vN by Madeline Ashby

vN: The First Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2012)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer

The robots in Canadian author Madeline Ashby’s novel are self-replicating artificial humanoids designed by a “global mega-church” as post-Rapture “helpmeets” for those humans left behind after the ascension of the just. Why, it’s not clear – though given what we learn about how these robots are conditioned to engage with humanity, something beautifully ironic and poignant could have emerged. That is not what we get but vN is an interesting though flawed work.

Amy is one such construction, the daughter of robot Charlotte and flesh-human Jack. vN robots like Amy and her mother eat special robo-food and are fitted with a “failsafe” – a kind of First Law which not only prevents them from harming humans but actually causes them to shut down if violence is observed. On Amy’s graduation from kindergarten, her grandmother Portia turns up and attacks Charlotte. Amy eats her in her furious attempt to defend her mother but Portia somehow survives as a consciousness linked to Amy’s. Fleeing, Amy encounters Javier, a “serial iterator” who has given birth (vN reproduction is not gendered and vNs exist in networks of identical clades) to a dozen unauthorised copies of himself and becomes involved in a rather hazy political plot. The revelation that in her the failsafe has broken down is key: each side, human and vN, sees her as a potential weapon to be used or destroyed.

The novel only takes us so far and like many sf futures, vN suffers from something of a lack of focus. The robot-world is well evoked, with vN vagrants living off junk and tensions between vNs and humans. There has been a violent quake on the USA’s West Coast and, somewhere, a (semi?)-autonomous city-state of Mecha exists as a possible sanctuary. But is this culture all world-wide? Does every country in the world “have” vN humanoids? All this may be explored in subsequent volumes but some generic flattening undermines the interesting things Ashby is doing with the “robot” icon.

Still, there are fascinating things here in what is implied about families here – notably the relationship between Amy and her artificial-humanoid mother and human father and between her and Portia, the predatory grandmother. There’s also a skilful creepiness. It’s clear that these robots are – as ‘real’ robots may well be – used as sex toys. The term helpmeet does not necessarily have (in its original Biblical context) a sexual implication but it certainly derives this as a term for marriage partners and equally certainly New Eden Ministries, Inc. means this. The ungrown “child” vNs are of course tempting for those whose interests lie that way. The development of the ability in Amy’s clade to overcome their failsafes is ingeniously linked to her family history and the darker side of desire for robot sextoys that will do whatever you want.

There is, though, a lot about the nature of love (not all sexual) in the novel: obsessive love, the kind of love that may be simply exploitative. And here the most interesting figure may be Jack, Amy’s father: “Charlotte didn’t do drama… now he suspected he’d find human women too warm, too loud, too mobile.” Or, on the same page, “at one point [Amy] and Charlotte would be indistinguishable. Jack worried about that sometimes. What if one day, years from now, he kissed the wrong one as she walked through the door?”

This review originally appeared in Vector #271. vN has been shortlisted for the 2012 Golden Tentacle Award for debut novel that best fits the criteria of progressive, intelligent and entertaining. The winners of this award and the rest of The Kitschies will be announced on Tuesday, 26 February 2013.

Wireless

Wireless by Charles Stross (Orbit, 2009)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

‘Missile Gap’, the novella that opens Wireless, is a pretty good encapsulation of Stross’s concerns as a writer. It takes place in the middle of the Cold War but on an Earth that has been radically altered and flung into another galaxy. The reconstruction of the planet into one flat plate on a vast disc brings with it gravitational changes that render the Space Race dead and flight difficult. These changes allow Stross to play with his love of abandoned engineering projects by introducing, for example, a vast nuclear-powered ekranoplan the size of an aircraft carrier. Piloted by Yuri Gagarin. Carl Sagan also appears as a character and there are many similar winks. So: a big picture hard SF idea, a Twentieth Century alt history, a strong awareness of the history of science fiction, a couple of in-jokes and some cool toys that never were. Like Ken MacLeod, Stross is looking towards the future with nostalgic eyes.

There is more of the same on display throughout Wireless. In fact, ‘Missile Gap’ is something of a retread of ‘A Colder War’, published five years previously. Gagarin and Sagan are replaced by Colonel Oliver North and Stephen Jay Gould, and the missile gap becomes a shoggoth gap, but otherwise they are the same, right down to the infodump chapters presented as classified briefing films with identical security warnings.

