Writing in the Margins – Ian McDonald’s Dervish House

I’ve just finished the Dervish House by Ian McDonald which is set in Istanbul and brings the current series to an end.

After a bomb goes off in Istanbul, near to a house which belonged to a dervish, various lives are interwined in a  search not only for the truth of the bombing but also the wider patterns in the city.

Ayse, a dealer who is adept at finding the strangest curio, is talking to Akgun about a manuscript which he highlights as having micrography. Ayse points out that that there is a second layer of micrography, a  layer of writing within the writing. That seems to be a key to the book, perhaps even the series which began with River of Gods. Perhaps it equates to a view of science fiction, that there are layers of meaning. Ayse’s search for the Mellified Man, a corpse self-embalmed in honey waiting for the call to rise again, sees her realise that the micro and the macro are entwined in certain ways. For her, it is the mystical chase to find the Seven Letters of God inscribed on the city by a mystucal architect which range from the massive to the micro. As she realises, the architect created them to be “apprehended whole, at once, by the eye of a God immanent everywhere” (p 260) but are not to be read. They exist and the faithful will never rarely see them, only the obsessive might apprehend it.

It being us back to sense of struggling to find a pattern which William Gibson has been exploring in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. As Clute points out in his review, Pattern Recognition marks a move away from First Sf and it sense that there is a future that can be imagined. McDonald continues the trajectory in that, athough the book is set in 2027, it is also now. Or at least a version of now. When Leyla is trying to sell the nanotechnology to the CoGoNano! corporation, the startling lack of a vision of the future is somehow rendered clear. All the corporation wants to do is to sell and market toys and games. Frivolity is  more important than change or use.

The same is apparent in the games that the Özer traders play. Realising that the company is weak, four of them concoct a plan to bring it down and expose the corruption at its core. Whilst making a profit for themselves. After the collapse, three of them taking mind-altering nanotechnology, whilst the fourth invests in Leyla and Aso’s nanotechnology. Investing in the future is a rarity as is trying to see a future when the now is uncertain. Perhaps that is when it is most important to try and see one.

Sometimes the pattern makers only see the pattern that they want to see. Adnan, the only remembering trader, sees the flow of “unreal” money moving between corporations; his own micro view guides him. Ayse’s micro gaze, directed by her quest, makes her see part of the city in a radically different way.

Georgios, the professor, begins to see how the smaller fits into the larger after a conversation with an Army general. Thinking about the information given to him, he rethinks his position and ties in information together. As his own view is challenged and is fed new information, he rethinks the conclusion which nearly has distastrous effects for Can, the 9 year old boy obsessed with Robots. Though his old life is in ruins, he begins to recognise the other patterns which led to it and begins to try to salvage his own life.

As the rifts and narratives come together, Istanbul’s geographical position becomes a guiding hand to the story. Divided by water, the city straddles two continents – Europe and Asia. This Janus-like quality underlies the book with its play in history and modernity, mysticism and science and past and future. Each story comes together and plays its part, combining and dividing like DNA, to form the larger stories of the few visionaries trying to build a future which they don’t understand.

Their individual versions of sema, leading to the final whirl, allows them to appreciate and to negotiate the other stories. In ignorance of the terrorist purpose (to ignite a religious wave across the world), they perhaps fulfil it. It is a deeper one, more mystical, as it comes from the within than the without.

Watching from the margins, McDonald builds on Gibson’s argument regarding the instability of the future. He riffs of the steganography and transforms it into nanotechnology and micrography. All the while there is the air of a family saga buuilding, that the science could be ignored in the twists of the lives that come together. At points, there are even movements towards the fantastic as djinns can be seen. As First Sf and its uncertain certainties are dead, so perhaps are the ways of writing Sf. I do wonder if this is coming back to the New Wave and the recombination that has been taking place in genre again. As he shows, the boundaries make no real odds. What they show is how uncertain and unfathomable the larger version of the Now is.

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