Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Dervish House - Ian McDonald

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald is one of the most anticipated books of 2010 for me. In recent years McDonald has written an number of novels and short stories set in places most science fiction does not venture. His novel River of Gods and the accompanying collection Cyberabad Days took us to a future India, his novel Brasyl, as the title suggests, to Brazil. The combination of a very strong sense of place as well as interesting technological and political developments and superb characterization made these books real winners for me. In The Dervish House McDonald takes us to 2027 Istanbul and again the result is a very good book.

In April 2027 the city of Istanbul is suffering from unseasonably hot weather. A little heat does nothing to slow the pace of the vibrant city however. Turkey has finally joined the EU a number of years back and has since developed into a nexus of energy trade. Large quantities of natural gas pass through the city every day, on their way to various European nations. The face of Turkey may be turned west in recent decades, it is still a nation with many faces and Istanbul seems to incorporated them all. With Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and modern Turkish influences combining into a mix of European and Oriental the city is a gorgeous backdrop for McDonald's story.

Over the course of five days and though the eyes of six main characters the author explores the city, incorporating into his story the rapid advance of nano-technology, the apparent shift form oil to gas to meet the world's energy demands, the ever present threat of religiously inspired terrorism and the complexities of the financial sector. The lives of a retired professor, a nine year old boy with a heart condition, a gas trader, an antique dealer, a marketing graduate and a troubled young man with a history of substance abuse intertwine to show the city and uncover a plot that puts the lives and sanity of millions at risk.

His previous settings in India and Brazil McDonald incorporated technological advances that would radically alter everyday life if they became reality. In River of Gods the development of artificial intelligence takes such rapid strides that they become indistinguishable from human intelligence in most cases and in Brasyl McDonald deals with quantum computing. The Dervish House looks at nanotechnology. Tiny computer like machines that can be used for all manner of applications, from toys to medical machines to communications. The books ultimately predicts that this technology will blur the line between organic and electronic, the human body an information storage device. It's an interesting line of thought but somehow I feel 2027 may be a bit too soon for such radical changes.

On the political front, Turkish accession into the EU is also an interesting speculation. Negotiations about the Turkish joining have been going on for decades. Turkey seems to be inching closer but there is widespread resistance from within the EU against this expansion of the community (our very own Mr. Wilders, the biggest winner in the latest general elections, is radically opposed for instance). The unresolved issue of Cyprus lead to the accession of only the Greek part of the island into the EU a while back. There are issues with regards to human rights, the large role of the army in Turkish politics, fears of a predominantly Muslim country joining will increase the likelihood of terrorism and the incompatibility of EU and Turkish law in a number of areas. Given the glacial movement towards joining a major political breakthrough would be needed to realized full membership before the date set in the book. It is not something that is very important to the story but by including it McDonald as added an interesting details to his already rich novel. There are a lot more examples of these extrapolations of historic events and processes that bring McDonald's future to life.

As I mentioned in the introduction The Dervish House shows a very strong sense of place. McDonald is constantly describing how the various characters see their own city, how they relate to the history of their city and what role it has played in their lives. The retired professor is ethnically Greek for instance. He is part of the tiny Greek community that remains in the city and he is very much aware that he is part of a minority that is increasingly unwelcome in the city. There are also links with the historic Greek community in the city and the various mass migrations of ethnic Greeks after yet another round of political upheaval in Turkey. The antiques dealer on the other hand, tends to see the city more as layer upon layer of cultural periods of the city, with descriptions of the various building styles she comes across to illustrate this. Each character shows us a different aspect of Istanbul, from high finance to street Sharia, from medieval art to nanotech toys.

This torrent of detail comes at a price of course. For me this book took my full concentration to read. It is too easy to let yourself get lost in the history of the city, the description of a landmark or a reference to the 1980 coup d'etat and loose sight of what the characters is trying to achieve in a particular scene. McDonald packs six main characters in 350 pages, it requires some tight plotting to fit all of this in. McDonald succeeds in creating well developed main characters but demands the reader's full attention in keeping the story lines straight. It takes quite a while for them to converge but when they do, the author weaves them into a very satisfying conclusion. Alternatively, if you are not particularly interested in the details McDonald has put into the novel you're going to wonder when he will get on with it, or even if the author is not overindulging. I didn't think McDonald is but in various places in the book he's right on the edge.

The Dervish House is a fascinating read, a novel densely packed with interesting characters, radical technological advances, depictions of the deep historical roots of the city and based on all this, plausible developments in the society and politics of the city. I marvel at the fact that he has managed to put all of this in such a limited number of pages. I very much enjoyed reading McDonald's latest effort but if you do pick it up be advised it is not a book to read in bed fifteen minutes before putting out the light. It's a demanding, complex and rewarding read, make sure to give it your full attention.

Book Details
Title: The Dervish House
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 359
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-61614-204-9
First published: 2010


  1. Great review (as usual). I particularly appreciated your perspective on Turkey and the EU; as a Canadian, of course, I do not know as much about EU politics as I do Canadian politics (or, regrettably, American politics). Your explanation has added to my enjoyment of the book.

    One correction: you say that the retired professor is "ethically Greek". That should be "ethnically Greek".

    I found the various storylines in The Dervish House much more connected than other novels that use a similar structure; this was one of the reasons I liked it so much. The characters from each storyline are intimately connected to each other. I enjoyed seeing the actions of one character ripple through Istanbul and affect the actions of another character, even when he or she was doing something completely different—the economic sorcery worked by Adnan was having an effect on Leyla's attempts to secure funding; Necdet's experiences influence Georgios' speculations about terrorist plots, etc.

  2. Oy, that is a bad typo :P

    I'm not sure Turkey's chances of membership are increasing at the moment, given the recent success of a number of populist parties in Europe. Then again, they may well be having second thoughts after the mess the Euro has found itself in right now.