Review of The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
The Dervish House
by Ian McDonald
I didn't want to give this book five stars, but Ian McDonald hacked my brain. I had heard enough about The Dervish House—my first novel by McDonald, incidentally—to be fairly confident I would like it. Yet it is not the sort of novel that inspires love at first sight; rather, it tantalizes, flirts, and seduces its way into your heart. It accomplishes this through McDonald's style, the way he describes the city of Instanbul, invites us into its streets and its politics and the eponymous apartments shared by the main characters, and oh-so-casually exposes those characters' hearts, hopes, and dreams. And as a science-fiction novel, The Dervish House is simultaneously subtle and ostentatious. The trappings that make it science fiction are all laid bare and obvious for the reader to see, but just as essential are McDonald's invocations of Istanbul's rich and diverse history, religion, and politics.
It's true that novels with multiple, convergent storylines sometimes have to work harder to earn my love. Yet I'm a little puzzled by the way others have interpreted McDonald's use of this device: one person remarked that "it may occasionally feel as if you’re reading six novellas that just happen to be set in the same city" while a far more critical reviewer says: "The different characters' path only crossed at the very end in a unconvincingly co-incidental way." (He also disparages how the technology depicted in the novel is "only a few years away", which makes perfect sense for a novel set in 2027—only 16 years from now.) This was not my experience at all; on the contrary, I felt like the various storylines interacted and influenced each other to an admirable degree. I loved seeing Ayşe's friend Selma Özgün reappear as a member of the think tank to which Georgios is invited. I loved that Can's investigation of the tram suicide bomber, along with Necdet's subsequent behaviour, helped Georgios formulate what he saw as the most likely security threat, far-fetched though it may sound. I loved that Leyla, Aso, and Yeşar were hunting for half of a miniature Koran throughout Istanbul even as we, the readers, knew it was lying in Ayşe's antiques shop. I didn't love all of the characters equally—in particular, I found it very difficult to sympathize with Necdet after finding out why he had to come to Istanbul and live with his brother. Yet I couldn't imagine any other way of telling this story.
McDonald uses each character to explore a facet of Istanbul and what makes it such a unique place. Georgios provides a political and historical context, and as an old Greek man who has borne his share of discrimination by the authorities, he represents Istanbul's conflicted relationship with the diverse group of people who call it home. Necdet is McDonald's window into Istanbul's complicated relationship with Islam and the modern-day attempts to administer community-based justice. Adnan and his wife, Ayşe (who I'll confess was probably my favourite) are both dreamers and dealers, and they represent the modern merchants of Turkey: Adnan is the man with the connections, the power broker who buys and sells from both the East and the West, even as he plots to make it big; Ayşe, on the other hand, has her eyes turned towards the past, and she has her own big score to pursue. They are the most class-conscious inhabitants of the dervish house, for Adnan is aware that Ayşe "married down" to be with him, and part of his drive to succeed comes from a determination to achieve upward mobility through profit if not pedigree. Finally, Leyla and Aso give us a glimpse into Instanbul's role in the micro- and nano-revolutions. I'm not so sure how Can fits in, except that his role as the intrepid "Boy Detective" is essential to resolving Necdet's story and tying together the terrorists with Georgios' involvement in the security think tank.
So there you have it. If McDonald had tried to let one character or even a small ensemble cast carry the entire burden of Istanbul, then The Dervish House would have been a much poorer novel indeed. It's the multiplicity of voices, not to mention their variety, that makes this story a convincing microcosm of the city, lending credence to the idea that Istanbul itself is a microcosm of the world at large. Istanbul is synonymous with the idea of a crossroads city, but instead of merely telling us this, McDonald shows us in a first-class way, distilling the city and its history into a fascinating story. This is why Ayşe became my favourite character, for I was particularly intrigued by her search for a Mellified Man. Along the way, we're exposed not so much to a history of Istanbul as we are to an oral mythology surrounding the Mellified Man and certain tarikats of Islam. The question is never whether Ayşe will succeed in her search but what significance the search has on her own, personal understanding of Istanbul. She begins as the outsider, the sceptic who initially refuses to buy into the hunt for a legendary artifact—inevitably though, she dips her toes in the pond and the legend of the Mellified Man ensares her just as it has so many poor souls. I suppose I empathized with her, because this is much the same process I experienced while reading The Dervish House. It's an enchanting, entrancing novel, and I didn't enjoy it; I helped it take me hostage and use me as a bargaining chip. I went full Stockholm and held a gun to my own head while Ian McDonald negotiated with my parents for a ransom.
