July 22, 2010

Book review: "The Dervish House," by Ian McDonald

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The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald

The Dervish House
By Ian McDonald

(This is being published today for the first time in honor of "Ian McDonald Week" at CCLaP. For an overview of all the content regarding McDonald being posted here this week, you can click here.)

So what exactly are we talking about, anyway, when we talk about "cyberpunk," the subgenre in science-fiction that reached its popular height in the late 1980s and early '90s? Well, for starters, we're mostly talking about relatively 'day after tomorrow' tales, or at least opposed to stories that take place on distant planets a thousand years in the future; and we're talking about tales that are primarily grounded in the real world, stories about humans on Earth dealing with technology that may not currently exist, but that we can at least realistically picture in our heads. More importantly, we're talking about the ways these humans interact with this technology, which is the main difference between cyberpunk (which you could also arguably call the "Dark Age" of science-fiction) and the so-called "Silver Age" of Mid-Century Modernism that came before it; because while this kind of "space-age technology" was all brand-new then, with authors mostly envisioning it being used in official capacities by governments and the like in an effort to bring about utopian situations, the SF authors of the '80s and '90s had already watched humanity interact with this space-age technology for awhile, and knew that humans were mostly doing with it what they do with just about everything else -- exploiting and jerryrigging it to suit their own greedy, petty purposes, that is. And so is cyberpunk usually comprised of gritty, noir-like tales from the street, about criminals and con-men twisting this technology around to suit their own ends; and as a result, cyberpunk stories tend to have briskly moving, action-oriented storylines as well, usually touching only lightly on the underpinning philosophical issues that are the main hallmark of other subgenres of SF (such as the "New Age" of the 1960's and '70s, that came between the Silver Age and Dark Age).

I mention all this, of course, because today we're talking about Ian McDonald, who I and others have described in the past as the author of so-called "third-world cyberpunk" (or "Khyberpunk," as one of his fans once called it); or in other words, cyberpunk tales set not within the shadowy, rainy alleys of London and New York like such '80s authors as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, but rather such developing regions as Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, a series of novels throughout the '00s that McDonald himself calls the "New World Order" sequence. Specifically, today we're talking about the latest in this series, the brand-new The Dervish House, set in a newly EU-ified Turkey just seventeen years from now; and indeed, that's probably the most important thing to know about the book -- that despite it comfortably fitting the definition of 'cyberpunk' as detailed above, this is also perhaps the most mainstream, least fantastical novel so far of McDonald's career, and much like the role Cryptonomicon played in the career of the aforementioned Stephenson, I have a feeling that The Dervish House has a good chance of being McDonald's first big crossover general-audience breakthrough, a novel that can easily be enjoyed just as much by people into world politics and the issues of contemporary Islam as it can by sci-fi fanboys. Although he may have technically better genre novels under his belt already (and let's face it -- he does), this is the first book of his that I can legitimately picture as a NYT bestseller; and that says something profound, I think, about the state of McDonald's writing at this point in his career, of the sophistication and maturity he's achieved in the 22 years he's now been doing this for a living.

But of course, McDonald's been heading in this direction more and more in the last decade in general; this is what his "New World Order" books are primarily known for, after all, for taking complex and realistic looks at all the various issues informing these developing sections of the world right now, using fantastical touches mostly as a way to comment on the present, and with things like that nation's religious beliefs and even the state of their infrastructure being just as important to his stories as robots or flying cars (although make no mistake, there are both robots and flying cars peppered into these novels). And really, it's hard to pick a more perfect place to explore such issues than the Turkish "Queen of Cities" known as Istanbul, which of course for a thousand years before becoming a Muslim powerhouse was known instead as "Constantinople," and which during the entire Middle Ages was the second-most important city on the planet for both the Roman Empire and then the Catholic Church.

