Ian McDonald’s book “The Dervish House” is set in Istanbul, in the middle of the 21st Century. It opens with suicide bombing of a tram, that doesn’t kill anyone but the bomber herself. One of the witnesses, Necdet, lives at an old dervish house and starts seeing djinn in the aftermath. Another resident of that house (Can, a young boy with a weak heart who wears earplugs to prevent being startled by loud noises) is also a witness, via his toy robot. The other point of view characters (another 4 of them) are also residents or connected with the dervish house. There is Leyla, a young woman from outside Istanbul but part of a large extended family in the city just starting out in marketing. Georgios is an old man, one of the few Greek Christians left in the city, who was once both an economist and a political activist. Ayşe owns a high class antiques & art gallery in the dervish house, and her husband Adnan is a trader (in the stocks & shares sense) with a foolproof scheme/scam to get rich.
The plot follows the six characters over the five days starting with the suicide bombing on a Monday. At first each story seems separate, even Ayşe and Adnan are only linked by their relationship not by what’s going on in their story. Necdet sees djinn and tries to find out why. Can sets out to be a Boy Detective and find out about the suicide bombing. Leyla starts work trying to secure funding and promote a startup nanotech business belonging to one of her cousins. Georgios hears his girlfriend from his student days is back in town, and is also invited to a government thinktank to “think outside the box” about threats to the city. Ayşe accepts a commission to hunt for a legendary Mellified Man despite some misgivings. And Adnan has a scheme to sell cheap (and illegal) oil from Iran to make a huge profit. In the end, all these disparate stories come together – some links are visible early on, but others stay separate till nearly the end.
For all that the plot is mostly about the aftermath of a bombing, and about potential terrorist activity, I didn’t really find it terribly urgent. I wasn’t particularly worried that anyone would die even when they were in danger. Instead the charm of the book was in its snapshot of the life of a city. The characters cover a range of sorts of people – those with money, those without, men, women, single, married, young, old, Christian, Muslim, secular. They all felt distinct, and like their stories and actions grew out of who they were. For all I’ve just said there was no urgency to the plot, I still wanted to know what these people would do and how their stories linked up. Just it’s not driven by the action.
I’ve never been to Istanbul, and I don’t claim any particular knowledge of Turkey, so I can’t say if McDonald gets it right enough for someone who does. However it feels like a plausible near future Turkey to me. There are differences most notably that there’s new tech, like ubiquituous nanotech to do things like help people concentrate or other mental alterations. But these haven’t changed the world into something unrecognisable, in the same way that ubiquituous mobile phones have changed our world but the world is still full of people being people. I guess it’s an anti-singularity novel – McDonald doesn’t seem to think that technological change will at some point accelerate to the point where there’s a discontinuity and afterward the world will be unrecognisable and “post-human”. Instead technology will change, the details of our lives will change, but the old men will sit in cafes in Istanbul gossiping about their neighbours etc.
I enjoyed this book. It’s not necessarily one I’d rush out to recommend to everyone nor is it a particular favourite, but I’m glad I read it.