Category Archives: Dervish House, The

The Dervish House: Read from March 28 to April 23, 2015

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.

90% done with The Dervish House

Georgios’s story about how he gave up the name of the woman in hos youth to save the woman he loved, how she hated him for years until she was older and wiser and realized what he had done had been for her, how she couldn’t even tell him that she had known- that was a very touching story. And he wraps this around the idea of young men will always kill young men, failed revolution, the image of an unworn wedding suit.

81% done with The Dervish House

This is a book about how difficult it is to include people of different backgrounds and faiths into a modern world, how difficult it is for them to get along. McDonald uses sci-fi to speculate how a city straddling 2 ideologies and continents can become a major player in the modern world while still dealing with the past, with superstition, prejudice, and opposing cultures.

67% done with The Dervish House

There is so much activity in the novel, so many things going on around these characters that also define the characters. The old Greek men confronted by the women whom they shamed. She probably is what they say she is, but they are just cruel. And the man on the bridge who drove off into the water. He was egged on by Adnan, driven to it in the frenzy of the crowd. No responsibility yet all the responsibility.

62% done with The Dervish House

McDonald has done a nice job of exploring what it’s like for a minority people – in this case the Greeks (and to a lesser degree the Kurds and the Armenians) – to remain in a city that has tried everything to get them to leave. They’ve been whittled down to the smallest population and they know it will never recover, but there is still that pride, a sense of place, purpose, longing, and the lingering sadness.

42% done with The Dervish House

All science fiction is about ideas, however there are differences in the type of ideas explored. In a novel like Zahn’s Star Wars Thrawn trilogy the ideas are purely fantastic and escapist, in a novel like Reynolds’s Revelation Space the ideas are mostly science theoretical, but a novel like this the ideas explore contemporary fears and trends by pushing the time frame out a bit to study and understand our own times.

39% done with The Dervish House

I’m probably alone in getting excited about an economics lecture in a science fiction book but it does highlight the way the world works through capitalism, how it co-opts cultures, and how it can be used to strengthen a society while at the same time destroy that society through greed and the homogenizing effect of money. That’s why Adnan’s speech is interesting because I don’t think McDonald is saying he’s right.

34% done with The Dervish House

The meeting with the man in red (though the character was perhaps a bit too convenient) was thematically interesting. He fished in water that doesn’t have any fish, just like looking for a Melified man. The next scene is centered on a man who can get you what you want – money – but he probably won’t and he’s dressed in a shape shifting fabric, he’s never the same, he’s slippery, like a fish. This is good stuff.

29% done with The Dervish House

Interesting things I’ve learned from reading this book: Mellified man. This is a wonderful legend, all that honey, the curative properties of consuming it, it’s really an amazing idea. Another interesting concept the book brings up, and I don’t know how true this is, but the idea that if they could build a house before the sun came back up then it was legal and whole communities arose like mushrooms overnight.

25% done with The Dervish House

I like the idea of seeing the djinn, the mixing of Byzantine with modern Europe on the edge of the Bosphorus. New technology meets the old mysteries. The Israeli air strike against the Iranian nuclear reactor was well thought out, especially in how nothing really happened in consequence, just a lot of talk. A world so interconnected that it won’t easily break apart.

13% done with The Dervish House

That section told in the 2nd person about killing “yourself” by eating nothing buy honey, becoming an expert on all honey until “you” go into a coma was one of the strangest but also oddly beautiful passages I’ve read in any book, sci-fi or otherwise. This is a fascinating book because of all the strange details, the hyper-attentive world-building, the floating, meandering structure. A pleasured fever-dream.

9% done with The Dervish House

This is a beautifully written book. The first image of the stork riding the thermals above the hot city sets the tone of the chaos and beauty of these interconnected lives threading about the insane streets of Istanbul. And the first chapter spends an incredible amount of time setting the stage for all these people brought together by the suicide bomber – they’re all islands in a mad, ancient sea. Good stuff.