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The Dervish House (2010) By Ian McDonald – The Absence of Pattern

March 15, 2011

The past conspires against the present and, when it is successful, we call the results history.  We may think that we are free individuals cast into the world and left to navigate the seas of fate but in truth all of our actions have already been determined.  They are determined by our past, our upbringing and our genetic heritage but also by the society in which we live and the historical forces that built that society.  You may well be a unique and beautiful snowflake but what is a single snowflake amidst all the white in Antarctica?  Crime novelists, as a species, understand this fact.

When Jean-Claude Izzo wanted to write about a murder in Marseilles, he wrote about the city.  When Carlo Emilio Gadda wanted to write about Italian Fascism, he wrote about Italian crime. When Jason Goodwin wanted to write about Ottoman history, he wrote about a series of murders that took place in Istanbul. When David Simon wanted to write about the state of America, he wrote about an attempt by a single uppity cop to bring down a single drug dealer.

The people we become is determined by the people we are and the people that we have been.  What kind of person we are is determined by our society, our history and our genetics. Nothing happens for a reason as everything happens for a million reasons and if we are not free it is because our actions are determined by deep patterns woven into the fabric of the world.  We are hopelessly over-determined. We are crushed into shape by the world. Crime novelists, as a species, understand this and Ian McDonald understands it too.

While McDonald’s reputation as an author has grown steadily since the publication of his first novel Desolation Road (1988), it is not until relatively recently that his books have become events.  This change in McDonald’s standing is due to the fact that his two previous novels – River of Gods (2004) and Brasyl (2007) – have come to be seen as exemplars of one of the most fruitful approaches we have to writing about the future.  This approach involves laying bare the soul of a developing nation through a combination of science fictional ideas and a kaleidoscopic narrative structure involving many independent but interweaving plotlines. The science fictional elements distort society while the different plots and characters give us different vantage points from which to describe the distortion.  This approach treats the modern world as a Big Dumb Object and it seeks to capture the essence of the world today by describing what the world may well become tomorrow. The Dervish House sees McDonald using this approach to write about Turkey.

 

Book Cover

Set in Istanbul and the near future, The Dervish House opens with a suicide bombing witnessed by one of the inhabitants of the Adem dede tekke.  Once a place of worship for the mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism, the tekke is now home to a small multicultural community of slackers, economists, priests, art dealers and adventurous children.  Using the tekke as geographical focal point, McDonald slowly unfurls the lives of the tekke’s inhabitants into a complex system of interweaving plot lines that occasionally collide before speeding off in different directions only to converge later as a part of the grand conspiracy that is plot. This narrative web features plots to brainwash the population of Istanbul, quests to uncover a mummy made of honey, attempts to secure start-up cash for a revolutionary new way of storing information and a fiendish business deal that will make millions for the right swaggering city boy.  As these different narrative strands loop in and around each other, different aspects of Turkish society are laid bare as characters tell their stories against a backdrop of nanotechnology, AI-assisted energy trading, futures markets for terrorist atrocities and information stored in junk DNA.

The Dervish House’s short timeline and tight geographical focus may deny it both the comprehensive overview of a society provided by River of Gods and the epic historical vistas of Brasyl but it is undeniably a product of the same train of thought that produced both those novels and so many of the awards and positive reviews that McDonald has received in recent years. However, despite the family resemblance between these three novels (a family resemblance which, I am sure, will later consolidate into an easily re-packaged and resold series), it is clear that The Dervish House is an attempt by McDonald to break new ground and take on new challenges.  To press at the limits of what his existing set of techniques can achieve. The result is easily Ian McDonald’s most ambitious novel to date but, for all its ambition, I am not convinced that The Dervish House is actually all that successful a piece of writing.

The Dervish House builds on the artistic success of River of Gods and Brasyl by taking on two distinct challenges. The first is that of setting.