‘A Colder War’ is the only story which overlaps with Stross’ previous collection, Toast (2002), and this repetition makes its inclusion a mistake. It also points towards a lack of purpose in a collection which is almost-but-not-quite comprehensive and where Stross unfortunately uses his introduction to pointlessly justify his existence as a short story writer. Obviously the stories collected as the mosaic novel Accelerando (2005) are not reprinted here but only one of his three collaborations with Cory Doctorow appears (‘Unwirer’). Why this one, which feels more Doctorow than Stross in composition? Why include ‘MAXOS’, a joke about extraterrestrial 419 scammers that at three pages is still too long? ‘Down On The Farm’, part of the ongoing Bob Howard series that mashes Lovecraft (him again) with spy versus spy, is great fun – if clunkily structured – but is cut adrift from the rest of its continuity here. The impression is of a writer casting around for any material to hand, that the overriding reason for this collection is that Stross gets jittery if he doesn’t release at least two books a year.

The main selling point of Wireless is ‘Palimpsest’, an unpublished novella. A mix of time travel and deep time future history, it is a powerful piece but sabotaged by an afterword in which Stross makes clear that it should really be a novel, had industry requirements not dictated otherwise. I understand the travails of the jobbing writer – Stross has chronicled them well on his blog – but Wireless is so market-driven that any enjoyment of the stories was overwhelmed by a desire for less haste and graft and more reflection and quality control.

This review originally appeared in Vector #261.

Fools’ Experiments

Fools’ Experiments by Edward M Lerner (Tor, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Perhaps this is just an unfair prejudice of mine but as far as I’m concerned any book that uses sound effects is likely to be a bad book. In this case, at least, the cracks and thwocks and blats do indeed herald a writer with very little facility for the English language.

Edward M Lerner is a traditional SF writer in that he is an engineer who knows a lot about S and not much about F. After ghostwriting a couple of Ringworld prequels for them, this is his first novel proper for Tor and only adds to my sense that something has gone badly wrong with their quality control of late. Fools’ Experiments is a tedious technothriller doled out in 71 bite-sized (but not particularly thrilling) chapters. Although it is divided into thirds, rather than this being a classic three act structure we have a false start, the actual plot and then a pointless retread of the middle third. The story chiefly concerns the emergence of artificial life but the structure of the novel is so broken backed that it is initially hard to tell where our attention is meant to be focussed.

In keeping with the strictures of the technothriller format there are lots of viewpoint characters but they are all drawn so crudely that you would never mistake them for actual human beings. The main characters are initially Doug, a researcher in neural interfaces, and AJ, a researcher in artificial life. In order to differentiate between them Lerner makes Doug a lover of bad puns. He also (since Hollywood has taught him it would be unthinkable to do otherwise) pairs both of them up with hot chicks. Unbelievably in the case of the overweight, middle aged AJ this involves bagging the attractive IT reporter who is interviewing him with the line “nor do I want to know ahead of time what our children will be like.” (143) These poorly realised characters only add to the sense of dislocation as they can disappear for sixty pages at a time whilst the narrative wanders elsewhere and other characters spring up in their place. Not surprisingly Lerner is better with machines than humans. The section where an artificial intelligence breaks free from AJ’s lab, causing devastating to the surrounding area, actually lives up to the genre’s name. Even this becomes interminable after a while though.

RUMIR is a very useful acronym that Karen Burnham invented from an old Joanna Russ review that described a work as “routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable”. In five letters it sums up vast swathes of published SF and it could, charitably, be applied to this novel. Fools’ Experiments is not bad because it is a catastrophic failure, it is bad simply because there is absolutely nothing good about it. In some ways this is even worse, at least with a catastrophe there is a perverse pleasure in seeing what abomination the writer will come up with next. This novel just inspires supreme indifference.

This review originally appeared in Vector #260.

