Ian McDonald has been working his way up my list of favorite SF writers over the past few years, and The Dervish House (2010) just brought him that much closer to the top. Both in the impressive Brasyl and the spectacular River of Gods, McDonald has proven himself one of the field’s most accomplished visionaries: an inventive, thought-provoking, and entertaining novelist. What I love best about his work, though, is how thoroughly he immerses the reader in his vivid futures, which are already vibrant and detailed, but all the more fascinating for their unusual settings. With these recent books, McDonald has been taking SF to corners of the globe most white, westernized SF fears to tread, and it serves as an enjoyably disorienting double-jolt to the system, not just showing us how diverse and complex the future will be, but how diverse and complex the world already is. McDonald may not be the only author reminding us that the future isn’t just happening to Los Angeles and London, that change is a truly global thing, but he’s certainly among the best.
The setting of The Dervish House is Istanbul, and it’s a thematically significant one — a bustling crossroads bridging the divide of the Middle East and Europe, old ways of thinking and new, the past and the future. A simplistic plot summary wouldn’t suffice, if it were even possible. Let’s just say there’s a fearless nine-year-old boy with a unique heart condition and the coolest “action figure” ever…a crusty Greek economist with a dark political past and an eye for redemption…an ambitious art dealer who sets out to uncover an ancient artifact…her husband, a cut-throat wheeler-dealer looking to set himself up for years to come…a young woman who takes a job pitching a revolutionary new nanotechnology to venture capitalists…and more memorable characters, their stories told over the course of an eventful week during a relentless heat wave. Various interests — business, political, cultural, technological, religious — are on a collision course, and as the novel progresses, these characters are witnessing it all, and exerting their effects upon history. The individual stories are ingeniously interconnected, and together they tell the story of a city, and of a future. It’s breathtaking stuff, and it’s the essence of “futurismic” — it should be required reading for anyone submitting fiction to Futurismic, that’s for sure.
McDonald’s work can be challenging, at times — bringing SF reading protocols to an unfamiliar culture, even as you’re learning that culture, can be hard work — but it’s well worth the effort. I do recommend setting a big block of time aside to truly sink your teeth into this one, though; I feel I would have enjoyed it even more if I hadn’t had to divvy it up into bite-sized chunks, due to an unfriendly reading schedule. It’s great science fiction, and deserves all the attention you can give it.