Set in the near future, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House explores the rise of nanotechnology — the next great technological revolution — in Istanbul. McDonald’s story has six protagonists whose stories are held together by the titular Dervish House, which is located in Adem Dede Square, a backstreet in the Queen of Cities.
A terrorist bombing on a public tram sets off McDonald’s plot. A woman has killed herself, but, unusually, there are no other casualties. Instead, one survivor, Necdet, discovers that he is suddenly able to see djinn. Leyla misses her job interview because of the suicide bomber, but her family sets her up with a nanotech startup. Retired professor of economics Georgios Ferentinou’s terror market is up 20 points, and the government calls to offer him a job with a new think tank. The bombing does not greatly affect the markets that the trader Adnan is manipulating to make his fortune, nor does it disrupt his wife Ayşe’s buying and selling of religious antiquities. Nine-year-old Can Durukan, who has Long QT syndrome, does not witness the bombing, but he sends his BitBot into the city streets to see what happened.
Can’s story is often the most charming part of The Dervish House. Can imagines himself as a heroic “Boy Detective,” and his BitBot — which can transform from snake to rat to monkey to bird — recalls the freedom offered by familiars like Lyra’s Pantalaimon from Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Can’s age, his heart condition, and his protective parents make him the least independent character in this novel. However, his BitBot allows him access to more adventure than any of the adults, all of whom are constrained by the realities of a world where workers need to inhale nano shots to improve their focus so that they can remain professionally competitive.
In many ways, The Dervish House feels less like a contemporary work of SFF than a Golden Age science fiction novel. Today’s SFF is often full of warnings about the future problems our technology enables, and, yes, the technology that McDonald describes is quite dangerous. For example, nano that improves our focus can also be used to erase our memories, or even to alter our beliefs. However, McDonald allows more than enough room to make the future seem, if not wonderful, at least wondrous. And I found it interesting that he chose to set this story at a time when nano was on the cusp of fundamentally changing the world, leaving his visionary character Aso to speculate about what the world might be like after the nanotech revolution is complete.
The treatment of technology is somewhat unusual, but the novel’s reliance on many perspectives feels familiar. McDonald’s decision to tell this story from the point of view of six characters that only happen to live near each other is a bold one. It allows him to really open up this future Istanbul, and his cast gives him access to the government, the academy, the market, robotics, art, and religion. McDonald is an author that likes to stop and look through every window in his future world, suggesting that he, like Georgios, takes a great deal of pleasure from the ingenuity of ideas. There are many moments to admire, but one of my favorites is Selma Özgün’s profession. Selma is a “psychogeographer” that has mapped the many layers of Istanbul through history. She looks for trends, such as why one side of a street has tended to be disastrous for business while the other has tended to be profitable.
Because McDonald’s story contains so many perspectives, I found that The Dervish House often had to rely on the premise, rather than the plot or even the characters, to keep my interest. There is very little time for complications and setbacks, and our characters generally move from one successful venture to another. It’s an approach that does little to enhance suspense. For example, when Can decides to truly live out his “Boy Detective” fantasy and leaves his home, his greatest obstacle is a group of old men that are curious about his robot. Will he be able to come up with an explanation that will satisfy their curiosity, or will they ask him to go home?
The future that McDonald envisions is indeed compelling. Though I found the plot too convenient, there is a great deal here that warrants acclaim. I would encourage hesitant readers to pick up a copy of The Dervish House.