In recent years the question of why the literary mainstream continues to marginalize and ignore writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy has become a live issue, perhaps most eloquently demonstrated
by the furious reaction to the BBC’s shabby and offhand treatment of the genres in its World Book Night program,
The Books We Really Read.
As someone who reads widely in both fields it’s an irritation I have some sympathy with. Where forty years ago any reader worth their salt would have at least a passing knowledge of SF
authors such as J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and Ursula Le Guin, many now wear their ignorance of the form proudly, dismissing it with the same shudder they reserve for Twilight.
At least part of this shift stems from the fading of the notion of the avant garde Ballard and others operated within, a process that is itself a small part of a larger shift in the idea
of what literature’s role should be. It’s possible Michel Houllebecq believes, as Ballard once did, that the novel is capable of rewiring reality, but he’d be one of the few.
But it’s also prevented mainstream readers from discovering a range of writers whose work deserves a broader audience, writers whose intelligence and sophistication far outshines much of the pallid
literary fiction that clogs literary review sections.
Of this group, one of the most significant is undoubtedly Belfast-based Ian McDonald, whose most recent novel, "http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dervish-House-Gollancz-Ian-McDonald/dp/0575080531/ref=pd_sim_b_3">The Dervish House, is the easy favourite to win the 2011 "http://www.clarkeaward.com/">Arthur C. Clarke Award later this week.
At 50, McDonald is widely regarded as one of the leading exponents of contemporary SF, a reputation built on the back of a series of well-regarded early novels and stories exploring questions of
colonialism and social change through a science fictional prism.
But McDonald’s real achievement is undoubtedly the loose cycle of novels comprised of River of Gods,
Brasyl and, most recently The Dervish House. Set respectively in India, Brazil
and Turkey, and dependent for their effect upon complex, multi-layered narrative structures, these three novels are most immediately notable for their immersion in the cultures they depict. While
SF has long gestured towards futures in which the dominance of the Anglo-American political framework no longer endures, it has only recently begun to actively tease out such futures as more than
mere thought experiments. The most visible example of this process is probably the joint winner of last year’s Hugo Award, Paolo Bacigalupi’s intense, claustrophobic vision of a
post-climate change Bangkok The Wind-Up Girl, but I suspect it’s not coincidental that one
of the most striking of these alternative futures has been that developed by another British writer, Paul McAuley, in his novels "http://www.amazon.co.uk/Quiet-War-Gollancz-Paul-McAuley/dp/0575083557/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1303813346&sr=1-1">The Quiet War and "http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gardens-Sun-Gollancz-Paul-McAuley/dp/0575084480/ref=pd_sim_b_1">Gardens of the Sun (McAuley also posited the colonization of Mars by the Chinese in the evocatively
titled Red Dust).
Yet McDonald’s recent novels are united by more than their exotic settings and intricate narrative structures. Underlying each is an evolving vision of reality as a thing in flux, a
convergence of possibilities with little more substance than a soap bubble.
This vision is made explicit by the structure of Brasyl, which interweaves three narratives, an alternate history in which a Jesuit priest travels up the Amazon in 1732 in search of a
rogue member of his order, an over-saturated, lithely sensual portrait of a reality TV producer pursued by a doppelganger set in 2006 in a Rio unsettlingly similar to our own, and an
overtly science fictional sequence set in the Rio of 2032 in which a boy from the barrios makes the mistake of falling for a quantum hacker.
Whether Brasyl quite manages to meet the challenge it sets itself is debatable: to my mind the moment when its thematic underpinnings become explicit is less successful than it might be,
and for all its atmosphere I struggled with the historical section of the narrative. But there’s no doubting either the brilliance of McDonald’s prose, which fairly hums with the
rhythmic energy of the world it portrays, or the manner in which its deft shuffling of possible pasts and futures forces the reader to contemplate the contingency of the reality we take for
It’s a vision that’s augmented and expanded in The Dervish House, which is built around a notion of not just history but reality itself as something patterned and fractal, a
coalescence of order out of interacting possibilities. It’s an idea William Gibson explored to considerable effect in the third and final part of his Bridge Trilogy, "http://cityoftongues.com/writing/william-gibson-all-tomorrows-parties/">All Tomorrow’s Parties, but it’s also likely to be familiar to anybody with even a passing knowledge of
the science surrounding the study of complex systems.
Like both Brasyl and River of Gods (and indeed several of McDonald’s earlier novels) The Dervish House is grounded in its extraordinarily vivid portrait of the city
it inhabits, in this case Istanbul.
