No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

2011/22: The Dervish House -- Ian McDonald

"...it all began with this woman in Ereğli who started to see into souls and tell fortunes: the peri were whispering it to her, apparently. Then there's this businessman in Nevbahar: he's very interesting, very up to day; it's not fairies or djinn; it's robots. Those swarm-robots that build up into all kinds of different robots. But at some level it's the same; he finds lost things and gives prophecies." (location 4648, Kindle doesn't give me page number)

The Dervish House takes place over five days in Istanbul, summer 2027, soon after Turkey's admittance to the EU. The novel's six protagonists, all living in or near the eponymous Adem Dede 'dervish house', react to an apparent suicide-bombing on the local tramline. That bombing kick-starts a chain of events that feature djinn, nanobots, microcalligraphy, junk DNA, terrorism-trading, energy scams, family ties, the Green Saint and a Mellified Man.

The six protagonists -- ranging from nine-year-old Can Durukan to elderly Georgios Ferentinou -- are distinct voices, each with his or her own concerns and preoccupations. It took me a while to crystallise the thought that each protagonist's thread typifies a different genre, as well as a different perspective. There's a Dan Brown-style treasure hunt; a Boy Detective with his trusty sidekick(s); a country girl making good; a romantic tale of lost love and betrayal; a fast-paced techno-thriller with cyberpunk overtones; and a young man who comes out of the fire and experiences redemption and revelation.

The joy of The Dervish House, for me, is in how intimately connected the different threads are. The connections aren't always clear -- not least to the protagonists, whose brains aren't wired to recognise what's happening around them -- but everywhere there are patterns within patterns, and everything converges towards a denouement that is as much beginning and middle as ending.

It's an incredibly complex book, lush and sometimes overwhelming with texture and detail: McDonald's prose is rich and precise, and he's got the gift of encapsulating a moment, a character, a cityscape in one sentence. (Adem Dede Square is "small enough for two tea shops but big enough for rivalries": Leyla's family "gave her gold and had their eyes closed in every single photograph".) It's a novel about Istanbul, a city poised at the interface of Europe and Asia. It's also 'about' economics and trade; about the ways that history interpenetrates and defines the present and the future; about patterns, and how the human brain can see them.

Though The Dervish House addresses some of the same themes, and features some of the same entities, as Brasyl and River of Gods, it stands alone , and it's a very different novel, reflecting the ambience of the culture in which it's set. And now I want to go to Istanbul ...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

2011/21: Lightborn -- Tricia Sullivan

"... I've learned to trust myself. I've learned that people --". Well, that wasn't quite right. She corrected herself: "Adults. Are just loosely connected. They're just a bunch of compulsions and stuff. Rationalisations. Seriously. Even before the Fall. Small things could break them. They're not like kids." (p. 128)

Shine was introduced as a revolutionary new medium for neurological directives: 'it makes you want something and it activates the neurochemicals to support the directive' (p. 145). It's the 'lightborn' of the title (though it seems to me that lightborne', carried by light, would be more accurate) and can confer both knowledge and ignorance: one of the characters uses it to conceal parts of buildings. The dissemination of Shine, which only works on adults, was controlled by an AI: then the AI went rogue, leaving the adults 'trapped by mental patterns they couldn't escape' (p. 39). That was the Fall, which happened on 19th July 2004.

Two years after the Fall: Los Sombres, a city somewhere in America, is allegedly inhabited solely by flesh-eating zombies and militant DJs. Or so Xavier is told. On a quest for a new supply of kisspeptins -- which delay puberty, and thus protect against the bad Shine which has zombified all the adults of Los Sombres -- he discovers that things aren't quite the way that the adults in his life have presented them. For one thing, his faith in machines -- "too honest to fuck around with your head" -- is severely shaken by his first encounter with the evacuator robots.

The other protagonist, Roksana, is in her late teens (past puberty) but is impervious to Shine. Perhaps this is somehow connected to the identity of her father, a pioneering researcher in the Field of Shine. Roksana -- and her sidekick, the precocious Elsa -- are engaged in a kind of guerilla warfare against Shine and its agents, trying to help the afflicted adults help themselves as well as protecting them from the robot (and human) guards who enforce the quarantine.

And into the refugee community, which is organised by the local Native American tribe, comes a stranger from Los Sombres, and following his arrival everything starts to change.

Sullivan doesn't believe in easing the reader into her alternate 2006: we dive straight in at the deep end, almost overwhelmed by strangeness and slang. All (or most) becomes clear as we read on.

It's a small apocalypse, and extremely localised. The rest of America -- the world? -- waits, unaffected (their Shine hasn't gone rogue) and apparently happy to keep Los Sombres quarantined until all the zombies are gone.

There's a lot here about parents and children, and children parenting their parents. Sullivan's focus on her adolescent protagonists makes this rather more than 'just another zombie apocalypse'. Roksana and Xavier are tougher and less broken than most of the adult characters. Their voices are convincing.

This isn't my favourite of Sullivan's work -- in particular, I find the ending rather weak -- but it's full of gorgeous pacy writing, cool ideas and cinematic descriptions of everyday life after the Fall.