The setting is seven days in Istanbul just a few years from now. Turkey has finally joined the European Union. This is my latest read from Ian MacDonald, The Dervish House.
The story begins with a death– a suicide bomber on a crowded tram. But the attack has no victims other than the bomber. The ramifications of that attack will stretch out across the whole city. And we observe it through the points of view of half a dozen characters whose lives connect in one way or another with an old dervish house in run-down and unfashionable quarter of the city.
Necdet: Necdet is on the tram. He sees the bomber’s beatific expression as she triggers the device. And shortly thereafter, he starts seeing djinns and saints until he finds himself turning, against his will, into an Islamic holy man.
Can: Can is a nine year-old boy with a curious medical condition that confines him into a muffled apartment without sound or shock. Stimuli can kill him. So he explores greater Istanbul through an amazing transforming robot that can take on the form of bird, rat, snake or monkey at will. He witnesses the bombing through the robot’s eyes. He also spots another robot spying on the aftermath of the bombing.
Georgios: Can shares his discoveries with Georgios, an old Greek academic. Georgios spends his days with other old Greeks in the coffee house across from the dervish house, until he is unexpectedly invited to join a strange think tank being set up by his old academic rival.
Leyla: Leyla, who also lives in the dervish house, is caught up in the traffic chaos following the bombing. This causes her to miss a job interview. And as a result she takes a sketchy job drumming up venture capital for a sketchy nanoware start-up company run by a relative. This quest brings her in contact with one of the biggest financial institutions in Istanbul.
Ayse: Ayse owns a specialist antique shop near the dervish house. She accepts a strange commision to find a Mellified Man– someone who was reputedly mummified in honey. At first convinced this is a fool’s errand, she eventually finds herself drawn into the secret history of Istanbul.
Adnan: Adnan, Ayse’s boyfriend, is a trader in the commodities market at that selfsame financial institution that Leyla approaches. But Adnan has bigger plans, with three colleagues he is planning a massive fraud involving black-market Iranian gas.
This is postcyberpunk literature at its best. McDonald delivers his story mostly just assuming the technology that supports the landscape– and then weaves a complex character- and culture-driven story within that assumption. Characters don’t just live within the science fiction, but also within the history, cultures and traditions of the setting.