September 7, 2010
The Dervish House - Ian McDonald
If you've been reading Science Fiction in the last few years then you must be aware of Ian McDonald and his previous two novels, River Of Gods (review) and Brasyl (review). Both awesome, both didn't win the Clarke Award or a Hugo. Crime! (But the BSFA got it right.) I loved both River Of Gods and Brasyl. A lot. I've been excited by the arrival of The Dervish House. A lot. The perfect recipe for a let down, right?
The Dervish House starts with a poetic description of Istanbul (Turkey) where the story is set. Beautiful, poetic, but a moment of hesitation on my part, no Science Fiction? Then a few pages in: nanobots! FTW!
The novel follows the inhabitants of a Dervish House, an old house in Istanbul: an antiquities dealer and her commodity trader husband, an old Greek Professor of Economics and brief revolutionary, a recovering bad boy drug addict, a country girl trying to get a job in the city after university and a nine year old boy with a dangerous heart condition. It sounds a bit like a soap opera, or one of those dreary literary portrait books, but it's not, it's like part Dan Brown (but better), part John Grisham (but better), part Frederick Forsythe (but better) and a large dollop of nanobot action, combined in a way that Ian McDonald seems to have become the supreme master at.
The novel has characters to love and hate and care about, it has action, it has a perfect set of intersecting plots, it has a crescendo that keeps going and kept me guessing and it has fantastic pacing. It's quite brilliant and I loved it.
As well as all that it's got intelligence. woven throughout the novel is an interesting examination of capitalism: how we live in a capitalist society, how we try and "succeed", how we can live without following the well trodden path and how capitalism might exist alongside long standing tradition or religion. It paints a picture of Turkey and Istanbul that is in the EU and an economic powerhouse, respecting the old and the traditions, but not shackled by them, ready to break the rules in a new world.
And of course the novel is an evocative love letter to Istanbul. You can feel the heat, become immersed in the city, lost in a foreign land. Beautiful stuff.
And, and, and.... it's Science Fiction. At its core is the use of nanotechnology as an everyday tool, and what that could mean. It considers the next step, what the technology could evolve to (which is great idea) and how it could be misused.
So, Ian McDonald's last three novels: River Of Gods, cyberpunk / VR in India; Brasyl, quantum computing / many worlds in Brazil; The Dervish House, nanobots in Turkey. But they're so much more than that, really wonderful books. It's as if Ian McDonald has read my mind and written novels just for me.
The Dervish House deserves to be read by more that just the SF community. I don't usually care about whether SF is a ghetto, or whether we get respect, but for this book I want it to be read by the mainstream because it deserves to be read by the mainstream. It's a wonderful example of how perfectly brilliant Science Fiction can be.