We’re more than three quarters done with 2011, so, much like Oscar commentators—in fact, exactly like Oscar commentators—we’re more than prepared to start ticking off our candidates for nominations for the 2011 Hugo best novel award. Yes, yes, we still have three months to go, there’s an Iain M. Banks novel coming along in a couple of weeks, and there’s always the Christmas season, but as we survey the year so far, we’ve already got some pretty good candidates. In fact, the stuff coming along this year is going to make a much stronger list than this past year. This is turning out to be a banner year.
And Ian McDonald, who has yet to win a Hugo for best novel, leads the pack, as far as I’m concerned, with The Dervish House. I’ve loved his stuff for years—especially the Chaga series, which he still needs to get back to. His last two novels, Rivers of Gods and Brasyl, were about two non-western cultures (India and Brasil) that have both eagerly adopted western technology (virtual reality and quantum computing, respectively) and run with it, and how they might look in a couple of decades. Both were fantastic reads, yet neither won a Hugo.
This time McDonald turns his attention to Turkey, in 2027, the year Turkey finally joins the European Union. The Dervish House is an old building, occupied by a number of tenants, six of whom are the book’s main characters—a hotshot commodities trader and his antiquities dealing wife, an young urban professional wannabe fresh from the country, and old economics professor, a nine-year-old hacker with a heart condition, and a young man caught up in a religious organization full of angry young men. The trajectories of these characters intersect in various ways over the week that the action takes place in, often in predictable ways, but often not. They each have a quest, as characters are supposed to have; some are more worthy than others, of course, but they’re all interesting, and McDonald’s vision is such that you actually want them all to succeed, even the huckster commodities dealer. Well, except for the young man with a mission and perhaps a bomb, who may or may not be seeing God—you don’t want him to succeed at all, although you do want to see what happens. McDonald is very aware of the problems posed by young men with too much religion and too much time on their hands.
None of these quests would be nearly as interesting as they are without the contexts that McDonald provides. For all of this takes place in Istanbul, that most interesting city, and the city itself informs many of the narratives—its history, its below-the-radar radical fundamentalism (which pops above the radar from time to time, with occasionally horrifying consequences), its heat, its geography. All of these factors play a role in the developments of the novel. McDonald is that rare thing—an intensely geographical writer, who is interested in the interaction between events and place, and how the latter constrains or informs the former. So here we find the action set in one of the world’s oldest cities, infused with a perhaps unique combination of west and east, of Christian and Muslim, Europe and Asia. Istanbul has always been one of the great trading cities, and as such it’s the perfect locale for the stories that McDonald tells. The Istanbul and Turkey that McDonald describes are on the verge of becoming an economic superpower—where better to set stories about not only the clash of cultures that inevitably occur in such places, but also about the clashes that result when technologies impinge, on people and on each other.
As does capitalism—this is the most economic of McDonald’s novels, and while he has always shown a pretty sure grasp of the dynamics of markets and how they work, in The Dervish House, as in Rivers of Gods, we see capitalism at work in a non-western home, and working well—or, as well as capitalism works in any culture. McDonald, like some fellow authors (Banks, Macauley, and Stross come to mind) knows his stuff here. The scenes of commodities trading using the technologies of two decades from now are thrilling.
And the technology. McDonald just loves him some technology, and every McDonald book is a deep and considered view on how some particular technology may develop. In this case it’s nanotechnology and robotics, and some of the ways the former could transform the latter. Istanbul in 2027 has become the center of the nanotechnology revolution. Kids and traders snort nano instead of cocaine, for a start. But nano is everywhere—in clothing, in artwork, and auto windshields. And it feeds the visions of those present at the suicide bomber blast that opens the novel, visions that encompass the entire range of the city’s glorious and mystical history.
This is a great story, and great storytelling. So this may be McDonald’s year—so far nothing else I’ve read is as worthy a candidate. He is one of the three or four best writers around in terms of mapping out plausible technology paths for the near future—reading The Dervish House is like jumping into a primer on the potential uses of nanotechnology. He’s also a master storyteller, with a gift for characterization and narrative that should put most non-SF writers to shame. In fact, let’s just say he’s one of the three or four most interesting writers around, period, and let it go at that.