Ian McDonald: The Dervish House

This week we’re looking at the 2011 Hugo Nominees for Best Novel. You’ll be able to find all the posts in this ongoing series here.

The competition for the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novel will be very fierce this year, with nominations going to ambitious works by genre masters Connie Willis and Lois McMaster Bujold and exciting debuts from “new” writers Mira Grant (a pen name) and N.K. Jemisin, but my money is on Ian McDonald’s thrilling The Dervish House (Pyr.) A master in his own right, McDonald has written some of the best SF of the last fifteen years. Desolation Road, Evolution’s Shore, Brasyl, and numerous novellas and short stories were lauded with some of the genre’s top award nods. His 2005 novel River of Gods, set in a 2047 India of warring city-states is one of my favorite novels and how it lost the Hugo to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell that year just boggles my mind. It’s an English Patient-level Best Picture Oscar upset.

I am not a widely-read hard SF reader and topics such as nanotech and zero-point energy intimidate me a bit, but I have always found McDonald’s work very approachable. What compels me to read him again and again is his adept handling of a large cast of unique characters in developing countries seldom featured in SF. In these speculative near futures, Sao Paolo, Mumbai, and—in The Dervish House—Istanbul become major centers for technological innovation and post-human evolution. And why not? In a world becoming more and more connected, it is arrogant and misinformed to think that the current First World will be the only players.

The 2027 Turkey of The Dervish House is a new member of the European Union and on the forefront of a boom in nanotechnology. Nano infiltrates everything from the clothing people wear to the drugs they take to the toys their children play with. The titular former Sufi house of Adem Dede Square is a microcosm of this modern Istanbul, where natives and expatriates, Christians and Muslims, old generations and young live close together, sometimes too close. McDonald juggles six main characters here, all connected to the Square but from all different walks of life over the course of five sweltering summer days.

There is hapless deadbeat Necdet who is on a train during a suicide bombing in the first chapter. His flight from the authorities is watched by a young boy named Can whose contact with the outside world is mostly online and through his robotic spy toys due to a rare heart disorder. Can’s closest “friend” in the real world is Georgios Ferentinou. A retired Greek economist with a radical past, Georgios spends his days divining future news from the papers in a confectioner’s shop. Also in the Square is Ay?e a female antiques dealer addicted to finding rare objects and her brash commodities trader husband Adnan, addicted to the promise of a huge payout. Lastly there is Lelya, a recent grad on her way to a job interview that she misses because of the train explosion. This missed opportunity opens the door for another and soon she has just five days to save a nanotech start-up whose latest patent can change the course of history.

It is difficult to be concise when reviewing a novel with six main characters, as difficult as it can be getting one’s bearings keeping all of these people straight at first. McDonald fully immerses the reader in the sights, history, and language of Istanbul, one of the most enduring cities in the world and capitol of some of history’s most famous empires. While patrol bots hover over Adem Dede Square, McDonald never lets one forget that these were the same streets marched upon by the Romans, the Ottomans, and more and “how the incomers from the hinterland of the new European empire have unconsciously taken up the districts and streets and lives and voices of the displaced ghosts.”

Like River of Gods, this is a mosaic of a story that can be admired for its finely-wrought pieces but not fully appreciated until the book is fnished and looked at again from some distance. The biggest part of the thrill is wondering how the characters will inevitably intersect. What will happen when Leyla tries to present her innovative product to the same company that Adnan is scheming to steal from? How can Can and Georgios predict where the next terrorist attack will be? And by the last third of the book, these tenuous threads do join together, to spectacular result.

As much as The Dervish House is about biogenetics and history, McDonald couches some of his lushest prose in expolartions of mysticism. After Necdet survives the train bombing, he begins to see what he believes are djinn all over the city. This makes him somewhat of a celebrity at the tekke his brother is trying, after a fashion, to revive, and makes them both targets in a larger conspiracy.

Then there is Ay?e, the art dealer, and her search for the rarest artifact in Turkey, a Mellified Man. These rumored Arab men would start to mummify themselves before their own death, eating nothing but honey for weeks. (A truly memorable sensory description.) Their corpses would be steeped in honey, sealed in lead coffins until an appointed future time when they were to be opened opened and the preserved human confection that remained used as a powerful medicine. Ay?e chases rumors of one such sarcophagus hidden in Istanbul, puzzling out hints from ancient texts and hidden within the architecture of the city.

This thread was my favorite of all and also the most self-contained. Ay?e, and Leyla too, are both modern women existing in a largely traditional culture. When Ay?e’s investigation into the Mellified Man lead her to a reclusive Hurufi obssessed with finding the secret name of God, she cannot help but notice that despite her own devotion to art and fresh perspective on history, the scholar is reluctant to help her because not only is she not religious, she is also a woman. “This is not how women act in your world, Ay?e thinks. If there are any women in your world.

McDonald, who is a native of Scotland, has an uncanny ability to write about other cultures authentically. He is a painstaking researcher and while he cannot always write with absolute authority, his dedication to making settings and characters feel alive is incredibly impressive. I believe this most stuck out in my mind because I read The Dervish House immediately after reading one of last year’s Hugo Award-winning novels, The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Both novels are speculative sf written by white men about developing cultures with central female characters. Where Bacigalupi chose to write about outsiders living in a near-future Thailand, McDonald writes primarily about native Turkish people. There is no tsk-tsking the negative aspects of a culture on the one hand while exoticizing it with the other. The female protagonists have depth and agency within the narrative while living with ingrained misogyny. Ay?e and Leyla do not love the rules of their society but they both love Turkey and are eager to work for their futures. And for all of his obsession, the Hurufi priest isn’t a caricature of religious fundamentalism and sexism either. He’s given the same amount of careful treatment and complexity.

Ian McDonald has crafted a gorgeously lush novel, oozing with exciting, relevant ideas, a love letter to the Queen of Cities, to all cities, really. Adem Dede Square is riotous with people, their pasts, futures, misfortunes, and hopes. For as exciting a post-cyberpunk novel The Dervish House is, the best sf novels aren’t about the bells and whistles of sexy tech. It’s about how people relate to that sexy tech, personally and as part of a larger global community.

Read a preview chapter here.

Theresa DeLucci is an graduate of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop of 2008. Her fiction has appeared in ChiZine, Morbid Outlook, and Tear magazine.


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