple awards. It’s at times powerful, informative, and fun and another example of science fiction alive in our world. 7.5/10

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