Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

The Dervish HouseThe Dervish House by Ian McDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have, on several occasions, termed The Dervish House as "literary". In more cynical moments, perhaps I said something closer to "trying to be literary." And whether you consider that good or ill (or, like me, you vacillate between the two opinions depending on mood), this is definitely not space opera.

For at least the first half of the book, I had noticeable difficulty finding a plot. At the time, I thought that was a bug; but now, I consider it something of a feature. Instead of a rollicking good adventure like one usually finds in the SF section, this is really a collection of character studies. It’s a much subtler book telling small stories of several people in the city of Istanbul (which, in the grand traditions of such things, stands out as a character itself). That there stories all eventually seem to collied in some sort to make it seem as though they were all smaller chunks of a larger whole eventually seems irrelevant, if not a miscalculation. It might not really have been necessary.

Which is to say, this book is a slow burn. This is especially true if, like me, you largely read genre novels. It’s worth it, though. It’s well written and, once it finally manages to suck you in, proves to be a rewarding experience.

This book found its way on to my reading list because it’s on the nominee list for the Hugo novel for 2011. I can certainly see why: it seems destined to join the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale on the short list of books that SF fans can point to and say "See! We have serious literature as well!". I can therefore see many voters picking choosing this book merely for the genre to gain some sort of literary street-cred.

That said, the vast majority of this book is SF only by coincidence. Only one of the sub-plots really needed to be set in the near-future for it to make sense. The rest could have easily been placed in the current day with only a few nouns changed. As a book and a story, this is first rate. But as SF, it feels lacking.

SF, in my mind, is at its best when it uses fictional technology or magic to explore questions that aren’t really ask-able in our world; or, barring that, to explore every-day questions-of-the-day by using suitable stand-ins. So, good SF can range from "What does ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ mean in a world where people can swap bodies at will?’ and ‘What happens when a society gets bored of immortality?’ to ‘How does the fall of the USSR look if you substitute Klingons for Communists?’. But when you simply drop standard stories into futuristic settings, you don’t really get any of that. You get a book that’s good on its own merits, but not one that’s necessarily good SF.

Which is to say that this is a good book. Possibly the best I’ve read so far this year. I’m just not convinced it really added anything to the genre. So while it gets a hearty recommendation from me, it doesn’t get my fictional Hugo vote. But, if it doesn’t win, that won’t be anything to be sad about. Since, as I said, it’s very, very good on its own merits.

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