Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book review: The Dervish House

Ian McDonald's The Dervish House is one of those rarest of phenomena:  a well-written science-fiction novel.

Set in Istanbul in 2027, The Dervish House explores a very plausible future based on today's trends toward nanotechnology and "wired-in" infrastructure. 

The story opens with a terrorist attack on a commuter train on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.  Necdet, a deadbeat with a troubling past, witnesses the attack and begins to suffer from illusions that he at first attributes to emotional trauma.  Young Can, a boy with a serious health problem, makes a discovery about the attack and turns to his only friend, the aging Greek economist, Georgios, to help him unravel the mystery.  Ayşe, an antiquities dealer, is at the same time approached by a mysterious client who seeks her services in locating a rare and valuable relic from Turkey's past:  a Mellified Man.  As we follow these and the dozen or so major characters in the novel, all of which are connected by their associations with an old structure in Istanbul's Adam Dede Square known as the Dervish House, we discover an international terrorist plot, a gigantic financial scam, and the birth of a new religious movement. 

McDonald's Istanbul is very much a city of the future: Miniature robotic devices, "bitbots," pervade civilization, affecting everyday life in much the same way that the printing press, the television, or the internet had done in their days.  Turkey has recently been admitted into the European Union, and the mighty Bosphorus Strait is the vital highway by which Russian natural gas reaches the rest of the world.

McDonald paints an intriguing portrait of Istanbul, shading her in ancient mystery, but also highlighting her cosmopolitan, city-of-the-future promise.  I found McDonald's prose to be quite beautiful in places, especially in his descriptions of the city.  His characters, while perhaps lacking in depth, are sympathetic, and some of their stories are quite poignant.  And McDonald does an impressive job of wrapping all the various threads of the story into a neat bundle at the end of the novel.

The book contains a copious amount of Turkish words, the pronunciation of which diligent readers will find arduous.  McDonald provides a (somewhat inadequate) key in the preface which helps.  Nonetheless, I found myself stumbling over words to the point of distraction in places.

Generally, I find genre-fiction to be a poor substitute for good literature.  But, although The Dervish House is a science-fiction novel, I found that the sci-fi elements added to the plot, rather than distracting from it.

Ian McDonald is a first-rate writer.  I enjoyed this book.

1 comment:

Dan Binmore said...

I strongly disagree with the idea that good writing is very rare in science fiction.  It is a very different beast from "literature" in that the writing is plot driven rather than writing for the art of writing.