Ian McDonald has made a splash in the past decade with a simple but effective formula: take a broad cast of characters, put them in a near-future setting of a developing nation, and add the ramifications of an important technological trend. River of Gods gave us AI in India, and Brasyl gave us quantum computing in, well, Brazil. Both of those novels did quite well in the awards circuit, and I’ll be covering both of them in the fall, but neither won the Hugo. Now, McDonald has his best chance yet with The Dervish House, which explores the effects of nanotechnology on the Turkey of the 2020s.
As I said, there is a formulaic element to these books, but it’s a really good formula. For instance, the big cast of characters with separate but interconnected stories allow McDonald to explore several different aspects of his near future, non-(semi?)-Western society. We get an ambitious young couple – the man is trying to make a fortune on oil from an irradiated Iran; the woman is trying to strike it rich finding an impossible-seeming artifact. We also have an even younger woman seeking to start a marketing career with a nanotech DNA-reprogramming start-up firm. And then there’s a delinquent who begins to believe he can see djinn after he survives an apparent suicide bombing and gets drawn into a group of Islamic fundamentalists. And then there are the typical (for McDonald) outsider characters, an elderly Greek scholar who fears ethnic cleansing in his beloved Istanbul, and an adventuresome boy with a life-threatening heart condition. McDonald weaves all of these stories together and moves them towards a thrilling climax that underlines the possibilities and dangers of nanotech.
I think this is the odds-on favorite to win, but I did find the book somewhat uneven. Most of the characters aren’t particularly likable, others aren’t all that interesting. The trader Adnan Sarioglu is neither, and yet he gets a great deal of the book’s space. The Greek Georgios Ferentinou is by far the most interesting character, and I wished that he’d get a little more of the novel's focus. Of course, the most important character is Istanbul. McDonald employs some of the best prose in science fiction today, and he uses it here to convey a rich sense of the history and geography of one of the world’s great cities. I’ve never been there, unfortunately, but my Turkophile father-in-law has been there often. He read the book, and said that McDonald captured the city perfectly.
There are actually a lot of similarities in setting and story with one of last year’s winners, Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, though McDonald is far more optimistic than Bacigalupi. I like that, but it does lead McDonald wrong at times. For instance, 2027 seems a bit early for most of the technological developments shown here, which is a consistent problem for McDonald (see last year’s novella). This and my lack of interest in some of the characters keep me from giving this my highest grade, but I did enjoy it quite a bit, especially the excellent writing, and it’s a strong frontrunner for me so far.