Fractal Geometry: Ian McDonald’s ‘The Dervish House’

The place he lives, the dervish house; he never thought about it as more than a place to sleep, smoke, escape but it has a history, it has lives woven through it, it has holy men. [The Dervish House, pg. 206]

The UK Cover

Not that long ago, I sang the praises of Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days over at Strange Horizons, contrasting its exuberance with the at times stilted interiority of the stories of Vandana Singh. That collection was a companion piece to McDonald’s superlative River of Gods, which also revelled in happening and high concept, barrelling along at a pace both cerebral and breathless. In an SFX review of McDonald’s latest, The Dervish House, Ian Berriman notes that McDonald has retained this “shiny precision of the airport tech-thriller”; but what most interests me about this latest novel are not the similarities it shares with River of Gods, but the two books’ many differences – and one of those is a sort of focus on interiority, on what makes us an individual, but also what makes an individual a member of a community.

I am often guilty of judging a work in light of the one preceding it in the artist’s oeuvre. This can be a poor substitute for reviewing, which should always attempt an open and honest approach to the subject. By the same token, context is essential to understanding. McDonald has long been interested in what the West may call the ‘developing’ world, but it was in River of Gods that he found a literary voice perfectly suited to his cause. Its follow-up, Brasyl, which despite my qualms also won the BSFA Award for best novel, felt to me less perfectly turned: distracted, diffuse. In some ways, The Dervish House reads like a return to the formula of River of Gods: a multiplicity of viewpoint characters, a single city, a tight time frame. Where Brasyl was expansive and elusive, shuttling backwards and forwards in relatively deep time, The Dervish House is focused, like River of Gods, on an imagined near future linked explicitly to our own moment.

Nevertheless, where the plots of McDonald’s India were straight-forward, and its characters very clearly drawn, The Dervish House tests its readers with some boldness. The first half of the novel largely refuses to connect its subplots and characters beyond walk-ons and namedrops, the second half is drawn together only lightly, at times thematically. This is the sort of effort one rarely finds in the airport techno-thriller or, for that matter, your average science fiction novel.

The man of words and the man of numbers see a white room differently. To the writer it’s a cube of horror, a blank needing to be filled with the spurt of imagination. It is that space you write about when you have looked at nothing else for days. It is writing about writing. To the mathematician it’s the void, the pure white light which, falling through a prism of analysis, breaks into the numbers that are ultimate reality. The walls of the white room are the walls of the universe and beyond them lies mathematics. [pg. 92]

If this is the underlying tension of the novel, between story and number, then its governing metaphor is that of the market. This makes it, of course, an intensely topical book, despite its setting of 2027; The Dervish House is about what happens in the reaction between faith and mathematics which constitutes late capitalism, about people who love the market, who are its victims, who are indifferent to but trapped within it. For Georgios Ferentinou, the retired Greek academic and one of the novel’s most compelling characters, “economics is the most human of sciences” [pg. 93]; this is a thought echoed by Adnan, a trader far more in love with the ecstacy of the market than Georgios: “The market is not some lofty, abstract edifice of pure economic behaviour. […] It is human hearts and dreams.” [pg. 321]

Adnan’s wife, Ayşe, is an art dealer (that is, a broker in the transaction between qualitative art and quantitative commerce), and is tasked by a client with unearthing the last surviving Mellified Man. In so doing, she uncovers the “sacred geometry” [pg. 259] encoded into the very heart of Istanbul by the architect Sinan, in which she finds “the great composed of the small” [pg. 265]. In other words, robust systems in The Dervish House, a novel named after the structure in which its many characters live, do not dominate, but are of, the individual – such is the source of their peculiar strength. The nanotechnology start-up of Yasar Ceylan provides a science fictional amplification of this concept: Ceylan’s technologies promise – or threaten – to revolutionise the world not through changes on the macro level, but by altering individuals at the micro. The robot toys of the nine-year-old Can can assemble and re-assemble themselves and their parts into innumerable shapes and swarms. Finally, Giorigios contends that, “The jihad is on the streets. I know, I’ve seen it. Tarikats, kadis, shaykhs;the solve problems, make the peace, keep social order, judge in a dispute.” [pg. 253] He is suggesting that the closer a system keeps to its members, the more effective it remains.