The Edge Of Reason

The Edge Of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass (Tor, 2009)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Imagine if Richard Dawkins was not only American but retarded. Imagine he taught himself to read using the work of illiterate megasellers like James Patterson and Tess Gerritsen. Imagine he further fleshed out his understanding of human nature on a diet of romance novels and misery memoirs. Finally, imagine he stayed up one night getting drunk and watching piss poor police procedurals before having the sudden brainwave of re-writing American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Imagine all that and you have imagined Melinda Snodgrass’s dire The Edge Of Reason and thus saved yourself the pain of actually reading it.

Our hero, Richard Oortz, is an East Coast blueblood concert pianist turned New Mexican policeman with a Terrible Secret. You might think this sounds unlikely and you would be right. He is also an extraordinarily good-looking bisexual gymnast whose DNA, unlike most of the rest of humanity, contains no magic. This last is of paramount importance because, counter-intuitively, it allows him to wield a magic sword that will save the world.

The idiotic plot revolves around the rather large co-incidence that the Devil also happens to live in Alberquerque (apparently this is because “it is a place where science and magic rub close”.) In a mind blowing twist, He is actually the good guy since he represents rationality and Oortz must unite with him to overthrow the tyranny of God. What follows is tosh to the nth degree, Snodgrass has somehow managed to harness the worst of the blockbuster thriller and paranormal romance genres. And if the plot is bad – lacking sense, structure and interest – then the writing is even worse. To take an example:

Lean Cuisine hefted light in the hand as if the contents of the package were as cardboard as the box. Richard hooked open the crisper drawer of the refrigerator with the tow of his shoe. Fresh bok choy, peppers and ginger flashed color and guilt at him. He would cook. (p82)

The rest of the prose is equally cloth-eared and over-wrought and the dialogue reads like the work of Elizabots. It was solely because of professional obligation that I read all the way to the end, only to be rewarded with a limp, open-ended conclusion that paves the way for equally appalling sequels.

The book’s jacket bizarrely claims that it is as controversial as The Golden Compass or The Illuminatus! Trilogy, possibly the only time those two books have been mentioned in the same sentence. The Golden Compass was controversial (in the US) because it was marketed at kids and suggested that organised religion wasn’t that great. The Illuminatus! Trilogy was controversial because it was an insane counter-culture conspiracy theory fuckfest. The Edge Of Reason is supposedly controversial because of the whole theological inversion thing but this is only going to shock you if you have parachuted in from the 19th Century (as Oortz appears to have done.) In fact, the only thing controversial about the book is that it ever made it into print from a major publisher like Tor.

This review originally appeared in Vector #258.

Exotic Excusions

Exotic Excusions by Anthony Nanson (Awen Publications, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

This collection promises to map “the territory between travel writing and magical realism”. Actually the territory it covers is rather broader than that. Regardless of genre or mode though, there is a great deal of uniformity to these stories and the opening story, ‘The Things We Love’, provides something of a template for what follows.

An engineer (and amateur palaeontologist) goes to Africa to supervise a water pipeline project he helped set up. Whilst there he finds indications that dinosaurs may still be living in this remote corner of the world. Accompanied by native guides he goes in search of one such creature and, with very little incident, finds it, only to discover that it is dying because of the changes to its habitat caused by the pipeline. It ends with his realisation – signposted by the title – that we always kill the things we love.

At thirteen pages this is one of the longest stories in the collection but it is still rather abrupt. These are more vignettes than stories, impressionistic rather than narrative, over as soon as they have begun. ‘The Things We Love’ is nowhere near as trite or as moralistic as my bald synopsis makes it sound but both these threats are lurking in the background of Nanson’s work. The themes of pastoralism and colonialism are overwhelming and all the stories end on such a moment of minor internal revelation. Every final sentence is designed to impart Meaning but the effect, particularly cumulatively, is that the reader is beaten over the head with Nanson’s philosophy.

Nanson writes well, if not particularly excitingly. For a writer who makes clear in his introduction that his work is infused with spiritualism he is surprisingly rigorous. If anything it is so self-consciously precise as to be slightly stifling. It is not his writing that proves the problem though but rather his subject. The problem with trying to convey the ineffable is that it is, well, ineffable. Nanson is well aware of this and even explicitly addresses the problem in ‘Touching Bedrock’:

“I pointed down at the sea, hoping she might perceive what I had perceived, that our eyes would meet in an epiphany of understanding… To convey to her what the sight meant to me suddenly seemed a great labour that once set upon would obliterate the tenuous feeling it sought to express.” (33)

It is a striving for the transcendent that he remains unable to realise. Several times whilst reading the collection I was struck by how much better Nanson’s concerns could be served in verse rather than prose. Instead it really only amounts to a sketch book of autobiographical and anthropological observations so although it contains a fair percentage of material that could be considered fantastic, Exotic Excursions is unlikely to be of interest to Vector readers. In fact, it is so strongly personal that its audience is probably very limited indeed, perhaps limited solely to the author himself.

