The Dervish House

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

This is so brilliant. Beautiful. At the moment I think this is the novel I'm going to recommend everyone to read for a long time to come.

As I have probably said before, it's a little bit risky to review a book before I have really digested it. I never know when I turn the last page what I will think of it in a week or a month. Still, I have now waited way too long to read this book, considering that I wanted to review it before the coming weekend.

Perhaps I'm just dazzled at the moment, but one thing that is safe to say is that I'm going to remember the wonderful opening scene. Some books have a catchy first sentence ("It was the day my grandmother exploded." The Crow Road, Iain Banks. Or, by now well worn cliché: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." That's Neuromancer by William Gibson, in case that you don't recognise it.), but The Dervish House has a little movie in the beginning. We follow a stork, riding the rising air above Istanbul, The Queen of Cities, which is just waking up for another day of unusually hot weather in the year 2027. For half a page I am the stork, I can see it all! It's like a spell, pulling me into the book to keep me locked in between the covers for at least a couple of hours straight. It fits my way of reading perfectly: visual, sensual.

I have read things by Ian McDonald before, but I cannot remember being captivated this way. Brasyl was good in many ways, but did not resonate well with me at all. (Too much quantum physics, perhaps – I cannot make myself believe in magical quantum computers.)

The story in The Dervish House is very fast paced, very compact – it all takes place within five days – and very clear, but has room for a lot of science fictional ideas. It is centered around the people living in the old house of the title, which used to be a place where dervishes gathered but is converted to affordable housing. When a suicide bomber blows her head off on a tram passing by the area, some of the people of this dervish house are pulled into a plot which is much bigger than it first seems. Their paths cross the paths of their neighbours, and we get to know them all a little. I especially like the nine year old boy, who plays detective with the help of his bit-bot robot toy.

These people are very different, and show us very different aspects of Istanbul.

The Crow Road by Iain Banks Neuromancer by William Gibson Ian McDonald - Brasyl 

One of the central ideas is the use of nanotechnology in the form of some kind of nanorobots to temporarily or permanently rewire the nervous system. You can snort some nano to help you stay focussed on a task, or induce a certain state of mind. There are more experimental versions, that can do more specific things to your brain also. Istanbul is a centre of nanotechnology in this future, and there are ideas for applications that could change the world in ways that for most would be drastic and unexpected.

Another theme is economics, and we are shown the stark difference between the game with large sums of virtual money and the science of describing the behaviour of people. I recall that Paul Krugman – Nobel price, remember? – is supposed to have said that he went into economics because it was the closest he could come to psychohistory, as in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. Kim Stanley Robinson said in his speech at the Worldcon last year that "economics is a pseudoscience; the astrology of our time". Perhaps it is, but some economists also seem to be very aware of the advances in psychology, and perhaps this field also is becoming a part of a general wave of discovery of what is to be human. Time will tell, and in the meantime we play with ideas and visions.

The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 - Paul Krugman Kim Stanley Robinson - Forty Signs of Rain  Isac Asimon - Forward the Foundation(#7)

The central theme of Ian McDonalds writing has to be that not only Europe and America are important in the future. More and more of the rest of the world makes itself noticed, and some people feel threatened when they notice that our part of the world is not the only place that matters. It hurts when you notice that you have been holding a privilege which depends on keeping other people out. Ian McDonald has recently shown us futures in India, Brazil and now Turkey, and I think it helps people lift their eyes a bit and see parts of the world they barely knew were there. Who needs other planets when we have so much to learn about our own?

In The Dervish House we get a very broad picture of Istanbul, and also a glimpse of the rest of Turkey. It's in the near future, and there is no glossing over the tension between ethnic groups. So we get to see some really ugly prejudice and discrimination (and worse) against kurds, but also the problems facing Greeks, Armenians, and other minorities. The Russians just seem to float on top of everything (but they are always just outside the frame of the picture in this novel). But there is more to the city than that: history, art, trade, food, and gas pipelines. Even science fiction. In passing, the only science fiction author of Turkey is mentioned, but not by name – I suspect this is a real person. (Burak Eldem? My best guess.) Perhaps there are also ancient hidden secrets, secrets that can only be uncovered by luck, dedication, and the eye of a trader in antiquities.

"All Istanbul is celebrating," one of the characters reflects at the end of the book. "And Istanbul is mourning, and Istanbul is dreading and Istanbul is hoping. Istanbul is everything."

Now, time to get ready to meet Ian McDonald himself, among other authors. Eurocon is this weekend (June 17-19), in Stockholm. Elizabeth Bear will be there! Charles Stross will be there! Hannu Rajaniemi will be there! Amanda Downum will be there! And many more.

And so will I, non-author as I am, and perhaps you too. Let's find each other and talk about books.