A rare example of a better US cover.

Thus the market, in which bad deals and bad companies are those which become so complex and – ha – Byzantine, that they cease to have any relation to reality: “We’re over-extended in every division to six times our capitalization,” is how one major corporation is described to Adnan. “We’re an accounting fiction.” [pg. 247] Likewise, the further the legends of the Mellified Man are removed from the original history, the more impossible they become: “Stories are all there are,” Ayşe is warned at one point. [pg. 213] She is also, however, exhorted “never [to] let your theory be exposed to vulgar empiricism” [pg. 166] – there is nobility and value in fiction and faith – but in a novel, and a world, in which moments of crisis are precipitated by an accretion of untenable untruths, it is difficult entirely to hold both possibilities in balance.

The novel begins with a quite beautiful piece of writing, in which we come into land at Istanbul in the company of a flock of birds, and arrive in the middle of a terrorist attack. If we were to search for a fault, however, McDonald at times stretches to accomodate all of his novel’s ambitions, and some characters, such as Necdet, the radicalised former drug addict, or Can, whose heart condition demands he is never exposed to sudden noise, somehow never quite find their voice or place in the novel (as distinct from the plot). Perhaps, though, this was simply my readerly enthusiasm for certain other storylines, and a concomitant impatience to know what happened next – a trick McDonald played on me with the aplomb of the, er, airport techno-thriller.

These niggles firmly aside, The Dervish House is a bold and ambitious statement which, perhaps deliberately, never quite comes together in the way River of Gods managed. Nor, perhaps, does it quite capture Turkey in the way that its predecessor captured India. This, though, is unfair to McDonald’s unrivalled facility for writing about cultures other than the Anglo-American, which despite some challenge in recent years continues to dominate science fiction written in English: when nobody does it better, it’s senseless to poke holes.

The best stab anyone in the novel has at squaring the circle of story and number is that of a Professor Budak, in conversation with Ayşe: “value as a shared asset and as something that binds together and gives identity to a community.” [pg. 181] Identity and community (and, as Adam Roberts points out in his jejune review, the interaction between the two) are the key concepts in The Dervish House, a novel which, though at times it strains against itself, never once bursts its banks. No one but Ian McDonald could have written a novel quite like this one. He’s done it again.

5 thoughts on “Fractal Geometry: Ian McDonald’s ‘The Dervish House’

  1. Good review.

    Seems to me that McDonald isn’t interested so much in – what many people think he’s interested in — ‘representing the developing world (Africa, India, Brazil, Turkey) through an sfnal lens’, so much as he is interested in a specific future-premised tipping point, when the as-we-call-them-today ‘developing nations’ swing their balances over to a more thorough-going ‘Westernised’ logic. Future-tech is only one of a number aspects of this. It’s why I’d be very surprised if he were ever to write a China novel; because that moment has kind-of already happened in China. So he wouldn’t be writing it as sf. Although, maybe he’d be interested in writing that.

    On an unrelated note: ‘jejune? You have the temerity to call me jejune? I’m one of the most june people in all the Russias!’ and so on, and so forth. (I know I use that word myself, in the linked review. Still …)

  2. he is interested in a specific future-premised tipping point, when the as-we-call-them-today ‘developing nations’ swing their balances over to a more thorough-going ‘Westernised’ logic.

    To an extent. I think, though, that McDonald also retains an awful lot of what makes his chosen subject’s identifiably themselves, allowing them, in facing the challenges of his sfnal futures, to adopt and assimiliate Western modes of thought. I think he depicts moments of balance attained, rather than tipping points when ‘Westernisation’ emerges victorious, no?

    And as for the jejune quip … I was being cute. I just can’t help it. You are indeed exceedingly june, I cannot deny it.

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