Though one could never accuse McDonald’s depictions of India and Brazil of being derivative, there is no denying that he does rely upon other works to clear a lot of the ground for him. Indeed, because both Brazil and India have repeatedly served as backdrops for popular works of film and fiction, everybody knows a little bit about them; everybody knows about the samba and the football in Brazil and everybody knows about the poverty, religion and colonial history of India. Part of what made McDonald’s future India and future Brazil seem so plausible is the fact that both River of Gods and Brasyl build upon the preconceptions that their audience carry with them into the books. There are times when the books’ depictions challenge those preconceptions and there are times when they pander to them, but regardless of McDonald’s attitudes towards a given assumption of what India or Brazil might be like, his depictions are always in communication with his audience’s preconceptions, they never take place in a vacuum. These preconceptions provide McDonald’s speculations not only with a plausibility baseline to build on and push against; they also provide his audience with an obvious point of access into his future societies. No matter how weird and disconnected McDonald’s speculations might get, the audience can always use their preconceptions to find their way back to the real world. However, because Turkey lacks both India and Brazil’s media profile, it fails to provide McDonald with a clear set of audience preconceptions to play with.

Modern Turkey is a place of dazzling historical and cultural complexity.  As They Might Be Giants once so memorably put it:

Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks

Modern Istanbul sits between the second E in ‘Europe’ and the first A in ‘Asia’ and seems to be possessed of a suitably fractured sense of self.  The minarets and temperature say ‘Asia’ but the football and possible EU membership say ‘Europe’.  This split personality is not new.  In fact, it has probably been around since before Constantinople was Constantinople (let alone Istanbul). The lack of an easily identified Turkish ‘soul’ has long been a sticking point in Turkish culture as Turkey’s bizarre blend of melting-pot cosmopolitanism and tyrannical intolerance speaks of a metronomic attitude towards the notion of there being such a thing as Turkish identity. One generation banishes slaves and harems in favour of western dress and democracy, another generation rounds up the Armenian population and marches it to its death.

This lack of a clear identity makes McDonald’s task twice as difficult: not only do we non-Turks lack a clear mental image of what Turkey is like, there is a very real sense in which Turkish identity may be far too protean a thing to depict in the form of a novel, particularly a novel written by an outsider such as McDonald. The complexity and historical depth of modern Turkey serve to both deny McDonald his traditional baseline for verisimilitude and deprive him of a clear set of audience preconceptions with which to engage. This means that, in order for The Dervish House to succeed, McDonald must not only get a clear idea of what Turkey is like, he must also communicate that vision of Turkey to a largely ignorant and predominantly western audience and provide them with an entirely believable image of a what future Turkey might look like given the advent of nanotechnology. The upshot of McDonald’s decision to undertake three impossible things before breakfast is a novel that feels oddly generic.

 

Book cover

Read enough near-future science fiction novels and it is difficult to escape the impression that contemporary science fiction has only one future to offer us. One of the most striking features of Lauren Beukes’s critically acclaimed post-cyberpunk novel Moxyland (2008) is that, despite being set in South Africa, its story of a high-tech society shot through with huge income differentials, exploitative corporate branding exercises and media-addled teenagers could realistically have taken place anywhere. Aside from the odd foreign-sounding name and localised geographical reference point, Beukes’s near-future South Africa could easily have swapped places with the near future Scotlands depicted in both Charles Stross’s Halting State (2007) and Ken Macleod’s The Night Sessions (2008). This is partly a reflection of the way our culture is headed.  Indeed, when the same big name brands occupy every high-street in the world and middle class people share the same online space, a certain degree of cultural convergence is to be expected. In fact, when I reviewed Moxyland I praised the generic nature of its future, in a world of Gaps and Starbucks it makes perfect sense for cultural diversity to be reduced to nothing more than foreign-sounding names and places. However, as plausible as this generic future may seem, it is future that Ian McDonald had, up until The Dervish House, avoided writing about.

 

Book cover

Turkey’s future feels a lot like our future but with a few more minarets, beards and kebabs thrown into the mix and if Turkey does indeed have a soul then McDonald has uncharacteristically failed to capture it. When Jon Courtenay Grimwood wrote of a futuristic Ottoman empire in the Arabesk series he made it feel markedly different both to our present and to our notional futures.  When Jason Goodwin wrote of the Ottoman Empire as it was in the 19th Century in The Janissary Tree (2006), he captured the tensions between the different conceptions of Ottoman identity and used them to drive his plot. McDonald struggles manfully with Turkish identity and the soul of Istanbul and yet never manages to lay a finger on it.  His future is tragically generic.