Fortunately, Ayşe's obsession proves, like mine, to be temporary but profound. It ends badly for her, at least at first, but her experience changes the way she thinks about antiques and about Istanbul. At first, Ayşe clearly loves the antiques she sells, but we get the sense that she is not truly as connected to them as she thinks. She used to be merely a dealer in antiques; she acquired items through her contacts and from other merchants, but the search for the Mellified Man is different. It is intense, and for some of her sources even personal. So Ayşe emerges with a better understanding of what the antiques she sells mean to some people; she adds to her aesthetic appreciation an appreciation of their emotional value.
The Dervish House is a very romantic novel, really, by which I mean Romantic. Just consider Georgios and his chance to see once again a lover from his youth, Ariana, who inspired him to become politically active—a path that would eventually saddle him with the guilt of betrayal and cause him to lose his tenure as an economics professor. While Georgios is debating whether to contact Ariana during her time in Istanbul, he is also participating in a security-oriented think tank led by his archnemesis. Georgios, an old man, is suddenly finding himself in a confrontation with the most volatile elements of his past. Or consider Adnan and his three friends. Together they are the "Ultralords" of the four classical elements, and they will pull off a scheme that will make them rich. Adnan might be a trader in stocks and commodities, but he is definitely a romantic: he views money and its exchange as a living, breathing organism, and he attributes his own success to the fact that the money "loves" him.
Moreover, McDonald has managed to unify technology (which we tend to associate with science, and thus rationalism) and romanticism here. Take Can's BitBots, a swarm of tiny robots that can assemble themselves into coherent shapes (Monkey, Bird, Rat, Snake) that Can can control remotely: Can wields his BitBots with all the impulsiveness, curiosity, and courage one would expect of a nine-year-old boy. Similarly, the nanotechnology that pervades McDonald's vision of 2027 is the ultimate technology of the romantic, for it allows unprecedented abilities: the enhancement of memory, of the senses, of the ability to experience and feel. And as McDonald demonstrates through Necdet, nanotechnology can even threaten what we believe, what we think, and who we are. This sinister theme lurks beneath the surface of the story.
Nanotechnology is the most obvious science-fiction device that McDonald uses in The Dervish House. He presents it without any fanfare; by 2027 it is just another part of life in Istanbul. Everyone has ceptep phones capable of displaying information directly on the retina, and it is common to sniff vials of nanomachines to enhance temporarily one's memory or concentration. McDonald alludes to the hypothetical apocalyptic endgame of nanotechnology, the so-called "grey goo" through out uncontrollable self-replication. But this is a novel about identity and personal experience, and so McDonald focuses on how nanotechnology affects individuals. With Leyla, Aso, and Yeşar, we see that the ability to store information within the body's cells would be potentially revolutionary: as Leyla puts it in her pitch, we could have perfect recall of what we see, of conversations we have, of every moment of our lives. Yet McDonald juxtaposes this against a terrorist group's attempts to use nanotechnology as a vehicle for ideological coercion. He taps into a very fundamental question: if who we are is partly a product of our experiences, and if we gain the ability to control or alter our memories of those experiences, what becomes of the person we think of as "us"? Whether it's grey goo or a much more subtle effect, nanotechnology has the potential to end humanity as we know it:
What we are engaged in is a massive, unregulated and improvised experiment in reprogramming ourselves. The true end of nanotech is not the transformation of the world, it's the transformation of humanity. We can redefine what it means to be human.
Of course, we have been redefining what it means to be human for as long as we have called ourselves human. However, up until now, most of those redefinitions have been social, ethical, legal. We have reprogrammed humanity through social engineering. Yet just as our increasing familiarity with our genome and genetics opens the door to eugenics, viable nanotechnology would offer a new form of re-engineering, one that is technological and therefore much easier to direct and exploit. A lot of posthuman science fiction uses nanotechnology as a method for humans to transcend the limitations of their present form; in many ways, The Dervish House shows the beginning of our long road toward that posthuman vision of the future.
Although this is what I am taking away from The Dervish House, I don't want to create the impression that McDonald beats us over the head with Big Ideas on nanotechnology. McDonald wields science fiction in the best possible way, as a setting. Nanotechnology just happens to be a part of his Istanbul of 2027 (a part he chose to put there, because that's the "fiction" part of science fiction). It's the entirety of this futuristic Istanbul, and all the characters it enables McDonald to create, that brings The Dervish House to life. Unlike Troika, where there was a discrete moment when I realized I loved it, The Dervish House is more elusive. This is a book whose complexity blooms slowly, perhaps even shyly. It's something that one discovers. I didn't want to give this book five stars; I thought four would suffice. Yet four days after finishing the book, I'm still thinking about it, still turning it over in my head, and with each revolution I feel more confident that this is one of the best books I have read all year.