A second look at The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald
What exactly is the definition of Science Fiction? Set in the future? Set in the past with technology that didn’t exist? Set in the present but when a key past event differed from historical reality? Set in a parallel universe? A story based on a simple ‘what if’ premise? Something where people have developed new or different skills and abilities? Something with aliens? Something where everything is based on actual or imagined scientifically plausible principles? It’s quite hard to pin it down, any one of the definitions covers most of literature. Hephaestos built robots in the Iliad, Jason and his Argonauts fought robots when hunting the Golden Fleece and in the Bible Ezekiel described a remarkable war machine drawn by some pretty alien winged beasts.
The best definition I can come up with for science fiction is a book where the literati peer down their ultra-long noses and pronounce with infinite distain that its ‘science fiction’ whilst poking it away with a long spoon. That seems to cover the genre pretty well.
All of which makes The Dervish House something rather unique and special. Its written in a remorselessly literary style with a complex vocabulary, a large cast of erudite characters, remarkable characterization of those characters and is set in the near future in a thoroughly recognizable Istanbul. It involves antiques dealers, crooks and thieves, karin and djinn, terrorism, counter terrorism and a mellified man. But it also has some very clever and believable mini-, micro- and nano- technology, an Israeli cruise-missile strike that happens around about now and an irradiated middle-east that’s pushed up gas prices and set the scene for a commodity market scam involving dirty gas and clever use of arbitrage and swaps.
That makes Dervish a book hard for the noses to dismiss, hard to describe as anything other than science fiction, but difficult as a mass-market publication because of the complexities of the plot and the strangeness of the cast.
An interesting book, but a challenging read that might also put you off specialist honey for life.