This review originally appeared in Vector #257.

Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void

Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void by Simon Logan (Prime, 2008)
Reviewed by Martin Lewis

Fade in across the Hackney skyline, sirens and the smell of Vietnamese food filling the air. Cut to a man in an overpriced flat reading a novel. Zoom in as his lip curls up in distaste on discovering it is written as a pseudo-shooting script.
Cut.

Films aren’t books and an author who is a frustrated director usually makes for a frustrating reading experience. The directions are an infuriating affectation which is a shame because Logan is a good – albeit uneven – writer. One notional reason for his stylistic choice is the fact that one of the characters is a documentary maker but it is a pretty thin justification. The artifice extends as far as calling the chapters “scenes”. This grates as well but perhaps, given their slender length, it is right name for them.

Logan has previously published three short story collections and it initially shows in the rather fragmentary nature of his debut novel. (Or, as he irritatingly styles it, “n*vel”.) It chops rapidly back and forth between his cast of characters: Elisabeth, the aforementioned film-maker; Catalina, a teenage thrill seeker; Auguste and Camille, artists and lovers; and Shiva, a freelance terrorist. Of course, their lives are all intertwined and over the course of the novel they are pulled together for a transformative conclusion. It is much to his credit that this spiralling inwards seems natural and unforced, a grasp of structure that is unusual for a first time novelist. In fact Logan is good on all the fundamentals. For someone who clearly fancies himself as a prose stylist, most of his misfires, such as describing pylons as “fascist metal weeds”, come when he is striving to attain a level of industrial poetry. Instead it is his characters, and more specifically their interaction with each other, where his strength lies. It is the sixth character – the city itself – that makes the novel so confounding though.

These scenes are all set in a nameless, placeless and, most puzzlingly, timeless city. The novel is deliberately anachronistic and obsolete: characters use payphones, pagers, VCRs and joysticks. One character is referred to as having a “Soviet jaw line” and then later “jagged Soviet features”. Whatever this description means (and I am not sure) it seems likely that some of Logan’s prospective readership weren’t born until after the collapse of the Evil Empire. Pretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void clearly harks back to the early days of cyberpunk but it is too redundant even to be the future as envisaged in the Eighties. In fact, this is almost pre-cyberpunk and shares more in common with Hubert Selby Jr than with any current SF writers. It is clearly a conscious choice but I’m not sure exactly why or to what end. One thing is for certain; this isn’t science fiction but nor is it purely mimetic because is so strongly abstracted from the real world. The city is a sort of fantasy sinkhole, a playground for malcontents, and this robs it of its power.

This review originally appeared in Vector #256.

January Review Round-Up

Shana will start reading future classics by women next month but I thought I’d round-up a few reviews published this month of books by women. I’m planning to make more of the BSFA’s archive of reviews available online so let’s start with a couple of re-prints from Vector. Firstly, Nic Clarke on White Is For Witching:

Helen Oyeyemi’s White is for Witching is a subtle little gem of a ghost story, written in a sparsely elegant style and paced as a page-turner whose mystery lies mostly in its characters’ fears and flaws. It centres on a haunted bed and breakfast in Dover, and the people – living and dead – whose lives are entwined with the house, and with each other.

Then Niall Harrison on Moxyland by Lauren Beukes:

The cast of Moxyland know their world is artifice; they know that everything, every interaction and object, is probably designed to sell. That’s the air they breathe. That’s what one of them, artist Kendra Adams, feels impatient about; that’s why she eschews a digital camera for an old-fashioned film one. “There’s a possibility of flaw inherent in the material”, she argues. Digital is too perfect, too controlled, and in its perfection lies unreality. What interests her is the “background noise” captured while you’re focusing on something else. Those details interest Beukes, too, I think.

