Monday, 1 April 2013

a fascinating if cold glimpse of a possible near-future in The Dervish House

From The Week of March 25, 2013

In the 21st century, technology is the driver of societal change. And though it is tempting to think it has always been thus, this instinct would be in error. For while innovations, from the bow to the printing press, have invited periods of positive disruption, change, historically, has been caused by a complex stew of changing climates, population pressures, natural disasters and geological good fortune, all of which have kept humanity on the path of progress. No longer... Where our species was once subject to fate's whimsy, we now create the tools of our own destiny. With every line of code we write, we program the look, the feel and the morality of our future. Technology has bestowed us with the responsibility for our own success or failure. And while that burden may be heavy, it is one we must shoulder if we are to advance to the next stage of civilization. This is a truth well-explored in Mr. MacDonald's intriguing novel of the near future.

The year is 2027 and Turkey has acceded to the European Union. The dream of a free and secular nation that began with Ataturk has finally, after a century of military coupes and Islamic politicians, been realized in a safe, prosperous country in which men and women, old and young, can succeed. Turkey, once nothing more than the sick man of Europe, once little more than the desiccated heart of a decaying empire, now embodies the American Dream 2.0, the hope for a stable and prosperous Asia.

For all this, Turkey is still subject to profound and disparate forces that threaten to crater its ascendency. A radioactive Iran, demolished by Israeli bombs, is a seething, ecological disaster to its east while Russia, floating on a sea of oil profits, looms to the north, having the power, with a flick of a switch, to end the flow of precious hydrocarbons into Turkey and the West. And these are just the external threats that do not account for the Kurds and the Islamists the disruptive technologies and the thieving capitalists, who trouble it from within.

In this sprawling place, caught between east and west, religion and science, the Deep State and the Islamic state, the interconnected lives of men and women, living in an apartment building in Istanbul, unfold. The economist mourning his past while facing his end of days, the deaf boy who dreams of adventure, the young female professional who yearns for her talents to be recognized, and the young Islamist who is troubled by divine visions all, in their own ways, hold small pieces of a plot to use nanotechnology in an act of terrorism. Their conflicting agendas, and those of the Turks and Greeks, scientists and zealots, they encounter promise to make this hot week in Istanbul, the queen of cities, one to remember.

A thoughtful contemplation of what the world might look like in twenty years, The Dervish House is engaging, if cold, science fiction. Deploying the literary conceit of nesting his host of disparate characters in a single apartment building, Mr. Macdonald is able to craft a varied cast of characters and entangle them in two overlapping mysteries which he then slowly and skillfully unknots during the course of the work. This, along with the liberal use of nanotechnology and terrorism, financial chicanery and geopolitics, allows the novel to be as erudite as it is fictional, a snapshot of a possible, largely optimistic future for a nation that has, for thousands of years, been the cultural hinge of the northern hemisphere. To glimpse it in such detail is pleasing.

For all its imagination, however, The Dervish House is flawed work. For though Mr. MacDonald succeeds in animating his characters with drive and purpose, he fails to invest them with much, if any emotion. Gleefulness and melancholy, ambition and despair, certainly make cameos here, allowing for moments of exultant triumph and crushing defeat, but these explosions are all the more notable for the affectless postures his characters otherwise adopt. We are interested in their machinations, and even occasionally root for their momentary victories, but we rarely love, admire, or even root for them, the notable exception being the young, deaf boy who is easily the novel's strongest character.

Moreover, Mr. MacDonald fails to properly balance the knowledge, about Turkey and the world, he wishes to convey with the plot, about perfidy and nanotechnology, he wishes to execute. Swaths of the novel are consumed by culture, economics, Islam and Turkish history, all of which are interesting in their own rights, but too often we're left to feel as though Mr. MacDonald is showing off his erudition rather than building a better, more engaging story for his readers to consume. His references to the Deep State and financial scams, terrorism and history, ought to add color. Instead, they largely succeed in making the novel seem shallow and flashy.

The Dervish House is high-minded fiction that should be lauded for its attempts to come to grips with the future in all its promise and its politics. It boasts some interesting characters and some complex plots, but the pieces never gestalt into a product that must be devoured. (3/5 Stars)

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