In many ways this was the least science-fiction sci-fi novel I’ve ever read – and that made it even better.
This novel succeeds in all the ways that many of William Gibson’s later novels have fallen flat. McDonald, like Gibson, is interested in exploring the world we currently live in (and are just on the cusp of living in) but he goes much further and deeper than Gibson by creating characters who are tied emotionally to the place they live in, who inhabit a world that is believable in its backwardness, whose problems are mainly their own doing. McDonald is just a better character writer than Gibson and it improves the overall story.
All of McDonald’s characters in this novel are trapped, trapped either by greed, a rare heart condition, their past, or their religion. They are also all trapped by their geography, the great city of Istanbul that straddles the East and the West but in many ways has been corrupted by both instead of gaining the benefits of both. McDonald’s Turkey is full of racism, of religious dogma, of superstition, of old ways of thinking, and all the while strives to be more modern too. The city, of the novel and probably much like in reality, is a mess. The city is stifling hot, over-crowded, full of gossip and noise, and with very little real opportunity. Yet even among all the chaos of this city, people will still do what they can to get ahead, to make a life for themselves.
McDonald’s goal here is to show us in simplified strokes the crossroads the entire world has always seemed to be at – to either follow religious authority and the respect of one’s heritage or the road of technology and individual pursuits. And he shows us the successes and failures of each way of thinking, of how a priest can lose his way in the shaming of a poor woman who can find no other way to survive than to be a prostitute, or how a businessman can find no success without selling out his firm and his professional future. In this novel everyone is corrupted because they can’t live in both worlds at the same time. In fact one character nearly goes insane trying to see the djinn swirling around him in the city.
The novel also touches on the cruelty of how the dominant culture of a nation can impose itself on the weaker minorities either through subtle racism to outright murder. McDonald doesn’t make this a front-and-center point of the novel, but it’s always there in the background – either through how the Kurd’s are seen to how the Greeks were treated in Turkey. And it’s this never-obtainable national purity that seems to be an obsession that holds the Turkey of this novel back from being a true power, from being united through its shared culture and heritage. Turkey is like the mellified man of the novel, but one that never will turn into life giving honey, but just dust.
Everyone in the novel has a dream that is never fully obtained, they all have to settle for something less. And in this point I think McDonald makes his strongest case in how futile the effort is to try to change the world, or even to be as successful as we want in our own little lives because we’re too bust fighting prejudice, fighting greed, fighting economics, fighting superstition, and we;re all fighting it from different sides. He paints a world that is fractured not just through geography, but as a species. At one point he tells us that the body of water separating the two sides of Istanbul looks very much like any normal river, but it is in fact the sea itself flowing through the strait, not just some stream. And buried in the muck is 2000 years of forgotten human civilization.
Structurally the book is incredibly well thought out and executed. You can feel the lives of all these characters, the entire city too, folded on top of each other, breathing the same hot, dense, noisy, polluted air. Even in minor details – such as the man in red who fishes for a catch that no longer lives in the water there anymore, or the image of an unworn wedding tuxedo juxtaposed to the observation that young men will always kill young men – is much more literary than I was expecting. Though a science-fiction novel, there is very little sci-fi: this novel is more of an allegory for human civilization and how we can’t quite seem to get our act together because there are many truths, many ways of looking at the world, and many people willing to kill and die for those myriad beliefs, both the spiritual beliefs and the worldly.
This is a fascinating novel and one of the very best science-fiction novels I’ve ever read because it is so full of ideas and observations about what we are as a civilization and how primitive and advanced we are all at the same time.