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BOOK REVIEW The Dervish House - Ian McDonald

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Turkish delight: a brilliantly-realised near-future Istanbul

Let’s get the obvious gag out of the way first. Having set books in Africa, India and Brazil, Ian McDonald’s entire oeuvre is clearly nothing more than an excuse to pass off exotic holidays as research trips. Sure, travelling to Istanbul, the setting for The Dervish House , from McDonald’s home in Northern Ireland doesn’t involve crossing an ocean, but maybe he’s just got sick of long-haul?

And now let’s move on, because the choice of locales in McDonald’s novels has never been as indulgent as a quick destination listing might suggest. Rather, he’s a writer with an unerring instinct for finding resonance between theme and location. Thus, while the “Chaga Saga” of Chaga, Kirinya and Tendeléo's Story fused an alien invasion narrative to a satirical consideration of colonialism, Brasyl used the idea of a country that is, to quote McDonald, “many places all at the same time” as a kind of sustained metaphor for quantum strangeness.

A similar logic informs McDonald’s choice of Istanbul in 2027 as a setting. Sprawling out from both the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus, it’s variously a great trading megacity, a crossing point for people and ideas, and the place where West and East meet and compete. Where better to imagine the impact of a transformative change such as the widespread adoption of nanotechnology than a city that’s in constant flux simply because of where it sits geographically?

If the mention of nanotech brings forth visions of Michael Crichton’s scaremongering in Prey, it’s worth noting straight off that McDonald is a far more subtle writer. Yes, he mentions grey goo, as we all must since Prince Charles put the idea into the mainstream, but The Dervish House is far more concerned with how our day-to-day lives will be changed by messing around with stuff at the tiniest imaginable levels. Illnesses will be cured, but we’ll also need to think carefully about what religious zealots might do with such technology.

McDonald’s method for picking out the themes this brings up rests on the interweaving stories of those associated with the dervish house - essentially an apartment building - of the book’s title. Here’s young Can Durukan, for example, isolated by a heart condition that means he can’t be exposed to noise, who sends out robot animals to beam back pictures from the city. Here’s Georgios Ferentinou, a brilliant economist with security connections, whose career as an academic went south a few years back. Here are traders in energy and antiquities; here are old men tutting over the state of the world; here’s young Leyla, ambitious, energetic and smart yet becalmed by unlucky breaks. Each of these main characters is clearly delineated, a recognisable presence - something that’s sadly still rare enough in literary SF to be worth noting.

As for their individual stories, each would make a novel in itself as, against the backdrop of a Turkey that’s become a member of the EU and may soon be an economic superpower, McDonald offers up terror attacks, the hunt for a mellified man (a corpse preserved in honey), the idea that our bodies might one day be living super-computers, an audacious scam and a corporation where the accountancy practices are slacker than those at Lehman Brothers.

It all adds up to a rich and assured novel that, like much of Ken MacLeod’s recent work, revels in the shiny precision of the airport tech-thriller, yet insists on putting forward disquieting ideas rather than offering all-too-neat reassurances that you can somehow put escaped djinns back in bottles. This is as good as contemporary literary SF gets.

Jonathan Wright

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