I also reviewed Moxyland to inaugurate a year of reading science fiction by women:

This is a novel where the stakes are very much personal and when these ambitions come into contact with wider, more impersonal forces they are casually and callously crushed. Just as the characters are powerless against their own nature so they are powerless against the state and find that in the end, it is the state that shapes their very nature.

Ian Sales started a similar project by reviewing The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein:

Had I not known of it when I found it in that charity shop, I would not have bought it. I’d heard it was quite good – but how often do you hear that about books, which promptly disappoint? I’d heard it read as fantasy but was really science fiction – but there’s so much room for manoeuvre in that statement, it’s hard to take it as any kind of useful description. Something brought The Steerswoman to my notice, something persuaded me it was worth reading… And I’m glad I did. The Steerswoman is a gem.

As you would expect, Strange Horizons covered several books books by women in depth, perhaps most notably Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor and 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin. Here is Farah Mendlesohn on Who Fears Death:

There is a hint in Who Fears Death that we are in the far future of Zahrah the Windseeker, Okorafor’s debut novel. For all the resemblances to our own Africa, this is a distant planet in a distant time, and the story the Okeke and the Nuru tell, in which the Nuru come from afar, might well be true. This is a science fictional world with water captures, hard-tech computing, and newfangled biotech. It is also a world of magic, of small jujus and powerful sorcerers.

And Paul Kincaid on 80!

Conceived by Kim Stanley Robinson and compiled by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin, 80! was intended as a personal birthday present on the occasion of Le Guin’s 80th birthday in 2009, and originally came in a specially bound edition of one. But now, a year on, Le Guin has agreed that the book should be made more generally available. It is worth it for parts, if not for the whole. It is not easy to describe this book. I suppose it comes closest to being a festschrift, and there are several pieces that would not be out of place in such a volume. But it is also an opportunity for people simply to express gratitude, which is genuine and often moving, and certainly not out of place in a birthday card

Finally, Abgail Nussbaum reviewed both Bold As Love and Life by Gwyneth Jones:

So that’s Gwyneth Jones seen through two novels–a feminist who seems not to like women, or perhaps people in general, very much, a science fiction writer who can’t seem to keep both feet in the genre, an ideologue who mocks her own convictions at every turn, an angry feminist who can’t quite keep from winking at her readers. What I feel at the end of these two novels, mostly, is intimidated–by Jones’s intelligence, her forcefulness, and the complexity of her vision.

Moxyland

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot Books, 2009)
Reviewed by Niall Harrison

“Full of spiky originality,” declares Charles Stross, on the cover of Moxyland. “A new kind of sf, munching its way out of the intestines of the wasp-paralysed caterpillar of cyberpunk.” We’ve heard this too often, haven’t we? And it’s not true of Lauren Beukes’s first novel. To the contrary, it’s a book that would be all too easy to reduce to a string of buzzwords. Individuality, conformity, conspiracy. Wired, urban, dense. Terrorism, gaming, marketing. Cadigan, Sterling, Stross.

The word missing from the list is knowing. The cast of Moxyland know their world is artifice; they know that everything, every interaction and object, is probably designed to sell. That’s the air they breathe. That’s what one of them, artist Kendra Adams, feels impatient about; that’s why she eschews a digital camera for an old-fashioned film one. “There’s a possibility of flaw inherent in the material”, she argues. Digital is too perfect, too controlled, and in its perfection lies unreality. What interests her is the “background noise” captured while you’re focusing on something else.

Those details interest Beukes, too, I think. Other things too, of course: in an afterword, she emphasises the plausibility of some of her novel’s more prominent conceits: proprietary, corporation-run universities; law enforcement robots; use of mobile phones to deliver a disciplinary electric shock; biotechnological art; corporate co-option of rebellion for its own ends. But what marks the novel out is its texture.

