Ian McDonald’s 2010 The Dervish House is a slow burn—a fuse that smokes rather than sizzles, culminating in fireworks that are not wondrous for size, rather subtlety of color. Centered on six lives connected to a dervish house—an aging 17th century wooden building—in near-future Istanbul, McDonald builds the story, one historical, cultural, personal, and technologically innovative block at a time. Nanotechnology and its potential effects in a culturally tense environment the major premise under examination, The Dervish House is yet another domino in McDonald’s chorus line of top imaginative and socially conscientious books today.
No fuse can be lit without heat, and The Dervish House opens with a terrorist attack on one of Istanbul’s trams. Necdet is a young man standing near the bomber when it goes off. He survives the attack, but with head swirling in an unfixed reality, stumbles away from the destroyed tram. Can is a boy with a heart condition; sudden noises and scary moments are capable of stopping its beat. The device he wears to dim noise catches the sound of the bomb, so he sends his robot monkey through the alleys and rooftops to have a peek. What he sees causes him to send it scurrying back. Georgios is a Greek living in the old dervish house. Having been displaced in a cultural purge from the Turkish university post he occupied many years prior, he lives in isolation, thinking upon what his life could have been. His days sitting at tea in front of the house, however, are never the same after the bomb.
And there are three other main characters. Adnan is a brash and brilliant market trader who has a grand idea how to trick the system with an Iranian gas deal and earn millions in the process. His wife Ayse, who owns an antiquities shop on the ground floor of the dervish house, also loves challenges, and when proposed the idea of finding a relic thought extinct—a Mellified Man—her interest is piqued, and the word-of-mouth hunt through Istanbul’s bazaars and local color is on. Lastly is Leyla, a young woman from the country who is trying to make it in Istanbul’s fast-paced world of marketing. The project she’s eventually caught up in beyond her imagination’s limits, selling it proves difficult. Is the world ready for what she and her partners are developing?
These six lives, as disparate as they seem, intertwine and run parallel with one another in telling the story of The Dervish House. Both sides of the Bosphorus in play, Istanbul can be considered a seventh character. McDonald goes into fine but not overbearing detail setting the scenes, integrating the city as vibrant background into the experiences of the characters and their histories. The research obvious, Turkey’s heritage is woven into the story in a way few writers of sci-fi these days take the time to do. At the crossroads of Europe and Asia—some of the oldest and most sought after territory in human history—McDonald makes good use of the setting, much to the reader’s benefit.
Taking the past and present and twisting ever so slightly to make a future, a wholly plausible version of Istanbul circa 2027 is constructed by McDonald. The different evolutions of nanotech, for example: Can’s robot, the swarm bots employed by the police, the use of nanotech in inhalant drugs—both legal and illegal—is presented in a realistic fashion no author I’ve yet to encounter has been able, including Stephenson in The Diamond Age. The final extrapolation McDonald performs with nano (the one left to our imaginations) and its potential cohabitation with our bodies is just mind-boggling. That the author also ties nanotech to the miniatures and intricacies of Orthodox, Muslim, Jannish, Hindu, and other religious objects, imagery, statuaries, and totems is, however, the icing on the literary cake. Paralleling ideologies contemporary and pagan with nano, in addition the intricacies of inter-cultural issues (the troubles integrating Kurds into Turkish society and silent malice towards the Greeks), McDonald is on top of his game in presenting a near-future reality that keeps its feet firmly planted in the variety of life and behavior on Earth today while introducing the potential technology and its effects for tomorrow.
There are, however, numerous moments that make The Dervish House feel like McDonald was trying to back away from the presentation of his more singular style and write a mainstream novel. Toning down his prose from the literary pyrotechnics of Hearts, Hands, and Voices and the vivid, visual pacing of River of Gods, The Dervish House is more evenly paced and readily comprehensible; rather than allusion and metaphor, meaning is most often stated directly. Along with a style that effectively repeats words and phrases for emphasis, McDonald also utilizes a few well-worn plot devices. The hunt Ayse goes on will be familiar to fans of Indiana Jones, as will her husband’s wheeling and dealing to net the sweetest deal to any person familiar with stories of golden boys on the stock exchange. The outcomes of these two sub-stories likewise strain the limits of believability, as well as draw questions about their overall relevance to the plot. It should clearly be stated, however, that McDonald presents these rather clichéd elements in his own voice, making them at least bearable. Given his track record with critics compared to popular opinion, writing a story more accessible without sacrificing heart can be forgiven.
In the end, The Dervish House is a continuation of McDonald’s run at writing books that are lyrically mature, sci-fi in scope, and socio-culturally relevant in detail. Though more readily accessible given the style in which it is written, the underlying cultural and technical issues remain complex and pertinent. Leyla and the nanotech she and her partners peddle is a thought-provoking possibility, while the shadowy group Necdet encounters make the import of the scientific advancement all the more scary. McDonald seeming to rein himself in, The Dervish House is less evocative than River of Gods or Necroville, but the backdrop of the Istanbul, the history of Turkey, and the interrelationship of economics and advanced technology as presented through the lives of the six characters is explored in entertaining and interesting detail. It goes without saying, if you enjoyed McDonald’s other work, it’s difficult for The Dervish House to disappoint.