These multiple layers of directly competing cultures and histories naturally makes Istanbul one of the most complex and fascinating urban spaces on the planet; and so it makes perfect sense for McDonald to set a speculative story about competing identities there, and especially to make one of its biggest futuristic conceits be its eventual entrance into the European Union, a topic that is being hotly argued in the real world even as we speak, an idea that at once makes perfect sense (before the Crusades, after all, Turkey was officially known as the eastern edge of European Christiandom) and is simultaneously a jarring thought to most Westerners (being as it would be the EU's first Muslim member, if their admittance actually goes through). Cleverly, then, McDonald explores such a grand issue through the microcosm of a much smaller scope -- our entire story, in fact, takes place among half a dozen unrelated strangers who all happen to live in the same residential building, off a forgotten back street in a nondescript lower-middle-class neighborhood of Istanbul, the "Dervish House" of the book's title which in reality is an abandoned old religious center whose original construction goes all the way back to the 1700s. (By the way, for more on why McDonald chose such a setting, as well as a lot more about what went into writing this book, be sure to check out my recent interview with him, coming to the website tomorrow.)

McDonald then smartly uses these character archetypes to explore many of the right-now issues that make up the national conversation in Turkey these days: one of our main characters, for example, is a retired Greek Orthodox economics professor, which gives McDonald an opportunity to explore the sometimes funny, sometimes terrible ways that both Greeks and Christians are treated by some in Turkey these days; while two other of these characters are a young, hip, entrepreneurial couple (he's a futures trader, she owns an antiques store), which gives McDonald a chance to look at how the latest generation of Turks are combining traditional Eastern beliefs with the influence of Western capitalism and popular culture (not to mention giving him a good excuse to introduce as a major subplot the hunt for a fabled object from Turkey's actual mythology, the so-called "Mellified Man" who a mysterious client of the wife has paid a six-figure advanced retainer to in the effort to find, and which sends her on a DaVinci-Code-type quest across the city that lasts nearly the entire length of the book).

But then, also in good cyberpunk fashion, McDonald eventually combines all these disparate threads into one giant uber-plot that all comes to a head by the novel's climax, which is where the book's science-fiction elements finally come into play; because much like how 2004's River of Gods is ultimately about artificially intelligent sentience, and 2008's Brasyl is ultimately about quantum-fueled time travel, so too is The Dervish House ultimately about the subject of nanotechnology and the coming "Singularity," of the various ways that the mechanical and biological are meshing in our lives more and more, through the now sometimes microscopically tiny devices that can be literally released by the millions into the air or injected into the bloodstream, capable of both fun consequences (the coolest temporary tattoos in history) and unbelievably dangerous ones (like an entire new class of ultra-deadly military weapons). But unfortunately and ironically, it's this aspect that's probably going to be the least satisfying to both types of McDonald's readers, both the existing SF fans out there and the non-fans; because like I said, in The Dervish House McDonald handles nanotechnology in what fanboys will mostly consider an obvious way that's much too easy to understand (or at least a lot easier than, say, Charles Stross's "Accelerated Age" stories which deal with the same issue), while to the uninitiated this hand-holding might still not be enough, with some of the ideas that McDonald bandies about threatening to go right over some people's heads, especially if you haven't already read another half-dozen books on the subject.

These are just maybes, though, not definites, and you shouldn't let it stop you from reading it anyway; because like I said, mostly The Dervish House is McDonald at what I feel is his best, profoundly fulfilling his growing destiny as the guy to bring together niche-audience speculative fiction with general-interest political thrillers, all through the unique filter of the kinds of places that few other authors have even dreamt yet about setting such stories in*. Just as River of Gods half a decade ago elevated McDonald for the first time into the ranks of the greatest genre authors of all time, so too do I believe that The Dervish House marks another important moment of his career, the moment he will likely expand into the awareness of a lot more than just genre fans, joining the likes of people like Thomas Pynchon and Michael Chabon, celebrated authors who happen to put out speculative works instead of speculative authors who occasionally put out celebrated books. It's why today it becomes the rare genre novel here to get a score in the 9s, because in this case I really do feel that it ultimately transcends the limitations of its genre, and is why I recommend it today to just about every reader out there.

Out of 10: 9.6

Read even more about The Dervish House: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And speaking of which, McDonald confirmed in our interview that his next "New World Order" novel (which he's working on as we speak) is going to be set in the "failed state" of Afghanistan. Man, I can't wait to see what he has to say about that.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:25 AM, July 22, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |