Thursday, 19 August 2010

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House (2010)


Finishing McDonald's new novel was a mixed experience for me. On the one hand I read it with a bicameral delight (it's not a spoiler to say that, at the heart of this dense, rich, honeyed wonder of a novel is a sfnal thesis about the altered-consciousness and religious potential of a nano-technological reversal of the evolutionary breakdown of human bicameralism)* ... the delight of a reader, immersed in a beautifully handled piece of storytelling, solid, believable, engaging character-delineation and a stunning evocation of a near-future Istanbul; and at the same time, the delight of a writer, repeatedly astonished and amazed at myriad turns of technical brilliance by McDonald. There's a particular sort of pleasure to be derived, as a writer, from reading another writer who's just really really good at what he does: a 'oh that's good, how has he done that?' sort of pleasure.

But there's the other hand. The other hand was less than delighted. I'll be candid about this: for this was the part of me that went 'well, what chance do any of us have of winning the Clarke next year if we have to go up against a book of this calibre?' Ach well: I'll be content with another year of Clarkey always-the-bridesmaidishness if The Dervish House wins, as surely it will. I can quell my inner Salieri in the face of this Mozartian performance. And you? Well you must buy a copy and read it. Really you must. This is a major novel by a major contemporary novelist who is, as the reviewish cliche has it, at the height of his powers.**
___

* It's not a spoiler in part because I'll be surprised if anybody who hasn't read the novel has a clue what that sentence even means.

** Those of you who think that a review ought to contain a precis of the premise and story, thumbnail sketches of the main characters, analysis of strengths and weaknesses of the style and so on will doubtless find this review jejune. I wouldn't argue. But, you know: just read this one.

10 comments:

Nick Smale said...

It would be interesting to work out the ways in which Jaynes' theory has influenced SF. Didn't the Bicameral Mind play a role in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, for instance?

Larry said...

You liked it better than I did, it seems, as I found it to be his weakest novel out of the past three. The setting wasn't that convincing and I felt as though I were getting the "postcard" presentation of Turkish society, current and imagined near-future alike. In addition, some of the characterizations seemed to be a bit sketchy, but perhaps a re-read might improve that somewhat?

Al R said...

I'm feeling the same way about Kraken.

Re: "at the height of his powers" - I much prefer Mark E Smith's "at the crumbling zenith of his powers" (see Paranoid Man in Cheap Sh*T Room, from The Infotainment Scan).

Niall Alexander said...

I'm getting a little tired of the implication that a traditional review - with a precis and actual analysis - is somehow a low thing. Would that I could spruce up my little monsters with a few words no-one understands and some inside baseball! How, then, from on high, I could sneer at the piffle so many critics and bloggers produce!

I don't see why every variety of criticism can't co-exist together, without veiled insult-slinging from either side of the no man's land between. Perhaps readers with a predeliction for traditional criticism might also enjoy your reviews, Adam, without finding them, as you say, "jejune". I'm certainly one of the offenders, and I know I do. I'd appreciate them that much more, though, if you didn't feel the need, from time, to foreground this notion of their inherent superiority.

Or maybe I'm just feeling inferior this afternoon. I do agree with you wholeheartedly in terms of The Dervish House. Hell of a thing, that.

Wally said...

* It's not a spoiler in part because I'll be surprised if anybody who hasn't read the novel has a clue what that sentence even means.

Ahem.

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Adam Roberts said...

Wally: my footnote wasn't very well framed. I didn't mean to suggest nobody knew anything about Jaynes's theories, but only that, as an account of McDonald's novel, my sentence is rather oblique (needs to be unpacked a little more). I enjoyed your Jaynesian article very much, actually.

Niall: I did not mean, in this review, to 'foreground a notion of inherent superiority', or imply that traditional reviewing is 'low'. On the contrary, I was apologising, somewhat mumblingly, for the fact that my response to this rich, powerful novel was a couple of paragraphs and a clutch of cliches. Had I more time, and were I not so overwhelmed with the pressures of various projects necessarily postponed til the end of my holidays, I'd have written at much greater length, and provided the reader with a more detailed account of what goes on in it, and why I think it's so good.

Larry: really? I was completely convinced by the Istanbul (though I've never been to the city),a nd thought the characterisation not only believable but placed in the service (pace Nick's comment) of some genuinely fascinating ideas.

Al R. I have a vague memory of Ivor Cutler talking about beer: 'this pint of ours at the height of its powers'.

Roland said...

Ok, now that virtually everybody is in love with the book, I can officially conclude that something is very wrong with me. I really, really wanted to like it, but outside of Larry's "postcard" complaint, I wasn't even remotely engaged with either the story, or the characters that never bothered to move it. A sad state of affairs to be sure - I really wanted to like the book...

http://rolandscodex.blogspot.com/

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