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The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
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's review
Jan 15, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, science-fiction
Read from November 22, 2011 to January 10, 2012

The Dervish House is a near-future science fiction novel set in Istanbul in 2027. When setting a novel so close to the present it is always a danger that the author will be embarrassed at the date in question, because of either severely underestimating or severely overestimating the technological changes. Ian MacDonald seems to have got it right here though, describing a world which is not much different from now, with the exception of using nanotechnology within humans, for medical and lifestyle reasons. At present this kind of technology is still at the University basic research stage, but there seems to be a demand.

The novel tells the stories of a few characters who all live in and around a square in Istanbul, some of who live in flats converted from the titular Dervish House which (as far as my imperfect knowledge of Sufism goes) seems to be an old religious building roughly analogous to a church hostel and community centre. Few of them know each other at the start of the story, but their individual tales entwine with each other as the novel progresses.

The central story involves a possible terrorist attack using nanotechnology. The cast become indirectly involved in different ways; a retired academic who is trying to warn the government about it, a ten year old boy who witnesses a test-run attack, a survivor of that attack and his work colleague, a businesswomen trying to gets venture capital for a start-up nanotech company – but who is interested?, a stockbroker and his antique dealer wife either of who *might* be unwittingly providing the delivery mechanism for the attack. This is a large cast and occasionally it felt a bit too big, but the writing is so good that you quickly remember where their story left off. No blank feeling that I often get for several pages in this kind of multi-stranded book.

I suppose the main plot is actually quite slight, but it is the individual stories and the way that each individual gets to their own resolution that is the most interesting. The author depicts a clash between an old, conservative Turkey and a new entrepreneurial more Western society, but also how they can live together. I’ve no idea how realistic this is, but it feels authentic and really drew me into the story. For instance the two women characters have very different experiences in what is still a very male-dominated society, one struggling to be taken seriously in the finance world, but the other acknowledged (by all) to be an authority in the world of antiquities. Actually, each story in itself is not science fiction at all, but add the back-story and they are.

The big idea of the back-story; that nanotech can be used to control how people think, is perhaps an old idea about the venality and single-mindedness of some religious types, but the way it is presented is a new riff on that idea, and one that I had not come across before. Recommended to anyone who would like to read a thought-provoking, interesting, well written and atmospheric science-fiction novel.
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Reading Progress

12/06/2011 page 125
26.0% "Excellent, atmospheric start to the novel. This future Istanbul already feels real to me."
01/04/2012 page 340
72.0% "Had to stop reading this for a few weeks, but when I picked it up again got straight back into it. Brilliant so far!"

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