Of course there are always risks involved when writers attempt to depict cultures that are not their own. I recently saw one reviewer witheringly deploy the expression “Gap Year
Fiction” to describe the brand of novel in which Western characters visit exotic locations to discover truths about their own lives. But McDonald’s recent books are less Gap Year
Fiction than literary deep cover operations, in which he attempts to disappear entirely into the worlds and cultures at their heart, absorbing not just their colour and particularity, but the
rhythm of their culture, music and language.
In Brasyl some of the danger associated with this process was put to one side by the fact the Rio of the novel was not quite the Rio we know, but one existing several quantum states away.
Likewise in The Dervish House at least some of the risk is managed by the fact it is set not in the here and now, but in the near future of 2027, in which Istanbul’s past glory has
begun to return, fuelled by its strategic proximity to both the booming economies of West Asia and Europe.
I suspect that in the end the question of The Dervish House’s “authenticity” is probably one best addressed to an actual Turk. All I can say is that like Brasyl
and River of Gods it feels real, its fascination with the detail of day-to-day life and the deep history of the city moving it beyond mere pastiche into something richer and more
allusive. Just as Brasyl splendidly evoked the crowding colour of Rio’s barrios, The Dervish House seems to capture something essential about the manner in which
Istanbul (and indeed Turkey more generally) exists poised not just between the fact of its past and the possibility of its future, but between the competing forces of freedom and authoritarianism
that so dominate Turkish public life.
These tensions are given life by the book’s sprawling cast of characters, who range from a young boy with a heart susceptible to the interference patterns of loud noise, a retired academic
specialising in the scientific and mathematic structures underlying economics, an oil and gas trader in the midst of a scam which will see him make millions by manipulating commodity prices and his
fiancé, and art dealer commissioned to track down one of the mythical treasures of Turkish history, a relic known as the mellified man, and believed to be the physical body of a merchant
transformed into solid – and magical – honey.
Ordinarily the characters around which the novel is based would be unlikely to come into contact, except via their shared connection to the dervish house of the title, in which several live and
work. But when another character, a former drug dealer with a history of violence, is caught in a terrorist attack on a train, their paths – along with those of the other characters that
populate the novel, begin to converge around a series of questions relating to a possible terrorist attack, psychotropic nanotech weapons and a rash of mystic visions that has begun to sweep the
The technical skill McDonald displays in orchestrating not just his sprawling cast, but the larger plot is remarkable. Despite being set over a single working week the pace never falters nor does
the plotting feel contrived or manipulative.
But in the end it is neither the almost effortlessly brilliant plotting nor the richness and detail of McDonald’s imaginary Istanbul that makes The Dervish House so satisfying.
Rather it is the elegance of its ideas, and more importantly the manner in which the structure and fabric of the novel repeat and reinforce them, pattern overlaying pattern, until – finally
– meaning coalesces.
In many ways Istanbul is the perfect city for this conceit, blessed as it is with a history that leaves encoded messages threaded through its very fabric, and a present haunted by very Turkish
fears about the manipulation of information and society by the powerful, and secret orders and forces at work behind the scenes of public life. But they are ideas McDonald projects fascinatingly
into the future as well, calling on new understandings of computing and biology to suggest the emergent nature of phenomena from intelligence to complex life itself.
Yet Istanbul has another, more literal role to play as well, one that relates to the novel’s denouement, in which its place as a bridge between east and west, ancient and modern, the
empirical and the mystical is invoked one last time to propel the novel out of the world we know into a far stranger and more speculative future, in which the human mind itself begins to change in
ways we cannot yet understand.
In the end though, the real mystery is how a writer of McDonald’s talents goes largely unnoticed by the literary mainstream. Certainly it’s difficult to see what differentiates his
complex and beautifully written fictions from those of Richard Powers (whose brilliant and slyly funny “Enhancement”, Generosity, is also on the Clarke shortlist) or David
Mitchell (although McDonald is by far the superior writer), or why a book as subtle, intelligent and beautifully-crafted as The Dervish House manages to be overlooked by literary prizes
such as the Man Booker. Perhaps it’s snobbery, perhaps it’s just ignorance, but either way it’s mainstream audiences who are the losers.
A preview of The Dervish House is available on the Tor website.
James Bradley is a critically acclaimed Australian novelist. His personal website and blog is the "http://cityoftongues.com/">City of Tongues.