 

Book cover

The second challenge to McDonald’s technique is that of thematic involvement. While both River of Gods and Brasyl could be read as reflections on the complex and over-determined nature of human society, neither book went out of its way to explicitly address those themes and ideas.  Perhaps mindful of the size of the challenge he has set himself by trying to write about Turkish identity, McDonald begins to tackle the issue of over-determination on the very first page:

High above Uskudar storks peel off from the top of the thermal, wing-tips spread wide, feeling the air. In twos and threes they glide down towards the quays and mosques of Sultanahmet and Beyoglu. There is mathematics to the wheeling flock, a complex beauty spun out of simple impulses and algorithms. – Pp. 3

This image of circling storks is both evocative and carefully chosen.  As Paul Kincaid puts it in his excellent review:

The remote, aerial viewpoint is distancing and depersonalizing: the individuals rushing about below are, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant, just cogs in the vast, impersonal machine that is the city.

However, while the storks may distance us from the city, the juxtaposition of these two elements suggests that they are both expressions of the same mathematics.  As above, so below.  There is a pattern to everything and the pattern is visible in every aspect of our lives.  We see the storks, we see the city below and then we are plunged headfirst into the lives of the characters.  All of these different perspectives on the city are expressions of the same basic truths.  This idea of life being governed by a hidden pattern reappears continuously throughout the novel.  Again and again, McDonald draws out attention back to the idea of complexity and emergent properties.

Properties that can be political:

She was theorizing on the Deep State; that enduring Turkish paranoia that the nation was really a conspiracy run by a cabal of generals, judges, industrialists and gangsters – Pp. 60

Properties that can be mystical:

If God is in every atom of the universe, the Name of God must likewise be written into every stone of the city, every cell of the body, every molecule, every subatomic particle. Reality is woven from the Seven Letters. The name of God is a cat’s cradle of superstring. – Pp. 266

Properties that can be biological:

The overwhelming majority of the biomass on this planet is bacterial; biological replicators. […] We are the scum on the surface of that bacterial world. We are the survivors. – Pp. 362

Properties that can even be economic:

There are profound human truths in the romance between want and aversion; delicate beauties in the meshing intricacies of complex financial instruments as precise and jewelled as any Isfahan miniature.  – Pp. 22

From its plots to its science fictional ideas, every page of The Dervish House is informed by the idea that everything we are and everything we do is over-determined by dozens of interweaving forces functioning across numerous levels of causation in so complex a manner as to defy human comprehension.  When an energy trader spots a gap in the market and when a mystic sees the face of an ancient saint in the darkness it is because the pattern has momentarily surrendered itself to human perception.  It is in these moments that humanity may find transcendence. Indeed, this is the main theme of the novel: from the chaos of individual plot lines emerges plot and what is plot if not a deep pattern written by a divine author and forever kept hidden from the characters it involves? The Dervish House is not just a meditation upon the complexity of modern society, it is also grapples with both the over-determination of the self and the possibility that all of our actions may be part of some wider pattern, a pattern we once groped towards using religion but which we today speculate about under the guise of economics. However, while The Dervish House endlessly reiterates its interest in pattern, the very structure of the novel serves to distract from this theme.

 