Set in Cape Town in 2018, Moxyland is told in four voices. First-person in a near-future setting is always a high wire act; the narration must be different enough to evoke a changed world but not so different as to sound implausible or just silly. Differentiating four such voices is an even bigger ask but Beukes makes a reasonable fist of it and her characters’ personalities and situations are distinct enough to make up for any tonal similarities. In addition to navel-gazing Kendra (“I feel like the tarps sop up emotional residue along with the dust drifting down to settle on the carpets”), we meet: Toby Ward, self-consciously slangy blogger, spoilt and obnoxious (“It’s always fun to infringe on people’s personal space”); Lerato Mazwai, AIDS orphan, now a programmer indentured to the corporation that raised her, gossipy and shallow (“this fat chick across the aisle keeps giving me these dirty looks”); and Tendeka Mataboge, middle-class activist working with street kids, profane but unfailingly empathetic, even when being threatened (“Compared to what he must have gone through getting here, who the fuck am I that he should be afraid of me?”).

It’s the glimpses of these lives in this setting — Lerato’s upbringing, Tendeka’s struggle with corporate sponsorship of his aid programmes — that snag the attention, more than the overarching manipulation they struggle against. The novel’s conclusion is never really in doubt; Moxyland wears its cynicism on its sleeve. But it’s a sharp, sly ride, not new but proficiently done. You’ve heard this too often, as well, but indulge me: Beukes is one to watch.

This review was originally published in Vector #263.

BSFA/SFX Weekender Ticket Giveaway

The BSFA have secured some free tickets for members courtesy of the generous folk at SFX, who are giving us 20 sets of four tickets to the fabulous SFX Weekender to give away to BSFA Members.

Entry requirements:

Simply email info@sfxweekender.com with your name, BSFA membership number and telephone number quoting SFXBSFA in the message body to be in with a chance. Tickets are allocated on a first come first served basis, so be quick and fire off that email.

If you do not know your BSFA number or if you join the BSFA within the next 7 days then you can still apply and be in with a chance.

Winners will be notified in 7 days of this announcement.

About the tickets:

The weekend passes would be for four people per member, and give access to the event for the two main days (Friday and Saturday). They are worth £96 each (£384 in total) and can be seen at http://www.sfxweekender.com/tickets.

Unlike many conventions/festivals there is also a residential option to stay on site at the event. These are not included in the competition tickets, but you may upgrade at cost price if you wish. Accommodation upgrades are available from £60 per person for the weekend.

Also available are signing passes for autographs, which winners get for £20, instead of £30.

About SFX Weekender:

http://www.sfxweekender.com/

The Dervish House

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald (Gollancz, 2010)
Reviewed by Tony Keen
(This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in Vector #266.)

I am about to board a tram that will take me towards Necatibey Cadessi, where the action of Ian McDonald’s new novel The Dervish House begins. As in the novel, there is a Champions League match in Turkey in a few days, though it is Manchester United versus Bursaspor, not Galatasaray and Arsenal. This information is biographical to me personally, but it may help you understand why this novel connects with me so beautifully.

This summer, posters appeared advertising Dan Brown’s latest novel, showing various situations in which people are so wrapped up in reading Brown’s The Lost Symbol that they are ignorant of the dangers around them. In one, a man is merrily absorbed in his book while his barbecue turns into an inferno. I like to think that he would cast the Brown itself into the flames should some kind person show him a copy of The Dervish House, a novel that presses many of the same buttons as Brown’s book but is the work of an immeasurably more talented writer.

The Dervish House is the third of McDonald’s loose trilogy of ‘post-colonial’ novels, after River of Gods and Brasyl, both of which won the BSFA Award. These three novels (and the short story collection Cyberabad Days) take science fiction outside the normal First World settings of North America, Europe and Japan, and instead explore India, Brazil and, now, Turkey. In a lesser writer’s hands, the danger would be that such accounts could become patronizing. But McDonald knows how to avoid the traps of white colonialism. His interest in settings that would, for most writers, be non-traditional, goes back at least to Sacrifice of Fools, set in the Belfast in which he has lived for most of his life, a background most writers would pass over, or get horribly wrong. In the three recent novels, McDonald has plainly done his research; as a result he paints pictures of the countries that are vibrant and convincing, taking them on their own terms. Apart from the changes that have taken place recently, and further changes that McDonald predicts, The Dervish House showcases a fully-realised Turkey which is fundamentally the nation I remember from my own visits in the nineties and earlier this decade, and indeed, McDonald’s Istanbul is the Istanbul in which I am completing the final version of this review (like the novel, my visit began with a terrorist bomb). But McDonald never paints his pictures through infodump. A McDonald novel contains an enormous amount of information, but none of it is gratuitous.

As with the other two novels, a big science-fictional idea is central to The Dervish House. After exploring artificial intelligence in River of Gods and alternate worlds in Brasyl, McDonald now investigates nanotechnology. In approach, The Dervish House is perhaps most like River of Gods, where nine individuals were followed in order to tell the overall story of the novel’s tenth character, mid-twenty-first century India. Here, six characters’ lives interleave through a week in Istanbul, to tell the story of that city in the twenty-first century. The Queen of Cities, not any of the humans, is the novel’s central character, and it is to Istanbul that McDonald gives the novel’s opening and close.

Part of the story takes in Brown-style semi-mystical objects and secret codes written into the city’s architecture. For many a writer this would be enough for a whole novel; for McDonald it is almost a sub-plot, in a book that also covers terrorist schemes (one of which resembles the McGuffin of the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough), financial swindles, European football and the legacy of the military dictatorship of the Eighties, as well as the previously mentioned nanotechnology.

Yet, for all this richness, arguably The Dervish House is in some ways the least ambitious of the three novels. River of Gods, which is significantly longer, uses multiple narratives, ones that only briefly touch each other, to tell the story of a country, with a potentially world-changing conclusion. Brasyl, which is shorter, follows three narratives – one contemporary, one twenty-five years in the future and one three hundred years in the past – that converge finally in an unexpected but extremely dramatic fashion. The stakes in The Dervish House are far lower; though serious consequences could ensue, they are not on the same level as the potential threats in River of Gods or Brasyl, in each of which there is a serious possibility that the world could end.

The Dervish House recounts a single week in the lives of what are, essentially, a group of neighbours, whose lives are much more closely interconnected than those of the principal characters in River of Gods. The setting for the most part is the single city of Istanbul. There are flashbacks to people’s pasts in the Mediterranean area of Lycia (as someone who wrote a Ph.D. on the Lycian civilization, I can tell you that McDonald gets that right as well) and a brief trip to the north-east of the country, but these are not where the novel’s heart is. Overall, everything seems rather more circumscribed. But I would argue that the novel is not in any way weakened by this narrowing of scale.

It is also the most overtly political of the three novels, and perhaps McDonald’s most political work since 1996’s Sacrifice of Fools. This is partly because it is the least far into the future: 2026, as opposed to 2032 (Brasyl) or 2047 (River of Gods). But it is also because McDonald directly addresses current political issues. Some characters in the novel were born around 1960, and so can remember the 1980 military coup and the ruthless suppression of political dissent that followed. This is something to which the current Turkish population, especially those who were there at the time, have still to fully reconcile themselves, and the military’s role in politics remains something of a concern in modern Turkey, as the recent alleged ‘Sledgehammer’ and ‘Ergenekon’ plots show. McDonald also engages with the idea of Turkish entry into the EU; in The Dervish House Turkey is both in the EU and in the Eurozone (here recent events, specifically the 2010 crisis in the weaker members of the Eurozone such as Greece, Spain and Ireland, have rather overtaken the novel). It is a book from which McDonald’s own political views – liberal, understanding but with a clear moral sense of right and wrong, unmuddied by relativism – emerge more clearly than perhaps in the previous two novels.

Moreover, it is the most carefully constructed of the novels. The interweaving lives, the consequences of one character’s actions upon the others, the unravelling of carefully devised plans due to unexpected factors, all of these are diligently and coherently assembled. One might say that the dénouement is perhaps a little too neat, that everything is wrapped up a little too tidily, and that McDonald is a little too kind to his point-of-view characters in a way that he is not in River of Gods. But I would argue that these are minor quibbles and, for all that The Dervish House is in some aspects on a smaller scale than the earlier novels, it is the best-written of the three.

As I approached the end of The Dervish House, I found my speed of reading slowed down. This was not because I was bored or couldn’t face reading the novel – it is because I was enjoying the novel too much. I didn’t want the book to end and was trying to put off as long as possible the moment where I would have to leave McDonald’s rich world. This is one of the finest novels I’ve read since, oh, the last Ian McDonald novel. Another BSFA Award seems highly probable, and a Clarke nomination in order.

Now for that tram…