Book cover

The problem is that while the lives of the different characters cross and interweave, they never quite manage to come together to form a coherent whole. There are times when The Dervish House feels less like a novel than it does a series of inter-edited short stories each with their own under-written characters and under-developed science fictional ideas. This lack of coherence is partly a result of the decision to anchor The Dervish House to a place rather than a character or an event. For example, in both Brasyl and River of Gods, the weave of plotlines was held together by the fact that both novels were about an event that might very well mean the end of the world. The fact that both novels revolved around a single possible event meant that there was an implicit order to the various strands of the novel and while this meant that certain plots and characters were ‘more important’ than others, it also afforded the less substantial characters and plotlines a degree of protection simply because the more substantial elements of the novel were always there to do the heavy lifting. Audiences enjoyed the tangents because they knew they would soon be returned to the central plot. However, rather than prioritising its plotlines, The Dervish House spreads to narrative weight equally across all of its characters and plotlines resulting in some of the lesser characters buckling under the weight. Having finished The Dervish House I could not help but feel that the energy trader needed to be a bit more than a Turkish city boy, that the quest for the honey mummy needed to feel a bit less like a weak Dan Brown pastiche and that the shamed, lovelorn economist was tragically under-exploited as both a character and a viewpoint onto McDonald’s future Turkey. Lacking a single strong plotline to hold the roof up, The Dervish House collapses into a five hundred-page pile of meh. Its narratives feel disjointed and under-written and they never quite manage to form up into the single unifying pattern that McDonald keeps harping on about.

It is telling that the climax of the novel involves one of the characters standing up and delivering a huge info-dumping speech in which he effectively explains the entire plot of the novel by pulling together the various strands:

Nanotechnology is the weapon of choice of the Proselytizer. It is the Sword of the Prophet. I have reason to believe that we have reached a point where this kind of attack is not just possible, but likely. – Pp. 363

Though this speech may be beautifully written and packed with enough sense of wonder to rival any space opera you care to mention, there is no denying that its inclusion constitutes an admission of defeat. ‘Show don’t tell’ is one of the first commandments in the catechism of science fiction and by having a character stand up and explain how all the elements of the novel interconnect, McDonald seems to be admitting that he has not quite managed to show us the pattern tying them all together.

All things considered, it is difficult not to look upon The Dervish House as a disappointment. Packed with ambition and infused with the same creative DNA as two of the greatest works of science fiction to appear in the last ten years, The Dervish House should have been a triumph but instead it is a near miss. The Dervish House is evidently the last novel that McDonald will write in this particular informal series; his next book is to be a work of Young Adult fiction.  I have no doubt that this book will win prizes (it has, at time of writing, already secured nominations for both the Arthur C. Clarke award and the British Science Fiction Association award) but as the years go by people may look back upon this work and ask: Did The Dervish House deserve the praise it received, or was the adulation simply the result of critical inertia built up as a result of years of ceaseless and well-deserved praise? Ian McDonald is undeniably a great writer, but The Dervish House is by no means a great book.

6 Comments
  1. March 15, 2011 5:18 pm

    Excellent review.

    I, uh, really ought to read some of these modern McDonald books. I adored Desolation Road and enjoyed its sequel, but haven’t actually picked up Brasyl or River of Gods…

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  2. Paul Kincaid permalink
    March 15, 2011 8:15 pm

    Thank you for saying nice things about my review, even though we arrive at diametrically opposite views of the book. I felt River of Gods was weakened by the end-of-the-world scenario (Cyberabad Days was a much stronger work precisely because of the way it avoided such a device), and I thought Brasyl was a very weak mish-mash that signally failed to cohere into a novel. But The Dervish House does cohere for me, and works because of the way the patterns are suggested but not completed. What you call emergent properties I see as the role of history. As I said in the review, this is a science fiction novel about the past: history is the determining factor, but is resisted by the characters who all signally fail to understand it. Which is, of course, true of all of us, which is perhaps what made me feel so close to the book.

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  3. March 16, 2011 8:21 pm

    A very lucid and informative review – as always.

    I read BRASYL and found it to be a collection of fascinating scenes, stories and concepts but not quite a “novel” — the parts didn’t really gel.

    However, I respect and admire McDonald for trying so hard to be original and to depict non-Western cultures. (Having said that, I also look forward to many many more Indian, Brazilian and Turkish SF writers gaining international stature and success…)

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  4. March 17, 2011 9:19 am

    Personally, I’d love to hear what Orhan Pamuk would have to say about McDonald’s novel.

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  5. Clutterbin permalink
    June 7, 2011 4:52 am

    Excellent review. And I agree with Athena above, too. Somehow I always sense a taint of exploitation in McDonald. When Nnedi Okorafor writes about a future Africa I believe in her vision is authentic because she KNOWS Africa. When a Brit writes about Brazil, India and Turkey I don’t accept his vision as authentic.

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